Bob Melvin says he’s not a puzzle guy. He grins a little when asked, offers that he does read espionage novels and that maybe there’s some connection with his penchant for landscaping – where to plant things around the yard based on where the sun is at a certain time of day, for instance.
But you won’t find Melvin immersed in a crossword or poring over a jigsaw. “I wouldn’t say I’m a puzzle freak by any stretch,” he says, which is ironic of course, because as manager of the A’s, Melvin’s job is to make the pieces fit together in Oakland.
It’s been that way almost since Melvin took the job on an interim basis in 2011. After that season, the A’s reconfigured a roster that featured three 2011 All-Star pitchers and gave Melvin a roster that included unknowns such as Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss. Melvin guided the A’s to 94 victories and the American League West title.
They used 50 players that season, 44 in 2013 and 45 last year, the result of their penchant for platoons in the field and maximizing lefty-righty matchups.
In 2014, the A’s were the only major-league team in the top five in plate appearances by both right-handed batters against left-handed pitchers and left-handed batters against right-handed pitchers. The A’s also had the second-fewest instances where one of their right-handed pitchers faced a left-handed batter. They did have the third-most instances of a left-handed pitcher facing a right-handed batter – but held those batters to a .618 OPS, best in Major League Baseball.
All of that requires serious juggling from the man who makes the lineups and in-game moves, and Melvin’s managerial dexterity guided the A’s to three consecutive playoff appearances. He faces a similar challenge this year after general manager Billy Beane overhauled the A’s roster, which could include as many as 10 players on Opening Day who were not in the organization last season.
So what makes Melvin right for the job?
“It’s hard to sort of sum it up,” assistant general manager David Forst said, but at the forefront is Melvin’s openness to managing this way and to keeping a constant dialogue with the front office.
“From our end, more than anything, he takes the time and the interest in understanding why we make the moves we do,” Forst said. “Obviously, we’ve been very active in his time here, not just this offseason. And he’s always been intellectually curious, wanting to know why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
That’s because Melvin does enjoy the jigsaw aspect of his job. Managing is sometimes described as a chess match, and it never hurts to have a few more pieces. Melvin has worked it both ways. In Seattle, where he managed from 2003-04, he rarely altered his starting nine. His next stop was Arizona, and he often cites how in 2007 the Diamondbacks won the National League West, “and I think we had 140-something different lineups.”
“My philosophy is to acclimate to the roster that you have,” Melvin said. “I’ve said often that you can’t just run nine guys out there if you have the pieces to run 13 or 14 guys out there. ... I’m all about trying to put the best lineup out there on a particular day and then making the moves during the game how we’re set up to do it. I enjoy that.”
Melvin has a feel for the game from 10 seasons as a major-league catcher. He also has input from the A’s front office, known for its early embrace of analytics. Forst said there’s a constant dialogue with Melvin about matchups and the best situations in which to use players. “I’m sure he gets sick of us sitting on his couch,” Forst said. “But we all want to talk, and we all want to feel a part.”
There has been plenty to discuss as the A’s, in Forst’s words, have had “three really different teams the last three years.”
Over those three seasons, no player has started 100 games at catcher or first base, and only one – Josh Reddick in 2012 – has had at least 110 starts in the outfield. The A’s began 2012 with a regular catcher, Kurt Suzuki. Last season they had three catchers on their Opening Day roster, and Stephen Vogt played more games in right field (17) than behind the plate (15).
The constant for the A’s has been their pitching, which ranked second in the league in ERA each of the past three years. But they’ve done so with three different OpeningDay starters. And last year their rotation included only one pitcher, who had made at least 20 starts in either of the previous two seasons. That pitcher, Tommy Milone, was optioned to Triple-A in July and eventually traded.
Melvin tries to maintain some order by crafting his lineup the night before a game, so players know if they’re in it. He also stresses that because the A’s make so many in-game moves, a player who starts on the bench could very well have the decisive at-bat later on.
Pitching coach Curt Young said Melvin’s aim is to “put every player in the best position to do what they do best,” and that given Melvin’s knowledge of his own players and the amount he studies opposing teams, “I believe he’s prepared as well as any manager I’ve played for or coached with.”
Melvin’s manner is typically calm and soft-spoken – except, Young said, in the occasional discussion with umpires – and that air seems to filter into the A’s clubhouse, among the sport’s most relaxed.
“What I’ve experienced from having dozens of coaches over the years is sometimes some might lose sight of how difficult the game is,” veteran outfielder Sam Fuld said. “I think Bob does a great job of remembering how challenging baseball can be, and I think as the result he’s even-keeled, he understands it’s a long season. More than anything, he treats us like men and with a great deal of respect, and you can’t help but want to reciprocate.”
Reliever Dan Otero said that in his first season with the A’s in 2013, Melvin had him warm up during a game, then changed his mind and sat Otero down. The next day, Otero said, Melvin approached him while Otero was shagging balls during batting practice.
“He came and apologized for getting me up and changing his mind and putting somebody else in,” Otero said. “I thought that was awesome. It was my third or fourth week up that year, I think, and he didn’t have to do that. He went out of his way to find me in the outfield and just explain himself. That meant a lot.”
Melvin says his style is a medley of things he has learned from different managers over the years. Roger Craig, his manager in San Francisco, was good at keeping bench players prepared and involved, while Buck Showalter in New York emphasized getting his role players – like Melvin at the time – opportunities against pitchers over whom they might have an advantage.
“He would tell me on a certain day, ‘Arthur Rhodes is pitching – lefty, high-fastball pitcher, that’s your strength,’” Melvin said. “Now you go into that game going, ‘OK, he feels good about me.’”
His interest in managing, Melvin said, piqued during a conversation with then-manager Johnny Oates when Melvin played for the Orioles in 1991.
“I asked him a question during the game,” Melvin said, “and he goes, ‘I’m going to tell you the same thing Walter Alston told me when I asked him the same type of question: You watch the game the right way. You might have a future doing this.’”
More than 20 years later, Melvin, 53, enters another year in which he’ll juggle pieces of an A’s team filled with unknowns. He still was learning them as he sat in the dugout of the A’s spring training facility early this spring, where after puzzles the conversation turned briefly to what he grows in the garden of his Berkeley home.
“It depends,” Melvin said. “We pick a couple vegetables every year. But we try to keep it pretty narrow – so I don’t have too many things I’m trying to deal with.”