The way Brandon Moss tells it, he needed two things: a mechanical adjustment and an opportunity. Changes to one's stance or swing can be endless, but stumbling upon one that makes a difference, that doesn't create only a placebo effect, is rare. * So is the opportunity to play consistently. There are 390 spots for position players on the 30 active rosters, roughly 250 of which go to starters.
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Moss found his swing in the Pirates organization. His chance came later, with the Oakland Athletics. Now he is an All-Star on the best team in baseball.
"I got an opportunity with Oakland to play every day," Moss said in Minneapolis during the All-Star Game festivities. "I just made the most of it."
Moss joined the Pirates in 2008, the season after he debuted with the Boston Red Sox, in the three-team trade that sent Manny Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers and Jason Bay to the Red Sox. Moss received his first consistent playing time in 2009, 424 plate appearances in 133 games, but didn't do much with it. He hit seven home runs and had a .304 on-base percentage.
"I felt like I saw the ball fine and I felt like I could hit ... but I never did," Moss said. "I didn't have the ability to drive the ball that I knew was in there."
In 2010, he spent the majority of the season in Class AAA Indianapolis. Hitting coach Jeff Branson, now the Pirates hitting coach, brought Moss some video and a suggestion.
"I used to hit with more of an open stance," Moss said. "From that day on in the minor leagues, it took off. The power came."
Moss hit 22 home runs in the minors that year, but the Pirates sent him outright off the 40-man roster in November and he became a free agent. He joined the Philadelphia Phillies organization and hit 23 home runs in Class AAA the following season, but the Phillies didn't give him much of a look; he appeared in only five games in the majors that year.
The improvement, Moss said, stemmed from linking what his eyes saw to the physical manifestation of the swing.
"You can't go up to the plate trying to drive the ball over the fence or hit a double and also still try to take a single the other way," he said. "Some guys can. Maybe the Andrew McCutchens can, the [Mike] Trouts can. I can't. There has to be a focus, there has to be an approach that I stick with and stay with, and that's really more what it's about. And then you have to have the mechanics to allow that to happen."
The A's gave him a chance on a minor league contract before the 2012 season and called him up June 6. He hit 21 home runs in 296 plate appearances to go with a .291 average and .358 on-base percentage. He hit 30 home runs last season and had 23 this year entering the weekend.
That's hard to do at O.co Coliseum, which favors pitchers. It is also a difficult home park to deal with because the aging facility experiences sewage backups that cause floods and lighting issues.
"No opposing team likes playing in the Coliseum," Moss said. "It's a terrible place to hit. It's a great place to pitch, but it's an awful place to hit. It's just big, it plays big, it's cold. There's foul territory that goes for two miles so you don't even get rewarded for battling or fouling pitches off."
Oakland general manager Billy Beane assembled his team with lots of players like Moss. Left-hander Scott Kazmir spent 2012 in independent ball, years removed from his success in Tampa Bay, but has a 2.32 ERA this season. Career reliever Jesse Chavez, another former Pirate who had two major league starts before this season, has a 3.14 ERA in 20 starts and 114 strikeouts in 1201/3 innings. Closer Sean Doolittle, who has a 22.3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, entered the organization as a first baseman.
"We win on the field because we have talent," Moss said. "I think the front office did a really good job of finding guys that have a lot of talent and maybe haven't gotten an opportunity."
At 63-39, the A's had the best record in baseball entering Saturday, including a 34-17 mark at home. After the way the previous two seasons ended, they want more. They lost the American League Division Series to the Detroit Tigers in 2012 and 2013, both in Game 5, both of those to Justin Verlander. In those two games, Verlander pitched a combined 17 scoreless innings, allowing six hits and two walks while striking out 21.
"Verlander came out and dealt both Game 5s," Moss said. "We put ourselves in the position to win the series both years and lost the game that would have won it. It was all our own fault. At the end of the day it's all about World Series titles and we don't have any."
To strengthen their rotation for the second half and the inevitable playoff run, the A's traded their top prospect, shortstop Addison Russell, and others to the Chicago Cubs for starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Those two added to the majority of A's who joined the organization in some fashion other than the draft, in a period where building a strong farm system and extending young players is becoming the norm.
"You can't always control where you are in the draft and who you're able to draft, and you can't always control your payroll, so you have to find ways to identify talent another way and somehow acquire it," Moss said. "I think they've done a really good job of that."