SweetSpot: Brandon Moss
This is supposed to about the five key things that decided this game. There were about 20 of those. Or 50. Or 100. I lost track somewhere there in the 10th or 11th inning of one of the craziest, wildest, most improbable baseball games I can remember watching.
This was supposed to be a pitcher's duel between Jon Lester and James Shields. It wasn't.
It was supposed to be about the Kansas City Royals getting the ball to their dominant bullpen trio with a lead. It wasn't.
It was supposed to be about Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin matching wits with the Royals' Ned Yost, and Melvin winning in a landslide. OK, Yost did make one of the worst tactical decisions in recent playoff history.
The Royals won anyway.
Right. Because this all makes sense.— Mike Ferrin (@MikeFerrinSXM) October 1, 2014
Baseball > (name any sport)— AJ Ellis (@AJEllis17) October 1, 2014
The best awful game of all time.— Dustin Parkes (@dustinparkes) October 1, 2014
This game ties Game 7 of the 1924 World Series for the longest winner-take-all postseason game ever played. Walter Johnson won that one. Jason Frasor, the seventh Royals pitcher of the game, won this one, after helping to give up the lead in the 12th inning. The Royals were down 7-3 in the eighth inning and won. They were down 8-7 in that 12th inning and won. The heroes were guys such as Brandon Finnegan and Christian Colon. It was small ball over Moneyball, at least for a day. It was baseball, not always beautiful, but still baseball at its most entertaining, at October intensity.
OK. Doug Padilla has the Royals angle. Here are five reasons the A's lost.
1. Bob Melvin stuck too long with Jon Lester. Down 7-3, the Royals rallied in the bottom of the eighth inning. Melvin, determined to apparently ride starter Lester straight to closer Sean Doolittle, left him in for 111 pitches, and maybe one batter too many. A Jed Lowrie error, a stolen base and a single made the score 7-4 and then Lester walked Eric Hosmer with one out (after Lorenzo Cain had stolen second). Melvin finally brought in Luke Gregerson, but Billy Butler's RBI single made it 7-5. Pinch-runner Terrance Gore stole second and a wild pitch made it 7-6 and put Gore on third with one out. Gregerson pitched carefully to Alex Gordon, who walked and then stole second with Salvador Perez up. A base hit puts the Royals up, a sac fly at least ties it up ...
Does anyone remember how to breathe air?— Beyond the Box Score (@BtBScore) October 1, 2014
Salvador Perez takes three helpless swings to make the second out. It will be up to Omar Infante.— Andy McCullough (@McCulloughStar) October 1, 2014
There are cars parked on the side of I-70, watching the crowd from the highway.— Sam Mellinger (@mellinger) October 1, 2014
That is a grown man's slider. Wow.— Troy Renck (@TroyRenck) October 1, 2014
Gregerson fanned Perez on three sliders, the third one a good foot off the plate. Yes, the Royals drew the fewest walks in the majors and Perez drew just 22 in 606 plate appearances. Gregerson exposed his free-swinging ways and it was a terrible at-bat. He threw four sliders to Infante, the fourth swung and miss on a pitch in the dirt. Gregerson, a sneaky offseason pickup from the Padres, does have a nasty slider, as batters hit .212 against this season. But it's not the nastiest in the game -- they also hit four home runs and nine doubles (all four home runs by right-handed batters). What makes it impressive is how often he throws it -- 48 percent of the time. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings, only five threw their slider a higher percentage of the time.
The Royals were 90 feet from tying the game. Assuming the A's would close it, I had written, "Royals fans will have all offseason to think about those seven sliders."
Instead the postscript will read: How do you leave in a starter to give up six runs in a do-or-die game? (Actually, I was surprised that it has happened 14 times out of 182 sudden-death games, the last in 2012, when Adam Wainwright and Mat Latos both allowed six runs in Game 5 of the division series.
The difference is those guys weren't still in there in the eighth inning with a four-run lead. The last comparable game was Nolan Ryan in Game 5 of the NLCS for the Astros, when he took a 5-2 lead into the eighth and coughed up the lead. Melvin let the game slip out of his hands even though the A's bullpen -- despite a couple notable tough losses -- had actually pitched well. Obviously, if Lowrie doesn't make the error the inning probably unfolds differently, but in this day of dominant pens, Melvin waited too long to go it.
2. Geovany Soto leaves with a thumb injury.
When you think about potential critical moments, you really aren't thinking about the loss of Geovany Soto. And yet...— Joe Sheehan (@joe_sheehan) October 1, 2014
Soto says his thumb was jammed, it's not broken. But it was brutal catching. Crisp strained his hamstring.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) October 1, 2014
Soto was a controversial starter at catcher over Derek Norris, in part because he had never caught Lester. But he's the best defensive catcher on the A's, with the best arm. When he left in the third inning, unable to catch, it allowed the Royals to take advantage on the bases against Norris. They stole seven bases, with five of those thieves eventually scoring.
3. Royals' bunting finally pays off! OK, the sabermetrically inclined folks on Twitter were having a fun time with Yost and his bunts -- the Royals had four sacrifice bunts in the game. But in the ninth inning, the Royals tied the game off Sean Doolittle on a Josh Willingham flare to right, with Jarrod Dyson pinch-running (Willingham had hit for Mike Moustakas); Dyson was bunted to second and then, in maybe the most important play of the game, stole third, the first steal of third Doolittle had given up in his career. Dyson then scored on Norichika Aoki's sac fly.
4. The dropped pitchout. In the bottom of the 12th inning, after Hosmer tripled and Colon scored him on a high hopper of an infield hit to third base, Colon was running against Jason Hammel, who had just entered the game. The A's had called a pitchout, but Norris dropped the ball.
5. Oakland's No. 5 starter gave up the winning hit.
What the hell did I just witness? No words tonight. Only amazement. #Royals— Craig Brown (@royalsauthority) October 1, 2014
To be fair, Hammel pitched very well in September, with a 2.20 ERA and .198 average allowed. He was one of eight pitchers on the Oakland roster, kind of the designated long man. Sonny Gray had started Sunday and Jeff Samardzija on Saturday, so the choice probably came down to Hammel to Scott Kazmir (although Kansas City put Ventura on its roster, despite his starting on Sunday). This wasn't a bad call by the A's so much as you just hate to lose a game with a guy pitching in an unconventional situation. Hammel actually threw Perez -- who had had awful at-bats all game -- a pretty good 2-2 slider that was off the plate, knowing Perez will chase any pitch within the vicinity of Kauffman Stadium. Perez was just able to pull it inches past a diving Josh Donaldson -- a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman -- for the winning hit.
I'm all for thinking outside the box in the postseason, especially in a one-game situation like a wild-card game. But it's another thing to think so far outside the box and pull off one of the worst managerial decisions in recent history.
The Kansas City Royals led the Oakland Athletics 3-2 in the top of the sixth inning when James Shields, who had cruised through the previous two innings, gave up a broken-bat bloop single to Sam Fuld and then walked Josh Donaldson on a borderline 3-2 fastball. Up stepped Brandon Moss, who had homered in the first inning.
