Only one major league team, the Cincinnati Reds won more regular- season games last year than the Oakland A's, whose super pitching staff also produced 60 complete games. That was nearly double the number recorded by any of its American League rivals.
The one time manager Billy Martin's club didn't look like a winner was in the playoffs, when the New York Yankees allowed the A's only four runs during a three-game sweep in which NY bullpen ace Goose Gossage played a key role.
''Actually, with just a couple of hits in the right places, we probably could have won two of those games,'' said Oakland pitching coach Art Fowler, who has been following Martin from job to job since 1968.
''You tell most people this and right away they think you're trying to alibi. But sometimes in baseball things happen that take you out of a series, and we just ran into that kind of situation with the Yankees. They got the breaks; we didn't.''
As for the author of Billy Ball, which is built on fundamentals and aggressiveness, Martin feels as positive about the quality of the 1982 A's as he did last season when he also predicted a pennant. His arguments are basically the same - best pitching staff, best outfield, an improved bench, and players who will scrap and hustle for every edge they can get all season long.
While Martin sometimes tends to carry his aggressiveness to extremes, and has frequently gotten into trouble that way, it is a blind spot that anyone hiring him automatically accepts as part of the deal. This is mentioned not to justify Billy's tactics, but to point out that he has always had a terribly complicated personality.
''Listen, people can say what they want about Billy Martin, but he is the best manager in baseball,'' said coach Charlie Metro, who was invited aboard the Oakland ship this season by the man with the brooding eyes after five years with the Dodgers as a roving scout.
''Martin is uncanny the way he organizes things, thinks ahead, and knows everything about his players,'' Metro added. ''When I scouted the Yankees for the Dodgers last year, one thing (LA manager Tommy) Lasorda wanted to know was how to set his outfielders defensively against every New York hitter. Tommy didn't want any surprises in the World Series, and neither did he want any balls getting between his outfielders for extra bases.
''Normally that's a tough assignment. But after watching the playoffs, all I did was give the Dodgers the same outfield alignment that Martin used. I would have been foolish not to because it was perfect.''
The starting rotation that minimizes the likelihood of Oakland having more than a two- or three-game losing streak consists of Steve McCatty, Mike Norris, Matt Keough, Rick Langford and Brian Kingman - all right-handers. Martin, in fact, thinks McCatty (14-7, 2.33 earned run average) deserved the 1981 Cy Young Award won by Milwaukee's Rollie Fingers. Norris and Langford with 12 victories each and Keough with 10 also performed well in the strike-shortened season, while Kingman has pitched better than his record indicates the last couple of years. There is also left-hander Tom Underwood, who can either start or relieve.
Even though the critics treat Oakland's bullpen like a poorly written off-Broadway play, pitching coach Fowler says they don't know what they're talking about.
''You get a reputation for having a strong starting staff and some writers are always going to criticize your relievers. '' Fowler explained. ''Well, it's true, we don't have a Gossage, and neither does anybody else. But we have got three pretty good guys coming out of the bullpen who can stop people in Dave Beard, Jeff Jones and Bob Owchinko. We'll carry nine pitchers, but considering the talent that's here we could probably go with eight.''
The outfield that Martin thinks so highly of has Rickey Henderson in left, Wayne Murphy in center and Tony Armas in right. Henderson, who was runnerup to Fingers last year as the AL's Most Valuable Player, hit .319 and also stole 56 bases. Murphy can catch anything that doesn't have wings; while Armas tied for the AL home run crown with 22.
Except for second base, where ex-Dodger Davey Lopes is expected to play every day, Martin again will platoon his infield. That means Jim Spencer, Kelvin Moore or Joe Rudi at first (the latter re-acquired this year after starring for the A's in their glory days of the early and mid-'70s, then playing elsewhere since); Wayne Gross or Mickey Klutts at third; and Fred Stanley and Rob Picciolo sharing shortstop. Although both Stanley and Picciolo hit right-handed, Martin will alternate them anyway to keep them fresh.
Billy will also platoon his designated hitters, using Cliff Johnson against left-handers and Dan Meyer, obtained from Seattle, against right-handers. Mike Heath and Jeff Newman will share the catching.
Like Casey Stengel, at whose knee Martin learned most of his inside baseball, look for Billy to juggle his lineup frequently and even more often do something to force the action. As Martin once said: ''The manager who runs scared usually gets beat.''