The Yankees dropped three in a row last week, but they responded nicely in winning three out of their last four. After a rainout yesterday, they'll resume play at Yankee Stadium with a three-game set against the Oakland Athletics. This will be the A's first trip to the east coast this season.
At first glance, these Athletics look pretty terrible. They sit in fourth place in the AL West at 21-25, but even that poor record belies their -42 run differential, second-worst in the AL. Just based off of their runs scored and allowed totals, it would be easy to conclude the A's are all but pushovers.
Look a little deeper, though, and the A's are probably better than their record indicates. For the season, their batters have compiled a .239/.309/.429 slash line, which equates to a quality 105 OPS+. On the other side, Oakland's pitchers have held opposing batters to a meager .245/.318/.386 line. The Athletics have actually out-hit and out-pitched their opponents on a rate basis this year, suggesting there's more to this team than meets the eye.
The A's have been led by a surprisingly frisky group of hitters. The lineup is anchored by first baseman Yonder Alonso, who has broken out with 13 home runs and a 181 OPS+, and Khris Davis, who has 14 home runs. Veteran infielder Jed Lowrie has run a 139 OPS+, and unheralded utility infielder Chad Pinder has a 170 OPS+ in limited playing time.
The Yankees will also get a glimpse of Oakland's young, intriguing rotation. The A's have had six starters make five or more starts this year, all between the ages of 24 and 28. Outside of the somewhat enigmatic Sonny Gray, there are no big names on the staff, but the group should still provide New York a challenge.
Game 1: Masahiro Tanaka vs. Kendall Graveman
The A's will send out the extreme sinkerballer Kendall Graveman in game one. After throwing his sinker about half the time in 2016, according to Brooks Baseball, and averaging about 93 mph, Graveman is now sitting above 94 mph with his sinker and throwing it 75% of the time.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Graveman generates plenty of balls in play, most of them groundballs. Graveman boasts a 50.7% groundball rate and has struck out barely over six batters per nine. His experiment with relying so heavily on fastballs has had mostly fine results, as he's maintained a 103 ERA+ across 47 innings.
The rainout will push the Yankees' rotation back a day, and Masahiro Tanaka will start game one. His struggles have been no secret. His ERA rests above 6, and he's allowed thirteen homers on the year. With the A's among the better power-hitting teams in the league, Tanaka will have to work to keep his gopher-ball problem in check.
Much is often made of the transition Japanese pitchers face when transitioning from NPB to MLB, as Japanese staffs generally work on more than four days rest. This is a chance for Tanaka to work on extra rest, but evidence that he performs better in such situations is scant: he has allowed a higher OPS and has a higher ERA on five days rest as opposed to four in his major league career.
Game 2: CC Sabathia vs. Sean Manaea
Game two will feature a matchup of left-handed starters. Manaea, whom the A's acquired from the Royals at the 2015 trade deadline, is coming off a strong rookie campaign, but has struggled so far in 2017. His ERA+ sits at an ugly 75 through 34.1 innings.
Walks have been Manaea's issue, as he's issued 17 free passes so far this year. He has struck out more than a batter an inning, though, thanks to a pair of secondaries (a changeup and slider) that both generate plenty of whiffs.
Sabathia will continue to try to turn his season around, on the heels of consecutive solid outings. He allowed one earned run in five innings his last time out in Tampa Bay, and held the Royals scoreless across 6.2 innings in his previous start, bringing his ERA+ to an near-average 94 on the year.
Game 3: Michael Pineda vs. Andrew Triggs
Triggs is a lesser-known but still fascinating figure. Prior to last season, he had started just one game in his professional career, as a member of the Royals' Double-A club in 2014. He made his debut in the majors last year as a reliever, but by the end of the season was shifted to the rotation. He made five starts to close out the year, and maintained a 2.78 ERA and held opponents to a .480 OPS over 22.2 innings.
That surprise success as a starter has carried over to 2017. Triggs has gotten knocked around in two of his past four starts, but still is the owner of a shiny 142 ERA+ in 52 innings. He's not a strikeout artist, as he has whiffed only 42 batters in those innings, but he has helped limit runs with low walk and home run rates.
Triggs is a soft-tosser, sitting around 89 mph on the heavy sinker that he relies on as his primary fastball. He also throws a slider and slow curveball. His velocity is actually down a tick or two from last season, a strange trend for a player that, at age-28, should still be in his prime, but it has yet to severely hamstring him.
Pineda will start the final game for the Yankees as he continues to cement himself as perhaps the team’s most dependable starter. Many fans will surely be waiting for the other shoe to drop with every start he makes, but Pineda hasn’t given up more than three runs since his opening start, when he yielded four to the Rays. Here’s to more of the same from Big Mike.