1. Because of "Moneyball," there always seems to be the perception that the A's win through some kind of sleight of hand -- a trick. It seems to me, though, that this team has won by virtue of a very unmystical emphasis on players that, looked at on some other team's depth chart, might always have been their second or third choice for a position, but put them together on one roster and they make a very competitive team. Is that a correct way of appraising the way this roster has been constructed?
It's easy to mistake Billy Beane's strategies for sleight of hand, because the reality is that he has to find different ways to win than many other GM's. Everyone knows that you want a 30-homer slugger in the middle of your lineup and an ace starter at the top of your rotation, but the A's can't go out and sign those guys so Beane has to find a different way to get that production. What he excels at (and stop me if you've heard this one before) is identifying players whose strengths have been overlooked by other teams. In Moneyball, those were the players with low batting averages and high OBP's, because they still got on base and scored runs. In 2012 and 2013, it's been platoon players (Seth Smith, Jonny Gomes, Nate Freiman, John Jaso, etc.) and soft-tossing control specialists (Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin, Bartolo Colon). Beane can't afford a 30-homer slugger, but he can get a guy who hits 15 in a half-season vs LHP and another guy who hits 15 in a half-season vs RHP and still end up with about the same level of production. He can't afford a Sabathia or a Verlander or a Price; pitchers like Milone and Colon aren't as flashy, but at the end of the day you look at the box score and they've thrown seven innings with two runs because they didn't issue a bunch of free baserunners.
Another important characteristic about Oakland's current roster is its depth. After years of watching the team get decimated by injuries to key players, Beane has loaded up his roster with enough solid players that there is rarely a gaping hole at any position. We have joked on Athletics Nation that the new Moneyball is "Stuff Happens," meaning that you can't predict who will get hurt so you should have as many contingency plans as possible. One way that Oakland has achieved this is by (as you mentioned in your question) loading up on merely "good" players rather than going all-in on a couple of superstar players; by refusing to put all of his eggs in one basket, he isn't in a situation where the whole season will be tanked if the star hitter gets hurt or slumps. Similarly, he doesn''t build a 5-man rotation; he builds a 162-game rotation. If you begin the season with only 5 good starters, then you're probably going to be scrambling for pitching help by midseason. Beane likes to have 7 or 8 good starters in April, so that he can withstand the inevitable injuries. What if the A's hadn't re-signed Bartolo Colon to the already-crowded rotation last winter? They'd either be rolling with an ineffective fill-in, or rushing top prospect Sonny Gray to the Majors. As it is, stuff happened and A's fans are now thankful that Colon is on board.
Another Stuff Happens method involves defensive versatility. Most of the guys on the roster can play multiple positions - a great example of this came a couple of weeks ago when starting first baseman Brandon Moss (an outfielder for most of his career) played half a game in center field because the four other capable center fielders on the roster were all out for one reason or other. The A's aren't finding themselves in positions where they have to play Vernon Wells at 3rd or Lyle Overbay in right.
So no, there's nothing mystical about what Beane is doing, it's just creative. He's still going after power and patience and good pitching, just like any other GM would be. He just has to find other ways to get those 30 homers in the #3 spot - complementary platoon players, an unproven international free agent, etc. And young pitching. Always with the young pitching.
2. Jed Lowrie has always been a bit of a mystery to me. He's been a shortstop who can't play short, a SHINO (Switch-Hitter In Name Only) who struggles from the right side of the plate, and of course he's been very fragile. He seems to have reversed some of those qualities with the A's, and it's hard to argue that he hasn't been a plus at the plate. The defensive metrics still don't like him though, with the result that the total package would seem to have been barely above replacement level. What's his real value been?
Lowrie has been absolutely fantastic. Remember that last year, Oakland got nothing out of its middle infield except for solid defense from Cliff Pennington. Jemile Weeks was useless on both sides of the ball, Stephen Drew was underwhelming, and Pennington is one of the worst hitters in baseball. So despite Lowrie's defensive deficiencies, the simple fact that he's been a great hitter at a traditionally weak-hitting position has been a huge boost for Oakland. He's also started to get more playing time at second base (with Adam Rosales at short), and he doesn't look quite as bad there.
Overall, Lowrie has been worth about one win already this year despite his awful defense. That should suggest to you just how valuable his bat has been. He's unlikely to hit .300 all year, but his plate discipline is fantastic and he sprays line drives all over the field. There's no reason why this couldn't be a career year for him if he can stay on the field for 140 games. He was a crucial acquisition and might end up as Oakland's All-Star rep.
3. As of August 31 last year, Josh Reddick was hitting .262/.327/.505. From September 1 until today he's hit .177/.252/.297 in about 280 plate appearances. I know he's had some wrist problems, but is that the whole story?