Yost has three of the best relievers in baseball in Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, who usually pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. He pulled Shields and could have stretched those guys out for 12 instead of nine, or even used lefty reliever Brandon Finnegan to pitch to the lefty-swinging Moss (who was unlikely to be pinch-hit for after his earlier home runs)..
Always disliked bringing starters who have rarely relieved into a playoff game in the middle of inning with runners on base.— CJ Nitkowski (@CJNitkowski) October 1, 2014
Ventura threw 73 pitches on Sunday. Despite his great ERA down the stretch, was still walking a lot of guys. Tough situation here.— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) October 1, 2014
Brandon Moss had two home runs over his final 52 games during the regular season, so of course he has hit two of them tonight.— D.J. Short (@djshort) October 1, 2014
Factions of fans booing Ned Yost as he comes with the hook for Yordano Ventura.— Dave Brown (@AnswerDave) October 1, 2014
Ventura threw a 99-mph fastball up high for ball one. A 98-mph fastball was up and out of the zone. Moss hit the next pitch up and out over the center-field fence for a game-turning three-run home run. The A's went on to score two more runs in the inning -- one run charged to Ventura, the second to Herrera, who finally entered with one out.
The Royals got a prime position, leading in the sixth inning with the game's most dominant bullpen trio available. Instead, they used a pitcher who had thrown 70-something pitches two days prior. They got #Yosted.
He missed Wednesday's game and Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that Moss has been playing through a hip injury that will require offseason surgery:
"It was worse that we thought it would be," said Moss, who had an MRI and a cortisone shot before the game. "The shot should help me get through the rest of the season, but it won't fix it."
Moss told The Chronicle that the previously unreported problem has affected him much of the year and the MRI showed so much torn cartilage that he has bone-on-bone issues. He didn’t want to blame his second-half numbers dip on the problem but Moss said that he does not have much range of motion or strength in the joint as a result.
I'll go out on a limb and suggest the hip has affected Moss' production more than the loss of Yoenis Cespedes "protecting" him in the lineup.
Moss' types of contact haven't changed all that much from the first half to the second half:
Groundballs: 33 percent
Fly balls: 45 percent
Line drives: 22 percent
Groundballs: 31 percent
Fly balls: 48 percent
Line drives: 21 percent
The big change? His fly balls traveled an average distance of 283 feet in the first half but just 261 feet in the second. Moss didn't use the hip injury as an excuse but it certainly seems to help explain the second-half decline.
For more on Moss and his approach as a hitter, Eno Sarris of FanGraphs just had a great interview (with Adam Dunn joining in as sidekick). Their exchange about the value of batting average is priceless (note: some salty language involved) as is Moss talking about how, when he was in Triple-A with the Phillies, Ruben Amaro didn't believe in him. ("He was like 'We just don't believe Brandon Moss is consistently able to hit a major league fastball.' And I was like, that's really all I kinda hit. It's my best pitch. Everything else, I just hope I hit it.")
Moss' groundball rate did go up in August -- which he noticed, telling Eno:
And that's what I was doing a lot in August, I was swinging wildly, trying to do too much. And therefore, that's when the weak outs, and that's when the ground balls started coming, was in August. My ground-ball rate kinda skyrocketed. Strikeout rate went up, chase rate went up, walk rate went up because I was taking more pitches, but when I was swinging, I wasn’t swinging to drive the ball, I was swinging to get a hit. That’s why I said in late August, screw this, I’m going to cover this pitch, I’m going to gear for this pitch, and if I walk I walk, and if I strikeout I strikeout.
From the interview, you can see why Moss is an A's type of player: Analytical, fun, understanding of his strengths and weaknesses. He didn't talk about the hip injury but he's going to play through it as the A's inch closer to clinching a wild card (their magic number is two).
The A’s have been on top for months, with the best record in baseball to brag about, and they’re supposed to be the runaway winners in the AL West. But in case you’ve missed it, they’re not running away any more, and not just because the Angels have been the second-best team in baseball. If anything, the A’s are coasting, because while they still have the best record, we’ll see how much longer that lasts.
That’s because the A’s have gone 15-15 in their last 30 games, and after Friday night’s loss they’ve slipped below a .600 winning percentage on the season. They haven’t won a series against a team with an above-.500 record since the Orioles immediately after the All-Star break. At this point, you can skip talk of winning 100 games, because the division title isn’t the only thing in danger with the Mariners, Tigers and Royals all making serious pushes for the postseason. Say they play .500 the rest of the way, and they’d wind up with 93 wins, which should at least get them into the wild card -- one-and-done territory, or not where they were supposed to be when they traded away their best prospect, Addison Russell, to purportedly win the World Series this year.
What’s gone wrong of late? It’s pretty much a team-wide problem. Let’s start with the offense. Since the All-Star break, they’ve put up a collective .698 OPS, a tumble from the .729 OPS they had in the first half. Those numbers get worse when you get into what they’ve done since trading Yoenis Cespedes: a .636 OPS in August, with the A’s averaging just 3.7 runs per game when they had averaged 4.9 in the first half.
Who are the culprits? Brandon Moss has struggled terribly, hitting just .213/.31/.303 with two homers since the break; for a guy who had 21 on his way to his first All-Star Game, suddenly hitting 30 again seems a long way off. Coco Crisp has been even worse as he struggles through a neck injury, putting up just a .395 OPS. Moving parts like John Jaso (.647 OPS) and Alberto Callaspo (.505), so important to manager Bob Melvin’s lineup-card dynamics, are slumping as well. If it weren’t for Josh Donaldson doing his thing and Josh Reddick’s rebound since returning to action (.904 OPS, four homers since the break), the picture would be even more bleak.
And then there’s the interior defense. Losing Jed Lowrie to the DL isn’t something you’d normally associate with hurting your defense, but the problem it created is that it moved Eric Sogard from a position he plays well at second base (averaging plus-9 Defensive Runs Saved per season on his career) to a position he doesn’t at short (minus-14 career). Exacerbating that loss is that Alberto Callaspo has had to become an every-day player at second. Whatever Callaspo’s virtues as a multi-positional rover, one thing he doesn’t do well and has never done well is play second base: His performance this year is at a minus-11 DRS for a full season at the keystone, consistent with a career clip of minus-14. So instead of the benefits of getting Lowrie’s bat (even in an off year) at short and Sogard’s glove at second, the A’s now have neither, plus they don’t have Callaspo to plug in everywhere else they might have a day-to-day need either. And with Kazmir and Hammel looking so hittable, you can bet a worse infield defense is hurting.
And just stop with Sam Fuld already. The guy’s well-spoken, a great interview and a decent fielder, but c’mon now, he’s sabermetrics’ answer to Willie Bloomquist. A .370 OBP during two months in Minnesota do not define a guy, they’re just two nice months from someone whose career suggests he couldn’t keep that up. And sure enough, the guy the A’s got back in a ticky-tack trade with the Twins has not been Rickey Henderson reborn or Lance Blankenship or even Eric Fox; instead, it’s the same guy who came into the year with a .314 career OBP, and the same guy who was eminently cut-worthy by these same A’s earlier this season. The A’s need him because Crisp’s neck injury and second-half struggles make an insurance policy in center necessary, but you can forget about penciling in an every-day OBP north of .350. Tell yourself you’ll always have Minnesota to fulfill your Fuld fantasy, and just let that notion go.
