Oakland slugger Yoenis Cespedes and Manager Bob Melvin have helped the… (Ted S. Warren / Associated…)
OAKLAND — It's that time of year again, when fans around the country tune into the baseball playoffs, see a bunch of unfamiliar green-and-gold-clad Oakland Athletics playing in a creaky, leaky stadium built for football and think, "What are you guys doing here?"
It's OK. The A's, whose talent, grit and World Series aspirations far exceed their small-market limitations, are used to it.
Respect them or not, know them or not, they've won two consecutive American League West titles on a shoe-string budget and open a division series against the Detroit Tigers on Friday in Oakland.
"I think in peoples' eyes we'll always be a surprise story," catcher Derek Norris said. "Honestly, we could win the AL West 10 years in a row and people would still pick the Angels or Rangers to win it. They look at our numbers and say, 'Well, they don't have this or that.'
"It doesn't always have to be the .330 hitter with 40 home runs who carries you to the playoffs. Since I've been here, it's always been a team effort. It's been 25 guys piecing together their own contributions to form a well-played game."
Oakland has one player, third baseman Josh Donaldson, who has a .301 batting average, 24 home runs and 93 runs batted in, who will receive most-valuable-player votes. One A's pitcher, Bartolo Colon, who is 18-6 with a 2.65 earned-run average, will receive Cy Young Award votes.
They have a familiar closer in Grant Balfour, but he's known as much for his mound antics than his lock-down, ninth-inning work. He screams obscenities at himself, opponents, the universe, all in an Australian accent.
Otherwise, these A's are a bunch of self-proclaimed "grinders," in the batter's box, on the mound and in the field.
Their pitchers don't light up radar guns with 96-mph fastballs or buckle hitters' knees with nasty breaking balls, but they have above-average stuff, set up hitters effectively by mixing pitches and throw strikes.
A deep Oakland staff has given up the league's lowest on-base percentage (.299), the second-lowest batting average (.242) and slugging percentage (.373), and has the second-best ERA (3.56).
"Hitters know they don't have anything that's going to make them look absolutely stupid, so it's a matter of chess," Norris said. "We're gonna go soft, slow you down, speed you up. Elevation, up and away, down and in. They give you so many different looks, and they do a great job at disrupting the running game."
Offensively, the A's are a blend of patience and power. They wear down pitchers by going deep into counts, jump on mistakes, and don't give away many at-bats.
Their platoon system at catcher, first base, second base and designated hitter prevents players from racking up big individual numbers, but the cumulative effect is this: Oakland ranks third in the AL in runs (767), home runs (186) and walks (573), second in doubles (301) and fourth in triples (25).
"The beauty of our offense is that from the latter part of last season to this year, we've seen a group of young men that grinds out at-bats," hitting coach Chili Davis said. "They stay in at-bats, they force pitchers to pitch.
"The big thing that's stressed here is to minimize the amount of times you get yourself out. Force pitchers to throw the ball over the plate, no matter how good they are. It's a mental thing. Stay focused throughout the whole at-bat. Don't be afraid to get into deep counts."
The A's lead the major leagues in defensive efficiency, the percentage of batted balls turned into outs. They have a Gold Glove-winning right fielder in Josh Reddick, who has thrown out eight Angels on the bases in the last two seasons and makes spectacular diving catches seem routine.
"Pitching, defense, timely hitting — that's what we build our game around, and that's what the playoffs are all about," Norris said. "I think as long as we play our game and do what we set out to do all year long, I think things will take care of themselves."
Most impressive about the A's is how much they do with so little. They won divisions with opening-day payrolls of $53 million in 2012 and $62 million in 2013, about one-third of what the Angels spent.
That's a testament to the shrewd moves of General Manager Billy Beane and assistant GM David Forst, who built this team primarily through trades for young players and cost-effective free-agent signings, a scouting and player development department that has produced an endless pipeline of talented young pitchers, and the ability of Manager Bob Melvin to meld it all together.
The A's have three starters in their rotation — Dan Straily, Jarrod Parker and Sonny Gray — who are younger than the Angels' youngest starter, 25-year-old Garrett Richards.
"You have to develop your own pitching. That's a must. You can't find it out there, and if you could, it's usually cost prohibitive or you're putting yourself in a position for a lot of dead money," said Angels Manager Mike Scioscia, whose organization has a shortage of good young pitchers.
"That's not the situation you want to be in. Internally, it's something that's important for us to keep perspective on, developing your own starting pitching. The A's have done that."