Josh Reddick is a fascinating player. He showed up last year as a complete unknown, and ended up as one of the most complete players on the team. We saw both sides of his Jekyll & Hyde offensive profile last year: the great power stroke which can punish mistake pitches, and the overly-aggressive hacker who can be beaten with the right assortment of breaking balls.
At the end of last season, I think the league simply figured him out. He swung at everything, and you just didn't need to give in to him to get him out. He seems to have changed his approach this year, though, and I think that he was doing a bit of "learning on the job" in April. He's swinging less than ever, and is doing a better job at laying off pitches out of the zone...but it's also coming at the expense of passing on some hittable pitches, too. His vastly improved K and BB numbers suggest that he's on the right track, but he needs to balance that patience with the ability to identify the pitch he's looking for and take advantage of it. I also think that some of his early-struggles were related to the wrist injury, but that's just my speculation.
Since his return from the DL, though, Reddick seems to have righted the ship. He's 10-for-35 (.286/.342/.429) with 3 walks to only 4 strikeouts, he hit a monster homer in Chicago, and he's had several sharp line drives robbed by defenders. He's hitting the ball hard again, and I expect to see good things from him this summer. The best thing about Reddick is that his offense is just icing on the cake. He (deservedly) won the Gold Glove in right last year, and showed why in Chicago - he threw out a runner at the plate in an eventual one-run game on Thursday, and then robbed a game-tying homer in the 9th inning on Friday. He's also an excellent baserunner and high-percentage base-stealer (16-of-17 as an Athletic).
4. Over his last six starts, Jarrod Parker has had a 2.43 ERA. Pror to that he'd been hit around pretty hard, with an ERA of 7.34 entering his second start in May. What has the difference been?
Parker was a mess in April, but he figured it out in early May. It's tough to say what was wrong. There was news of a minor neck injury which may have affected his mechanics, but I mostly chalk it up to the natural struggles of a young pitcher. His control was off (lots of walks) and he was missing his spots (lots of homers), but he was throwing all the same pitches at the same velocities as he had in 2012. He seems to have worked through the kinks and is back to the pitcher he was last year: about 2.5 strikeouts per walk, limiting the hits, and keeping the ball in the park (3 homers in his last 5 starts).
5. There are so many surprises with this A's team that it's hard to know which to pick -- Coco Crisp's power in the early going, Bartolo Colon's apparent ability to never walk anyone, or Josh Donaldson taking another forward after his strong finish last year -- so I leave it to you: What has been most surprising to you about this A's team?
That's one of the fun things about being an A's fan - you never really know who is going to steal the show every year. Last year, Jonny Gomes was one of the faces of the team and Brandon Inge was the sparkplug that pulled them out of the early-season doldrums. Say what??
Coco's power has been impressive, but he's always had a bit of pop and several of those homers were Minute Maid Specials (i.e., only homers in Houston's tiny ballpark). More impressive has been his incredible plate discipline (29 walks, 19 K's). For the first time in his career, he actually profiles as an ideal leadoff hitter - he's taking pitches, working counts, getting on base (.381 OBP), and then going wild on the basepaths.
While Colon has been good, he's doing it in the ways you would expect. He was a control specialist last year as well, his ability to paint the corners allows him to get strikeouts, and the spacious Coliseum helps him keep the ball in the park. He's probably a bit over his head right now, but his numbers are quite similar to what they were last year. The walk rate will creep up a bit as the season wears on, but his control is for real.
No, the real surprise has been Josh Donaldson. He turned a major corner last year, and A's fans were confident that his solid 2nd-half hitting would continue into 2013. I don't think anyone saw this coming, though. He had power and patience in the minors, so those skills haven't appeared out of nowhere, but I think that moving out from behind home plate has been a huge benefit to his hitting - he was miscast as a catcher. He's also improved his approach, becoming more selective at the plate and then unloading when he gets the pitch he's looking for. He's tightened up his zone and isn't chasing nearly as many pitches, he's making more contact, and everything he hits is an absolute bullet. Like Cespedes, Donaldson tends to homer not on towering fly balls, but on sharp line drives that are so huge that they carry over the fence. It's tempting to point to his .364 BABIP as a sign of inevitable regression, but he's always had high BABIP's in the minors and not many of his hits are cheap. Oh, and he's going to win a Gold Glove in the next few years; he's an absolute vacuum at 3rd base with a cannon for an arm, and he's only been playing the position for about two years. He'll be the best player not to make the All-Star team this year, hands down. Donaldson is for real, and a .300/.370/.500 line isn't out of the question at season's end.
I answered questions for Alex at Athletics Nation, which can be read here.