Now, I know, this is where we can cite all sorts of happy stats to warm A’s fans’ hearts, like their huge run differential or their expected record, which is six games better (79-43) than where they’re actually at (73-49). But wasn’t this supposed to the team that was better than the sum of its parts, not worse? Admittedly, that was a sportswriterly narrative that wilts in the daylight of data, but to stick with the facts, a big chunk of the A’s run differential belongs to early-season blowout wins that this lineup hasn’t been cranking out of late, as well as that stack of close losses that you can blame on the early-season mistake of having Jim Johnson as their closer.
And the thing to keep in mind is that the A’s won’t get any of that back -- those runs, wins and losses are history and already banked, and that accrual doesn’t mean squat for the last 40 games. That’s because this team is a significantly different collection of players than that which stacked up that run differential in the first place just a few short months ago. You can’t expect it to continue or magically continue. A big win in May can’t do anything more to keep the A’s ahead of the Angels than it already has. The A’s relative run differential is shrinking, and even with Lester and Samardzija and Gray going strong, it’s probably going to shrink more.
This is why all you ditch that stuff about the A’s being the best team in baseball, or having the best record in baseball. It’s true for as long as nobody catches them while playing .500 brand of baseball as they have lately, and that won't be for much longer. So Oakland needs an in-season rebound, starting now. Beating the struggling Braves in this series may not sound like much, but the A’s have to start somewhere if they’re going to fulfill any of the expectations put on them, let alone stay a game ahead of the Angels.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
Pete Rozelle would have loved this baseball season.
The former longtime NFL commissioner loved parity in his league. He once publicly admitted dissatisfaction with the Pittsburgh Steelers winning three Super Bowls in five years, leading Steelers coach Chuck Noll to seethe after one overtime victory that "Pete doesn't want us to win." Rozelle created an unbalanced schedule in which the stronger teams would play more games against the stronger teams. NFL teams had long shared TV money, a decision made in the 1960s that allowed franchises like the Green Bay Packers to more equitably compete with big-market teams.
While baseball still lacks that kind of total revenue equality, we are nonetheless in the midst of a season that is shaping up as a Pete Rozelle -- and Bud Selig -- dream season: Just about every team is in the playoff chase a third of the way into the season. In the American League, more than half the teams are bunched within two games of .500; really, only the Astros are probably out of it, but even they are 14-8 since May 11. In the National League, only the Cubs and Diamondbacks are out of it (although the Phillies are getting there).
Now, some of this parity is misleading, a product of the wild-card race more than tight division races: Only the NL East, with the Marlins 1.5 games behind the Braves, is closer than a four-game spread. But even the division leaders appear to have some warts or uncertainty, although the A's and Giants are starting to look like solid playoff bets.
The other thing I like as we get into June and the weather warms in the north is that games like this one start getting a little different feel to them. How good are the Jays? Who is going to break out of the early-seasons slumps? Which hot starts are for real? And which problem areas will be exposed?
In this game, I'm looking at the Tigers' bullpen. Tied 0-0 entering the ninth, closer Joe Nathan entered and promptly gave up a walk, base hit and an RBI single to Jose Bautista. After a walk to Edwin Encarnacion, manager Brad Ausmus yanked him in the middle of the inning, with Nathan leaving to a chorus of boos from the home fans. ("They can boo me all they want," Nathan said after the game. "I'm way tougher on myself.") Still, after Ian Krol gave up a sacrifice fly and Al Alburquerque a three-run homer to Brett Lawrie, Nathan was charged with four earned runs for the first time in five years. His ERA is 6.86 -- higher than Phil Coke's! -- and he has four blown saves and two losses.
Still, a struggling closer is a minor flaw when compared to some other teams. Just about every team has some major holes. Just consider some stuff from Tuesday's games:
- The Marlins beat the Rays 1-0 as Henderson Alvarez threw an 88-pitch shutout, his third of the season. His beauty doesn't sit in the dominating stuff of a Jose Fernandez but in his efficiency when he's on. Alvarez isn't the issue but the Marlins are 30-28 with their best pitcher sidelined for the season. Can Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi step up and become rotation anchors?
- Casey McGehee has been the cleanup hitter behind all-universe Giancarlo Stanton, and while he's driven in 36 runs he also has one home run. The Marlins are trying to compete with a cleanup hitter who has one home run. In 2014, that doesn't even sound that silly, but it's also a warning: He's not going to keep hitting .426 with runners in scoring position.
- The Mariners beat the Braves 7-5 as the bullpen tossed six scoreless innings against the hitting-impaired Braves (that's the first-place Braves). The Mariners are 30-28, essentially tied with the 29-27 Orioles for the second wild card. This is a team whose DHs are hitting .189 and its first basemen .218. And they have a better run differential than the Tigers. It's that kind of season.
- A week ago, every Mets fan was fed up and wanted manager Terry Collins and GM Sandy Alderson fired. The Mets were a win away from reaching .500 on Tuesday before suffering a walk-off loss to the Cubs. Now Mets fans are asking who they should be going after at the trade deadline instead of who they should be trading away. It is that kind of seasons, where one good week makes a team interesting again.
- Like the Indians. A little five-game winning streak has pushed them up to 29-30. That means they're in the playoff race. They beat the World Series champion Red Sox, who featured a lineup with first baseman Brock Holt, right fielder Alex Hassan and shortstop Jonathan Herrera. The Red Sox are 27-30 and happy to be there after that 10-game losing streak.
- And so on. The Royals have two home runs combined from their first basemen and DHs (mostly Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler) and yet they're 28-30 after beating the Cardinals 8-7. That's the 30-29 Cardinals, a team barely better than a team that has two home runs from first base and DH. Yes, that kind of season.
Parity or mediocrity? Do you like it? In some ways, isn't this what the sabermetric revolution has wrought? As front offices match each other on multiple fronts -- evaluating players correctly, spending money in an efficient manner -- and Selig has chipped away at some of the financial advantages of the bigger markets, isn't this the inevitable result? That playoff berths will be determined by whether Casey McGehee hits well all season with runners in scoring position?
I'm reminded of what a friend told me about the Mets-Phillies games this weekend, when they played consecutive games of 14, 14 and 11 innings. I asked him if it was exciting baseball. "It was terrible baseball," he said.
In the midst of all this are the Oakland A's. The A's just creamed the second-place Angels in three straight games and Tuesday night they played a good game at Yankee Stadium, scoring a run in the eighth off nearly untouchable Dellin Betances to tie it and then three more in the 10th. Brandon Moss led off the 10th with a home run, his second of the game and the A's would tack on two more runs.
