The AL West-leading Oakland Athletics visit Yankee Stadium tonight for the first of a three-game series before the Yankees head out to Oakland for three games next weekend. Six games against one of the best teams in baseball right now in such a short period of time is kind of scary for a New York team that is really scuffling right now. Ahead of tonight's series opener, I asked Alex Hall, editor-in-chief of Athletics Nation (our SB Nation sister site), a few questions to try and get to know the enemy a little better.
I also answered some questions for Alex about the Yankees, which you can check out over at Athletics Nation by clicking here.
1. The Athletics' pitching staff has twice fallen victim to the parade of UCL tears around baseball this season. How have the replacement pitchers done in place of AJ Griffin and Jarrod Parker?
Billy Beane learned his lesson years ago about pitching injuries. Despite your best efforts, you will never predict or prevent them, so you can only prepare for them. With that in mind, he made sure to stock a few extra starting options so that he'd have them when he needed them. The only thing is, no one thought he'd need them so quickly! Beane replaced Parker and Griffin admirably, but the downside is that the depth is nearly dried up for now and Beane will have to go hunting to re-stock the ranks.
As for the replacements themselves, they've been fantastic. Tommy Milone is the most familiar name, since he spent the last couple years in Oakland. He had been ticketed for Triple-A to start the season, but he was pressed into Major League duty and, despite a rocky start, he has caught fire lately -- 1.67 ERA and 3.3 strikeouts per nine innings in his last five outings. He doesn't throw hard, so he relies on location and movement to keep hitters off-balance. Drew Pomeranz (acquired from Colorado for Brett Anderson) began the year in the bullpen but has moved to the rotation and found early success -- 2.59 ERA in five starts with a strikeout per inning. His performance has been about league-average with a sprinkling of good luck on some unsustainable peripherals (.237 BABIP, 92.1 LOB%), and he'll need to tighten up his control to take the next step. But his curveball looks nice and he's one step closer to becoming a legit MLB starter.
The real story, though, is Jesse Chavez. He was signed in 2012 as a total unknown, he established himself as a long reliever in 2013, and now he's made the jump to the rotation this year. Many of us wanted him to get a crack at starting last year, so this new development isn't completely out of nowhere, but the 2.78 ERA and 3.56 strikeouts per walk are far beyond any of our expectations. Chavez brings a wide arsenal of pitches, highlighted by his cutter.
2. Oakland is home to the best run differential (by far!) in baseball. Which players have been the keys to such a productive offense/pitching staff to this point?
The A's have a pretty balanced attack throughout their roster. Each starting pitcher has a better-than-average ERA, is capable of a scoreless outing on any given day, and gives the team a chance to win whenever he takes the hill. While the lineup certainly has its stars, almost all of the position players are above-average hitters; the ones who currently aren't, like Josh Reddick, Craig Gentry, Nick Punto, and Eric Sogard, play defense that falls somewhere between fantastic and game-changing. This is truly a team effort.
If I had to single a few people out, I'd start with Gray, Kazmir and Chavez in the rotation. They each have ERA's below 3.00 and are throwing at least six innings per start. For the hitters, I'd go with Josh Donaldson (more on him later), Brandon Moss (quietly one of the best hitters in the league so far), Yoenis Cespedes (streaky, but when he's hot he hits like a superstar), and the catching platoon of John Jaso and Derek Norris (both have OPS+ of 148). What it comes down to is that the A's have scored the most runs in baseball and allowed the fewest, and that's not something that happens without some help from everyone on the roster.
3. It seems like one of the most frequent discussion topics about the Athletics always involves the poor conditions at O.co Coliseum. What is the status of the A's possibly getting to call a nicer park home in the near future? What would you to remedy the situation if the decision was all yours?
In my opinion, there is not a less compelling story in all of baseball right now. I'm just bored to death by this, as it has deteriorated into political jockeying between MLB, the A's, the Giants, and the cities of Oakland and San Jose. At this point, five years after we all started talking about it, precisely nothing has happened and we are no closer to a conclusion than we were in 2009. Wake me up when Bud Selig has made a decision on territorial rights and when the A's have committed to the site of their next park, and then we can have actual news to discuss.
The O.co Coliseum is what it is, and its reputation is far worse than its reality. It's a bland, no-frills stadium with no visual appeal. On the other hand, it's got everything you need to see a baseball game, it's extremely easy to get to (BART, our version of the subway, stops right across the street), and there's usually plenty of space to spread out since it rarely sells out. I personally love watching games at the Coliseum, and I'm in no rush to leave as far as the ballpark experience is concerned. It's a dump, but it's our dump. As far as Oakland vs. San Jose, I can think of pro's and con's for each city and since my preference will not effect the final decision I am not going to get my hopes up either way.
