It’s strange to think a four-game series in June, weeks before the All-Star break, could mean so much to the American League West division contenders. Last season, the race wasn’t settled until the final game (Thanks, Josh Hamilton). But the Oakland Athletics/Texas Rangers matchup this week in Arlington already has the feel of a late-season series — minus fans being forced to watch the games on FOX, muting the sound so they don’t have to listen to Joe Buck.
Back in spring training, most of the talking heads and analysts had the A’s predicted to finish third this season behind the Rangers and Angels. They explained that the A’s performed well above expectations last season, with one of the youngest starting pitching rotations that has ever played in the majors. Thus it would be crazy to think the A’s could maintain that level performance again this year.
The analysts didn’t learn their lesson last season apparently, when the A’s were predicted to win no more than 60 games. Try 94. Try AL West champions.
There are a few reasons why the A’s are performing at a high level once again this season, a few key points at which the preseason analysts whiffed. And since they’d never point out their own mistakes, I’ll do the job they should have done originally: look at facets of Oakland’s game besides payroll and media hype.
Reason #1: The Houston Astros — Every AL West team and fan base was salivating upon hearing the news that one of baseball’s worst teams was moving into the neighborhood. But the A’s seem to be the only AL West team that has made it a mission to take as many games as they can from the glorified Triple-A squad without mercy, sweeping the Astros three times so far for a 9-0 record.[ref]The Rangers, meanwhile, have gone 5-1.[/ref] Whatever regression players like Josh Reddick will have this season, playing against the Astros will more than make up for it.
Reason #2: Roster Depth — This season, Billy Beane has been able to assemble one of the deepest teams in baseball despite having one of its lowest payrolls. And he’s got a manager in Bob Melvin capable of using all of these tools at his disposal. The analysts wondered what Melvin would do with five startable outfielders (Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes, Reddick, Chris Young, and Seth Smith). The analysts must not have followed the Oakland Athletics the last 30 years. The A’s send players to the DL as much as Lindsay Lohan hits up rehab. Maybe it’s the cold Oakland air, the conditioning program, the after-effects of the Bernie Lean, but whatever the reason, the A’s have already needed all five outfielders on a consistent basis. Crisp, Cespedes, and Reddick have each hit the disabled list once this season, and Crisp and Cespedes have also missed multiple games with other minor injuries.
While the A’s may be taking a cautious approach with their best players by giving them extra rest (hoping to avoid lingering leg injuries, contrary the mishandling of Angel Pagan’s hamstring across the Bay), the outfield backups the A’s are deploying are really only treading water. Smith has filled in nicely against right-handed pitching, but looks as uncomfortable as Michael Cera in a strip club against left-handed pitching. The A’s are also still looking for signs of life in Young, who only seems to show up against his hometown team the Astros. The former All-Star seems to be having a hard time spot-starting, and his average against left-handed pitching this season is worse than Smith’s career average against them. He also looks as energetic as Snuffleupagus out there. Hey, Reddick, give the dude a Red Bull or something during pre-games. Whatever his demeanor may be, Young needs to stop dogging it and show up if he wants continued support from the A’s fan base.
In the infield, Beane was able to steal a right-handed first baseman in Nate Frieman, a perfect complement thus far to the lefty Brandon Moss. Behind the plate, Beane also swooped up the left-handed hitting John Jaso, another complementary platoon player, this time to the right-handed Derek Norris. These two platoons have allowed the A’s to combat some of their struggles against left-handed pitching when either Cespedes or Crisp have been out of the lineup. One thing is for sure: if the A’s expect to make the playoffs this season, or come out on top of the Rangers, they’re going to need improvements against left-handed pitching.
The middle infield started off strong thanks to Jed Lowrie’s hot bat, but since then he’s cooled off, and quadruple-A infielders Adam Rosales and Eric Sogard aren’t exactly excelling at the plate, but do provide above-average defense. However, the Athletics are strong up the middle in the minor leagues, and thus a late-season call-up of Hiroyuki Nakajima, Jemile Weeks, or Grant Green may help the production at the bottom of the order.
Reason #3: Curt Young — He’s done it again. One of the most underrated pitching coaches in the MLB, Young has his young staff keeping opposing hitters off balance, per usual. Aside from the age-defying Bartolo Colon and his dominant run this season (not without scrutiny), young guns Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, and Dan Straily have been effective at keeping the A’s in ball games. Placing talented starter Brett Anderson on the DL was inevitable, and I’m beginning to wonder if Anderson will ever play a full season — maybe if he stopped tweeting about eating pizza at 2 a.m. before a start he’d be in better shape and would be able to contribute for the long haul. One thing I’ve noticed early on though is the young’uns are throwing way too many balls right down the middle, something that will have to change against great-hitting teams like the Rangers.
Reason #4: Josh Donaldson — The dude deserves to be an All-Star this year. But any voting system where Alex Rodriguez is still in the running completely rules out all hope for the A’s third baseman, and my faith in the All-Star game entirely. But boy, the A’s sure solved their third base problems from two years ago. Donaldson’s beastly performance has led the A’s offense thus far. And his defense is arguably the best in the American league at the hot corner. With Reddick and Cespedes slumping, Donaldson has rained down RBI for the A’s. But other bats are going to have to step up, and soon.
Reason #5: Grant Balfour — The A’s raging closer is perfect in his last 35 save appearances, five shy of Oakland great Dennis Eckersley‘s consecutive save record. And the A’s play a lot of close games. All I know is that I wouldn’t want to be his glove when the streak eventually breaks.
Reason #6: Oakland was robbed of the World Series last year. And they’re pissed — In what sports world does the team with the lesser record get two home games to start a five-game playoff series, or any playoff series for that matter? Bud Selig’s, apparently. Last year the A’s were screwed once again by Selig and his henchmen, being forced to play in Detroit for two games before coming back to Oakland for the final three. Guess what? The Tigers won the first two games. Leaving Oakland in a 2-0 hole they actually almost managed to climb out of. Put those first two games in Oakland like what is standard in modern sports and the A’s win that series, sweep the Yankees for the pennant, and give the San Francisco Giants a real opponent in the World Series, one they haven’t seen since ’89. No offense, Texas.
This brings us to this current series, which is evened at 1-1 after Oakland’s 6-2 victory over Yu Darvish and the anemic Rangers offense.
Now, the Rangers are a great team, and A’s fans have respect for any team led by former third base coach Ron Washington. They have made it to the World Series twice the last few years, and they proved their ability to hang tough in high-scoring ball games based on the first game of the series Monday night. Their bats took advantage of questionable pitch calls by Jaso and ineffective pitching by fifth starter Straily. But here comes the top of the A’s rotation, starting with Parker’s solid performance Tuesday night, only allowing two runs off a doink by Ranger’s catcher A.J. Pierzynski.
Still, I wonder why the Texas fan base and local media are so concerned so early in the season. The Rangers are cold right now, but that’s baseball. The A’s went through a cold spell after their initially hot start, only to bring it back around after some needed inspiration from umpire Angel Hernandez (who’s actually doing a decent job so far this series).
I expect the A’s and Rangers to be battling all season — with the Angels, Mariners, and Astros fighting for leftovers on the AL West floor. So, whatever happens in this series, I’m just happy I get to watch great baseball on my local channels, with broadcasters that have actual knowledge of the teams playing. Raise your beer — here’s to highly anticipated baseball sans Joe Buck.