To me, the A's -- even more than the Giants -- are the one team in baseball without an obvious weakness. Moss is a legit masher in the middle of the lineup, with 15 home runs and a .598 slugging percentage. Third baseman Josh Donaldson is an MVP candidate. Scott Kazmir, who pitched well in this game, has been great in the rotation behind Sonny Gray. The defense is solid, the bullpen is good (other than deposed closer Jim Johnson) and the manager doesn't do ridiculous things like bat Endy Chavez leadoff or Wil Nieves second.
In this season of parity, we may have just one great team.
And somehow, the A's are only No. 2 in this week's Power Rankings.
OK, they don't have the best record -- that belongs to the Tigers, the No. 1 team in the Power Rankings, at 27-12 -- but no team has dominated like the A's. Since the wild-card era began in 1995, only two teams have a bigger run differential through 44 games than the A's: the 2010 Rays (plus-102) and the 1998 Yankees (plus-101).
Does this run differential early on mean anything? After all, you could argue that a few blowout wins can skew the numbers. Well, two points there:
1. Good teams have more blowout wins. Yes, winning close games is important, but mediocre teams can have good records in one-run games.
2. Oakland has a 40-run spread over Detroit, the team with the second-largest run differential.
But here's a more interesting factoid. I checked the past 10 seasons to see which team had the biggest run differential in the majors after 44 games. Nine of those 10 teams won at least 92 games and made the playoffs, the lone exception being the 2011 Indians, who were 29-15 with a plus-66 differential after 44 games but finished 80-82.
Are the A's the 2011 Indians? No. This team has a playoff pedigree with division titles the past two seasons, while that Cleveland team had come out of nowhere. That team had a rotation that was largely smoke and mirrors early on, and the offense couldn't sustain its hot start. These A's don't look just like a possible playoff team but a possible powerhouse, one that is capable of winning 100 games in a division that features the Astros, Mariners and beat-up Rangers.
1. Josh Donaldson wins the AL MVP Award.
Donaldson is hitting .280/.362/.520 with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs and leads Mike Trout in WAR, 3.5 to 2.8. It's time to acknowledge that 2013 wasn't a fluke, that Donaldson plays a terrific third base and that he is one of the best all-around players in the game. He has a wingman this year, however, in Moss, who continues to improve. Moss has cut his strikeout rate from 27.7 percent to 18.3 percent, helping him hit for a .301 average to go with his power. He's also been hitting left-handers, meaning manager Bob Melvin is starting to erase the "platoon player" tag next to Moss' name.
2. The rotation holds up.
This is perhaps the biggest question. Gray, Kazmir and Chavez have been great, but they also combined for just 279 1/3 innings in the majors last year. Can they hold up late in the season as they get past 150 or 175 innings? Oakland's rotation depth was thinned out by the season-ending injuries to Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, but they just added Drew Pomeranz, another Billy Beane reclamation project of sorts. The fifth overall pick in 2010, Pomeranz was traded by Cleveland to Colorado in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, and the A's got him in December for Brett Anderson. After starting in the bullpen, Pomeranz has made two starts, going five innings both times without allowing a run. He's a fastball/curveball guy, relying on good movement and low 90s velocity, essentially ditching an ineffective changeup he used with the Rockies. It's a simpler approach, but he's locating the fastball and it's working.
3. Yoenis Cespedes is a threat again.
A more disciplined approach at the plate -- more walks, fewer strikeouts -- has helped Cespedes improve his triple-slash numbers. Maybe he's sacrificing some home runs, but he's already hit 13 doubles (hit 21 all of last season) and this Cespedes is a more valuable middle-of-the-order hitter.
4. They haven't gotten much from Josh Reddick or second base.
Reddick had a two-homer, six-RBI game Friday and two more hits Sunday. He's still hitting just .237 with a .299 OBP and four home runs, but he’s showing signs of breaking out. It could be that his 32-homer season in 2012 was a fluke. Still, the potential is there. The other area that could improve is second base, where the A's are hitting a collective .212/.281/.258. What this means is possible regression from the likes of Derek Norris (hitting .354) or even Moss may be balanced out by better results from right field and second. Really, though, outside of Norris, nobody on the offense is that much over his head.
5. The bullpen is fine.
The A's are 20-5 when leading after seven innings, which isn't anything special. The major league average is a .900 winning percentage, so an average team would be 22-3 or 23-2 in 25 decisions when leading after seven. But the A's are fifth in the majors in bullpen ERA and first in runs per nine innings. Their weaknesses have been inherited runners (33 percent have scored, worse than the MLB average of 28 percent) and Jim Johnson. But if Sean Doolittle ends up with the closer job -- getting the lone save last week after Johnson gave up two hits -- he'll be fine: He hasn't walked a batter since August.
Will the A's win 100? FanGraphs projects them to win 92 -- in part because its projections view the Angels, Mariners and Rangers as .500 or better teams, meaning the AL West won't be a cakewalk. Maybe 100 is optimistic in a year where parity may reign supreme, but the A's look like a 92-win lock to me -- and I'd say 95 wins is very realistic. And that will be enough to print their postseason ticket.
Major League Baseball began handing out the Manager of the Year award in 1983, and Bobby Cox of the 2004-05 Atlanta Braves is the only man to win it in consecutive seasons. If the lineup the Oakland Athletics fielded Wednesday night is a snapshot of the tools at Bob Melvin’s disposal, he should be a strong candidate to replicate that feat.
Yes, John Farrell has changed the mindset in Boston a year after that 69-win Bobby Valentine-led debacle. Joe Maddon of the Tampa Bay Rays deserves to win the award every year, and Terry Francona has done a wonderful job keeping the Cleveland Indians in postseason contention despite the team’s flaws. But have any of them done a noticeably better job than Melvin, who has taken a star-free team with the 26th-highest payroll in baseball and put it in the mix for a wild-card spot and possibly a second straight American League West title?
With a 14-4 laugher in Detroit on Wednesday that featured six RBIs from Brandon Moss, the A’s raised their record to 75-57. They’re 2 ½ games behind Texas in the division and four games ahead of Cleveland in the race for the second wild-card spot, and they’re starting to get some important pitching reinforcements. Bartolo Colon returns from the disabled list to face Max Scherzer in a Thursday matinee at Comerica Park, and Brett Anderson is back and pitching in the bullpen for now after missing four months with a foot injury.
The lineup requires some cobbling together on a lot of nights. Coco Crisp has contributed some monster moments this season, but he brings a .330 career on-base percentage in the leadoff spot. Eric Sogard, the second baseman, looks like the kid selling you an iPad at Best Buy. Daric Barton continues to hang around at first base despite being on the Russ Canzler-Eli Whiteside designated-for-assignment plan. And the A’s recently had to scramble to reacquire old friend Kurt Suzuki from Washington when injuries to Derek Norris and John Jaso put a serious crimp in their catching contingent.