4. If you were handing out a team MVP award today for the season so far who would it go to?
Forget the team MVP. If I was handing out the American League MVP right now, I'd give it to Josh Donaldson without even thinking twice. Here's what I had to say about him in a column on Monday:
"Start with the fact that he's the best player on the best team in the league. Then, move on to WAR -- Donaldson leads the league on both Baseball-Reference (4.5, followed by Mike Trout at 3.3) and Fangraphs (3.6, then Trout at 3.5). He's tied for third in home runs (15), and he's fourth in RBI (48), which are historically the all-important measures of MVP's. As for his fielding, he has accrued plus-12 Defensive Runs Saved, which trails only outfielders Jason Heyward, Juan Lugares and Giancarlo Stanton in the entire Majors; by the measure of DRS, Donaldson is tied with Troy Tulowitzki as the best defensive infielder in baseball and the best defender in the AL at any position. By virtue of small-sample UZR, he's third behind Heyward and Alex Gordon. Simply put, Donaldson is one of the five best hitters in the AL and one of the five best defenders in all of MLB."
He's hitting .284/.377/.550 and his wRC+ (161) is fifth in the AL. Compared with last year, his strikeouts are up a little but his power is up by a lot as more of his hard line drives have become hard fly balls (usually over the wall). If you don't like small-sample defensive metrics, rest assured that he passes the eye test and that his UZR and DRS were fantastic last year as well, so this is not a random fluctuation. Oh, and if you want your MVP's to come through in the clutch, Donaldson just hit a walk-off homer against Joe Nathan last Wednesday and then drove in the game-tying run in the seventh inning against the Angels on Saturday.
5. What advice would you give Yankees hitters about the probable A's pitchers they are set to face this series if you were the hitting coach?
If I had an answer for that, then 29 other teams would be fighting to hire me. With Scott Kazmir, I'd suggest swinging the bat rather than trying to be patient. He pounds the strike zone and you are likely to fall behind if you wait too long for him to either miss the zone or make a mistake within it. With Chavez, just hope that his breaking balls aren't sharp that day because if they are then the hitters will have no chance. With the way he mixes speeds and locations, he's just nasty when he's on. Pomeranz is the opposite of Kazmir; exercise patience and force him to throw strikes. He can get wild, and if you wait him out you can earn some free bases via walks and force an early exit by driving up his pitch count. If he's getting swings and misses on his curve, he's tough to beat.
6. Sean Doolittle went from a bust as a position player to one of the best relievers in baseball. What kind of Billy Beane magic allowed that to happen? What has been the secret to his success?
The secret to Doolitte's success has been being a pitcher and wearing an A's uniform. Seriously, it's impossible to explain at this point. Beane just seems to do whatever he wants and every pitcher he touches turns into a best-case scenario. Granted, there are plenty of guys who haven't panned out and have been swept under the rug after a couple of bad outings, but then you could also give credit to Beane for knowing when to quickly pull the plug on a failed experiment and move on to the next long-shot.
As for Doolittle, he pitched in college and could just have easily been drafted as a hurler. The A's liked him as a first baseman, but injuries kept him off the field and it became apparent that he would never carve out a career as an everyday player. When the A's decided to take another look at his pitching arm, he showed them enough to give him a whirl and he was in the Majors in a matter of months. He's got some heat on his fastball, a deceptive delivery, and fantastic control, but the major development this year has been his attempt to add a slider to his repertoire. It's been a solid addition so far and has room for future growth. The key stat with Doolittle, who is now officially the A's closer: 38 strikeouts, one walk. And dat beard.
7. The Athletics have been one of the best teams in baseball to this point in the season, but there has to be something that they haven't been amazing at. What has been the team's kryptonite/achilles heel so far?
The bullpen was supposed to be the biggest strength entering the season, but it's turned out to be the biggest weakness despite overall numbers (2.87 ERA, fifth in MLB) which look fantastic on the surface. Jim Johnson has been a mess and is now essentially a $10 million mop-up man. Luke Gregerson leads the Majors with five blown saves. Ryan Cook is on the DL, though he may return soon. Add it all up, and the A's lead the league in blown saves with nine. Granted, in order to blow that many saves you must also have a lot of leads to protect, but their inexplicable shakiness in the late innings explains why this 35-22 team is actually underperforming by a full six wins. Yes, that's right -- their plus-115 run differential leads to a Pythagorean record of 41-16. So, if it's a close game in the bottom of the eighth/ninth inning, take a deep breath and relax. It pains me to say it, but the game is not over and a comeback is always possible against this group.
Thank you, Alex! The first game of the Yankees/Athletics series begins tonight at 7:05 pm, with Hiroki Kuroda slated to start against Scott Kazmir.