When the season began, the outfield looked like Oakland’s strong suit. But it hasn’t turned out that way. Chris Young and Seth Smith are both having disappointing seasons. Worse yet, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes haven’t come close to their performances in 2012, when they combined for 55 home runs in the three and four spots in the order. Reddick has a .658 OPS and just went on the DL with a wrist injury. Cespedes has been too pull-happy and prone to chasing breaking balls out of the strike zone, and it’s reflected in his .289 OBP and increased strikeout total.
As Athletics beat writer John Hickey pointed out earlier this week, Jason Kubel might be a good fit in Oakland after getting designated for assignment by Arizona. For late-August trade buffs, Justin Morneau is also still out there and readily available.
Only three Oakland hitters -- Josh Donaldson, Jed Lowrie and Moss -- have performed to or beyond expectations this season, and they all project a certain dirtbag quality befitting the team persona. So why are the A’s so good? They grind out at-bats (they lead the majors with 476 walks and average a lofty 3.96 pitches per plate appearance). They’re 24-16 in one-run games, and they’re tied with Pittsburgh for the major league lead with 13 victories when trailing after six innings.
The A’s also pitch. A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker and the other starters have gone deep into games consistently enough that the bullpen has logged only the 11th-heaviest workload in the league. That means closer Grant Balfour and his relief-mates won’t be running on fumes in September.
Oddly enough, a few hours before Oakland took the field and banged out a season-high 21 hits against Doug Fister and the Detroit bullpen Wednesday, Donaldson was candid in his assessment of what the A’s have to do to survive the final month.
“We know how we’re built, and we’re built to pitch and play defense,” he said. “Anytime one of those gets out of whack is when we start faltering a little bit. I don’t feel like we’re going to bang with teams like the Tigers and Rangers every day.”
Even the departure of Jonny Gomes to Boston through free agency hasn’t put a crimp in the esprit de corps in Oakland. That’s largely a tribute to Melvin, a manager whose approach wears well over six months and 162 games. Players love him because of his even temperament, fairness and attention to detail -- but he can be tough when the situation warrants. After the A’s failed to show much spark against Houston and Seattle during their last homestand, Melvin let the players know things had to change in a hurry. It appears he got their attention.
When the Detroit series concludes, the A’s will head home for six games against Tampa Bay and Texas, at which point the schedule gets less taxing. Of Oakland’s final 23 games, 20 are against Houston, Minnesota, the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle.
The young A’s learned a lot about perseverance last year when they went on a 51-25 roll after the All-Star break to overtake Texas for the division title. Expectations were higher this year, but that doesn’t minimize the job that Melvin and his coaching staff have done squeezing the most out of the roster.
Melvin’s name should be in the middle of the Manager of the Year conversation again in November. But as long as he has the chance to keep making out lineup cards in October, the rest is gravy.
The Angels did lose to the Oakland A's, when Brandon Moss' two-run walk-off homer in the 19th inning gave the A's the dramatic 10-8 victory in a game that lasted 392 minutes and required 597 pitches to compete. It might end up being the game of the year. The painful defeat dropped the Angels to 9-16. They're already 7 games behind the Rangers and 5 games behind the A's in the AL West, and you have to wonder if long-time manager Mike Scioscia will survive much longer.
- The thing to remember about Scioscia is that GM Jerry DiPoto didn't hire him; he inherited him. After a second straight slow start, maybe the Angels will make a change just to shake things up. The Angels have missed the postseason the past three seasons, and are now looking at a fourth straight October on the bench if they don't turn things around in a hurry. That doesn't mean there's an obvious replacement available (how about Joe Torre on an interim basis?) and maybe the Angels don't want to signal panic, but I would say it is time to panic. The Angels might also have to consider that Don Mattingly isn't exactly on firm ground with the Dodgers, who might happily scoop up their popular former catcher, a turn of events that could be a PR disaster for the Angels.
- Look, everybody knows this team was built around Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Trout is off to a slow start, Pujols hit two home runs on Monday but is hitting a mediocre .265/.359/.439 and Hamilton is hitting .202/.246/.298. He looked terrible in going 0-for-8, with several ugly swings, especially against left-handers. He looks pretty helpless against lefties, getting tied up inside and is hitting .172 off them with 15 strikeouts and one walk in 32 plate appearances.
- Kudos to relievers Jerome Williams and Brett Anderson (who was scheduled to start for Oakland but scratched because of a sore ankle) for soaking up innings. Williams deserved to earn the win after the Angels took the lead in the top of the 15th on a bases-loaded walk to J.B. Shuck that left Anderson barking at home-plate ump Kerwin Danley as he walked off the mound. (He did retire Trout to escape the jam). Josh Donaldson began the bottom of the 15th with a routine grounder that second baseman Howie Kendrick bobbled, but Pujols simply dropped the throw. Derek Norris walked but Williams got a double play before Adam Rosales' two-out single tied it up.
- Anderson finally left after 5.1 innings, but Jerry Blevins threw 1.2 scoreless innings for the win. Williams went six. While Anderson's outing was a unique situation, Williams showed the value in having a good long relief option in the pen. A guy who can pitch multiple in extra innings is more valuable than having a third LOOGY in your pen.
- The A's delivered with two outs all night. In the eighth, Melvin hit Chris Young for Josh Reddick when Scioscia brought in lefty Scott Downs, and Young singled to make the score 7-6. Scioscia ended up bringing in closer Ernesto Frieri for a four-out save anyway, but why not bring him in to face the struggling Reddick? He should have anticipated that Melvin would go to Young there. In the ninth, Yoenis Cespedes (who hit a big game-tying home run on Sunday) came through with a two-out blast off the left-center fence to score Coco Crisp.
- Mark Trumbo hit a monster 475-foot moon shot in the second inning, tied with Anthony Rizzo for the longest home run this year. According to ESPN Stats & Info, it was the longest home run in Oakland since the ESPN Home Run Tracker began measuring home runs (in 2006), and the ball left Trumbo's bat at 120.1 mph, the fastest of any home run this season (by 3 mph).
- The few fans left at the end of the game were chanting the names of A's announcers Ray Fosse and Ken Korach.
- Moss gave himself the shaving cream pie during the postgame interview. Gotta love the A's.
Record: 94-68 (92-70 Pythagorean)
713 runs scored (8th in American League)
614 runs allowed (2nd in AL)
Big Offseason Moves
Traded Cliff Pennington and Yordy Cabrera to Arizona for Chris Young. Re-signed free agent Bartolo Colon. Signed Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. Acquired John Jaso in three-way deal that sent A.J. Cole to Washington. Traded Chris Carter, Brad Peacock and Max Stassi to Houston for Jed Lowrie and Fernando Rodriguez. Lost free agents Brandon McCarthy, Stephen Drew and Jonny Gomes.
More than anything, Billy Beane improved Oakland's athleticism and versatility. He lost two designated-hitter types in Carter and Gomes, but acquired an elite defensive center fielder in Young and picked up two infielders to go along with the return of Scott Sizemore (the team's best hitter in 2011 who missed all of 2012). Nakajima was a star player in Japan and since Lowrie's range at short is limited, the A's are counting on Nakajima to live up to his defensive reputation. The loss of McCarthy will hurt, but re-signing Colon helps maintain their rotation depth. For the tight-budgeted A's, a solid offseason that gives manager Bob Melvin multiple options around the diamond.
As you can see from the projected lineup, there is a lot of unsettled aspect to Oakland's starting nine, but in a good way. Melvin will be able to mix and match and the depth gives the A's injury insurance.
But how good is the lineup? The A's set an all-time strikeout record last season and hit just .238. They did hit better with runners in scoring position -- .265 -- which is one reason they ranked eighth in runs despite finishing 12th in on-base percentage and ninth in slugging percentage. Three reasons to like Oakland's chances to score more runs this year, however: The second basemen hit .228 with five home runs; the third basemen had a .280 OBP, lowest in the AL; and the shortstops had a .272 OBP, again lowest in the AL.
And a fourth reason: Yoenis Cespedes surprised everyone by hitting .292/.356/.505. Very nice numbers. Those could be big numbers this year.
Either you believe in Oakland's young starters or you don't. I'm a believer. Remember that the best of the group might be Brett Anderson, and he made just seven starts in 2012 after returning from Tommy John surgery. Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone and A.J. Griffin enter their second seasons with playoff experience under their belts and Colon returns after his suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. Dan Straily and Travis Blackley provide depth.
If we're going to nitpick, it's that it's not a big strikeout rotation. The A's ranked 10th in the AL strikeout rate among starting pitchers at 16.6 percent -- more than 5 percent less than Tampa Bay's 21.9 mark. But guess which staff tied for the lowest walk rate? The A's won't beat themselves and they pitch to their big home ballpark -- where Young, Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick have the speed to run down a lot of flyballs.
If you watched the A's down the stretch, you saw the hard-throwing trio of Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle dominate the late innings. Those three combined for a 2.49 ERA over 195 innings; not bad for a minor free-agent signing, a throw-in in the Trevor Cahill trade and a guy playing first base in the minors in 2011. All told, opponents hit .206 off the Oakland pen, second-lowest in the league to the Rays' .205 mark. There's depth behind those three guys as well.
Good rotation. Good pen. Some will predict regression from this group, but I expect another solid season in which the A's once again rank among the AL leaders in fewest runs allowed.
Beane acquired Parker from the Diamondbacks and the rookie right-hander showed why he was highly rated coming up through the Arizona system. His changeup made many left-handed hitters look foolish at the plate -- in 140 plate appearances ending with that pitch, they hit .163/.216/.194, with just three extra-base hits (two doubles, one triple). It's one of the best pitches in the game and the reason I expect Parker to have another solid season.
OK, maybe you don't believe in Reddick and Cespedes and Brandon Moss. I do. I think they return to the playoffs.
On a day that featured a quadruple-header of baseball playoff action, a game in which a starting pitcher who didn’t win a game all season gets a W, a game with a demoted former two-time Cy Young winner coming out of the bullpen for a clutch relief outing, an once-in-a-lifetime performance by Raul Ibanez (and I mean all of our lifetimes), the Oakland A’s completed the night with a bottom-of-the-ninth three-run rally to beat the Detroit Tigers 4-3 to keep their American League Division Series alive and force a fifth game.
It also gives us a fourth game on Thursday.
More baseball? Yes, please.
Justin Verlander in a decisive game? The frenzied A’s crowd with one more game to cheer on their heroes? Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder? Coco Crisp doing Coco Crisp stuff? The A’s swinging from their heels? I can’t wait.
Where did this rally come from? It appeared that Joaquin Benoit had snuffed out the last-gasp Oakland rally in the bottom of the eighth when he struck out Brandon Moss on a lovely, low-and-away changeup with two runners on.
In the bottom of the ninth, Jim Leyland turned to his closer, Jose Valverde. We remember his perfect season a year ago, when he seemingly walked the tightrope in every save situation but always managed to escape. Well, he fell off a few times this year.
The A’s had led the majors with 14 walk-off wins during the regular season, so even though Benoit had just pitched through Yoenis Cespedes and Moss in the order, you know the A’s believed. Why wouldn’t they? It’s a magical season in Oakland.
The three pitches to Smith: 92, 92, 92. Valverde didn’t have his good heat on this night and he had to throw an off-speed pitch. Valverde throwing 95 is a major league reliever. Valverde throwing 90-92 without a wrinkle is batting practice.
George Kottaras then pinch-hit and Bob Melvin eschewed the sacrifice bunt and let Kottaras swing away. According to conventional wisdom, the situation called for a bunt -- heck, I’m pretty sure even Earl Weaver would have bunted there -- but given the A’s propensity to strike out, I understand Melvin’s strategy: Give the A’s three chances to get the hit.
Kottaras popped out to Cabrera on the first pitch, a 93-mph fastball.
Cliff Pennington struck out on four pitches, taking a splitter for a called strike on a pitch that registered a bit outside.
Up came Crisp. Game 2 goat. Game 3 hero. Valverde throws a first-pitch splitter. Hard ground ball pulled past Infante into right field, and when Avisail Garcia couldn’t pick up the ball (with his strong arm, he might have had a shot to get Smith if he comes up with it cleanly), the A’s had the win.
Leyland, after the game: "This is baseball. This is why this is the greatest game of all. ... You get tested all the time in this game and this is a good test."
Before the ninth inning, the A’s had been hitting .185 in the series (22-for-119). They went 4-for-6 in the ninth. Valverde had not allowed four hits in an appearance all season. He had allowed three runs just twice.
Before the series, I suspected the key element in the series might end up being the Tigers' bullpen. When Benoit blew a lead in Game 2 -- only to see the A’s bullpen lose the lead when Detroit scored runs in the eighth and ninth -- I figured the A’s had lost their chance to steal a win. You may get one late-inning comeback in a short series, but it’s hard to get two.
But the A’s got this one. A fifth game. They’ll get Verlander and you have to suspect the over/under on his pitch count might be 150. If you’re Leyland, do you want to give the ball to Valverde again with a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth? Next time you think you can manage a major league team, put yourself in that possible situation.
The A’s will send rookie Jarrod Parker to the mound. On paper, the edge still goes to the Tigers, with the best pitcher in baseball on the mound.
In the postseason, paper means nothing.
St. Louis Cardinals
1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.
2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.
3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.
4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.
5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
--Matt Philip, Fungoes.net
The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.
On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.
If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
--Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club
Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:
1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).
2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.
3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.
4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.
5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
--Chris Garber, Redleg Nation
1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.
2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.
3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.
4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.
5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
--Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball
San Francisco Giants
1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.
2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.
3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.
4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).
5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.
2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.
3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.
4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.
5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
--Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot
1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.
2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.
3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.
4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.
5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.
2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.
3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.
4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.
5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball
1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.
2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.
3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.
4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.
5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
--Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward
New York Yankees
1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.
2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.
3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.
4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.
5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
One year ago -- 368 days to be exact -- Freddie Freeman batted in the bottom of the 13th inning with one out and grounded a 3-2 pitch from the Phillies' David Herndon to first base. John Mayberry Jr. started a 3-6-3 double play and the Braves' season was over in a 4-3 defeat, the final gut-punch in a horrific final month that saw Atlanta go 9-18 in September and lose its final five games to miss the playoffs by one win.
So maybe it was fitting that Freeman was the player who launched the Braves into the 2012 postseason, hitting a dramatic game-winning two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth on Tuesday night, an arching blast over the 400-foot sign in dead center that gave Atlanta a 4-3 win over Miami.
Maybe it was fitting that Craig Kimbrel, the closer who blew a ninth-inning lead in that 162nd game a year ago, pitched a scoreless ninth to pick up the win.
It certainly was fitting that Chipper Jones, who went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts in the 2011 finale, started the rally with a leadoff double. Old man Chipper, still stinging line drives all over the place.
And needless to say, it was no surprise that Kris Medlen, the Braves' good-luck charm, started the game. He didn't get the decision and even proved human -- allowing three runs! -- but the Braves have now won 22 consecutive games he's started, going back to 2010, tying the all-time mark with Whitey Ford's Yankees and Carl Hubbell's Giants.
"We are shooting for the stars," Jones said after the game. "It makes it all worth it. I'm happier for these guys because they worked hard."
What did we learn on this evening? That maybe the Braves should start Medlen in the wild-card game ... and Game 1 of the Division Series ... and Game 2 ... and ... OK, we learned that Braves fan can finally breathe. No collapse this year. And we learned that Medlen is still the hottest pitcher in the game -- 7 innings, 5 hits, no walks, 8 strikeouts -- and continues to give Atlanta ace-level performance.
Here are a few other things we learned:
Anibal Sanchez puts the pressure on the White Sox
Sanchez delivered one of the dominant outings of the season with his fifth career shutout, a 10-strikeout, 3-hit, 105-pitch gem. His Game Score of 90 was just the fourth of 90-plus by a Tigers starter since 2010 (some guy named Verlander had the other three) and just the 17th such start in the majors in 2012. More importantly, it moved the Tigers into a first-place tie with the White Sox, who had lost earlier in the day, their sixth loss in seven games.
Is it panic time in Chicago? Robin Ventura announced that he'll start Hector Santiago on Wednesday, pushing Jake Peavy back to start the series opener against the Rays on Thursday. Peavy hasn't been the dominant pitcher in the second half (4.20 ERA) that he was the first three months, so maybe an extra day of rest is a smart move, especially since he got roughed up in his previous start. Still, the sinking Sox turn to a rookie making just his third major league start. Things are starting to look gloomy in ChiTown.
David Price might have locked up the Cy Young Award
Umm, remember the Tampa Bay Rays? The Little Team That Could before the Orioles and A's became the Little Teams That Could. They were declared dead after getting swept in Baltimore, losing two of three to the Yankees and then two to the Red Sox, but here are they are, winners of six in a row after Price struck out a season-high 13 in a 5-2 complete-game win over Boston. Price improved to 19-5 and leads the American League with his 2.56 ERA.
The Rays are hitting .346 over this six-game stretch and trimmed another game off their deficit to the wild-card-leading Orioles after they were blanked by the Blue Jays. Is this right time to remind Orioles fans that the Rays and O's finish the season with a three-game series in Tampa? Not that right time? I mean, the Orioles -- after all this, after finally earning respect -- they're not going to blow it, are they?
Johnny Cueto had an important outing for the Reds
You don't want to read too much into mini-slumps this time of year, but the Reds' ace had been a little shaky his past few outings. Cueto quelled concerns with seven terrific innings (7 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 5 SO) to beat the Brewers for his 19th win -- the first Reds pitcher to win that many since Danny Jackson in 1988 and first right-hander since Jack Billingham in 1974. More good news for the Reds: Aroldis Chapman also pitched his second game since his 12-day layoff and threw 10 fastballs in a 1-2-3 inning -- 100, 100, 99, 98, 98, 98, 97, 97, 96 and 95.
Don't be alarmed by another Nationals loss
The Nationals are now 4-7 over their past 11 games. Davey Johnson has said he's more concerned with resting players than beating out the Reds for the top seed in the National League. Should Nationals fans be worried about this little slump? Not really. Late-season hot streaks or cold streaks are overrated. I looked at the World Series champs since 1996 and looked at how they played during the entire season, over the final month (September or September/October) and over the final 10 games.
Season: .586 winning percentage
Final month: .575 winning percentage
Final 10 games: .587 winning percentage
This is why you shouldn't pay much attention to what happens down the stretch. World Series winners haven't been any "hotter" down the stretch than they've played all season. Mixed in those World Series winners are the 2006 Cardinals (12-17 the final month, 3-7 in their final 10 games); the 2002 Angels (4-6 their final 10); the 2000 Yankees (13-18 and 2-8); and the 1997 Marlins (12-15 and 3-7). Yes, the past four World Series winners went a combined .667 the final month, but that doesn't tell which other "hot" teams didn't win the World Series. Plus, the Nationals are still 13-10 in September. They're fine.
Brandon Moss might have saved the A's season with a spectacular catch
The situation: bottom of the seventh, bases loaded, two out, Sean Doolittle versus Elvis Andrus. Then Moss does this.
Jorge Coutares is Dominican, right?
No? What, he's Greek? His name is spelled George Kottaras? He just won a big game for the A's? Have they even invented sticks and balls in Greece yet?
Angels tie record with 20 strikeouts in nine-inning game
Zack Greinke fanned 13 in five innings against the Mariners but had to leave after throwing 110 pitches. Ernesto Frieri struck out John Jaso for the final out in a 5-4 victory. Amazingly, the Mariners tied only their own club record. The Angels remain just two games behind the A's. If Oakland goes 3-5 over its final eight games, the Angels have to go 6-2 to pass them. Good news for the A's: The Mariners send King Felix to the mound on Wednesday ... which means he won't start against the A's over the weekend, making his final start Monday against the Angels.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
I don't yet know if 2012 will be considered a baseball season to remember. We tend to appreciate the great teams and memorable moments -- last year's dramatic final day of the regular season or the World Series Game 6 for the ages -- more than the beautiful, long grind of surprises and melodrama that is played out over 180 days and 162 games per team.
But I'll say this: 2012 has a chance to be one of those years, doesn't it? You can't start wherever you want -- the perfect games and no-hitters, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, Josh Hamilton's four-homer game or Derek Jeter's continued excellence, R.A. Dickey's knuckleball, Aroldis Chapman's fastball and Felix Hernandez's changeup -- and the list goes on and on. At the top of that list right now: The Oakland A's, everybody's spring training joke, now co-owners of the second-best record in the American League.
The other day I wrote that the Baltimore Orioles are starting to look like a team of destiny, and they didn't disappoint over the weekend, taking two of three at Yankee Stadium to claw to two games behind the Bronx Bombers. The same can be said of the A's. Like the Orioles, we waited through June and July and August for the fall to come. Well, fall is right around the corner and the A's are not only still here, they're getting better and breathing down the necks of the Texas Rangers, three games out of first place after winning their ninth game in a row on Sunday.
The A's absolutely destroyed the remnants of the Boston Red Sox over the weekend -- 20-2, 7-1 and 6-2 -- and have outscored their opponents by the dominating total of 72-22 during the winning streak. Here's a fun stat: Ten days ago the A's ranked 13th in the AL in runs scored, just 10 runs ahead of the Mariners. Now they rank ninth, after hitting .307 during this streak with 20 home runs and 29 doubles. OK, a 20-run game will inflate those numbers (thanks for showing up, Red Sox), but Oakland's lineup has steadily been improving all season:
How do you explain something like this? We can start with Chris Carter and Brandon Moss, who have turned into a powerful platoon at first base. A season ago, A's first basemen hit .219 with seven home runs. Led by Carter (.272/.375/.580 after his June 29 recall from Triple-A), A's first basemen are hitting .232 but with 26 home runs. You can start with Josh Reddick (28 home runs) and Yoenis Cespedes (.297/.356/.493) or Coco Crisp (.288/.354/.550 since the All-Star break) and Jonny Gomes (.942 OPS since the break).
A team that was hitting .208 on June 1 is now contending for the league's best record. A season for the ages? Maybe.
Brett Anderson was the winning pitcher in Sunday's 6-2 win, his third win in three starts since returning from last year's Tommy John surgery. I think his quote says it all about this club from nowhere: "It's crazy. Who would have predicted that [on Sept. 2] we'd be tied with the Yankees for the same record? Everything's working right now -- offense, defense, pitching. When that's happening, special things are going to happen."
Most amazing is the complete transformation from last year's squad that won 74 games.
- Of the 12 players with the most plate appearances on the club in 2011, only four are in top 12 in plate appearances in 2012. And one of those, catcher Kurt Suzuki, was traded several weeks ago.
- The team's two best hitters by OPS a season ago were Josh Willingham, who left as a free agent, and Scott Sizemore, who tore his ACL in spring training and will miss the entire season.
- General manager Billy Beane traded away the two starting pitchers who pitched the most innings in 2011, Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill. The one holdover from the rotation, Brandon McCarthy, spent time on the DL and has made just 17 starts. Oh, Beane also traded away the team's closer.
- Speaking of injuries, are you hearing a lot of complaining from Yankees and Red Sox fans about the injuries their teams have suffered this year? Besides Sizemore and now Brandon Inge, the A's have run through 10 different starting pitchers (not including Dallas Braden, out all season with a shoulder injury), missed their best hitter (Cespedes) for a spell and Bob Melvin has used five different starting shortstops, including Stephen Drew, acquired from the Diamondbacks on Aug. 20. Drew, one of the few players on the team with postseason experience, went 3-for-4 on Sunday with his first home run.
- Bartolo Colon, one of the starters who remained healthy and in the rotation, was suspended for the rest of the season after a positive PED test.
Executive of the year? Beane basically lost all his best players from 2011, rebuilt an entire team and on Sept. 2 the A's and their $55.3 million Opening Day payroll (29th in baseball) have the same record as the mighty Yankees and their $198 million payroll.
The A's of a decade ago -- the "Moneyball" A's of book and movie fame -- were a different sort of team. In reality, that was a team of stars, not a patched-together roster of youngsters, castoffs, reclamation projects and one-more-chance guys. When I think of surprise teams and great seasons, I think back to 1991, when we saw the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins both go from last place to the World Series. But in retrospect, those teams were in a far different position than these A's. The Braves were a young team that came together all at once -- Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, David Justice, Ron Gant and so on -- while the Twins were more of a veteran team (Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Greg Gagne) that added reinforcements in free agents Jack Morris and Chili Davis plus rookies Chuck Knoblauch and Scott Erickson.
There was absolutely no way to predict this team would be in the pennant race as we head into September. Maybe the carpet ride will stop short of the postseason -- of Oakland's 29 remaining games, 23 are against teams with winning records and the other six are against Seattle, which is tied with Baltimore for the second-best record in the AL since the All-Star break.
"We're not looking too far ahead," Reddick said. "I don't think we're going to worry about who we're tied with right now. All that matters is when that last game of the year comes along, where we're at at that point."
We'll get to that last game of the year ... but I already can't wait. I have a pretty good feeling we're in for something special.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
The Oakland A's beat the Texas Rangers Wednesday in the ninth on Brandon Hicks' first big league home run. A former Atlanta Braves’ shortstop prospect, Hicks was claimed off waivers this spring and is just the latest refugee from someplace else to wash up in Oakland, and potentially provide a solution in a long-shot bid for contention.
In a season that has seen its share of improbable runs -- the Los Angeles Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles being the poster children for surprise starts -- the A’s might be more surprising still. In their first full season after the release of the movie Moneyball, they’re winning despite ranking next-to-last in the league in OBP (bettering only the Seattle Mariners) and last in scoring. And while the movie didn’t get into the other really big reason those old A’s teams won, this club lacks the strong rotation that made Oakland a contender a decade ago.
To look at the offense, the problem isn’t the absence of walks or power, so they’re not really an anti-Moneyball offense. They’re fourth in the league in walk rate, after all. While key sluggers such as Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick don’t contribute much OBP, they’re generating plenty of power. This is why the A’s Isolated Power (slugging minus batting average) rates ninth in the AL, directly behind the much-vaunted Tigers’ attack.
What’s killing the A’s is a dearth of help from their up-the-middle quartet: catcher Kurt Suzuki, second baseman Jemile Weeks, shortstop Cliff Pennington and center fielder Coco Crisp. At .620, Weeks has the highest OPS in the group. Add third base to the problem list with Brandon Inge providing nothing better than slack-batted temp work (.616 OPS). Unlike the luckless Mariners, the A’s home park isn't really hurting them -- with a .659/.689 home/road OPS split.
They’re just bad at getting base hits. Because they’re one of the most free-swinging teams in baseball (striking out 21.4 percent of the time), their shortage of singles isn’t going to get that much better. Fewer balls in play means fewer chances to see that number “regress” up to league average.
So they need to be a bit aggressive about fixes, and to their credit, they have been. Five weeks ago, the A’s lineup had a problem at first base problem. They had cycled through bunting fool Daric Barton. What other term is there for a first baseman who bunts on his own, and sets the highest single-season mark for players at that power position since bunt-happy Gene Mauch ordered Rod Carew to lay down 16 sac bunts in 1982? They’d also looked at and laughed off the Kila Monster. Kila Ka'aihue proved to be another somebody who wasn’t going to be the next Ken Phelps -- the minor league slugger immortalized by Bill James in the ’80s and by the Mariners by their belated recognition that the guy had a hammer.
Instead, the A’s have once again turned to something as anti-Moneyball as it gets. Brandon Moss, former Boston Red Sox prospect before he became a Pittsburgh Pirates washout, got sucked into the first-base job simply because nature abhors a vacuum. His unintentional walk rate in the minor leagues is below 9 percent. So what does he do? Rip 11 homers in less than a month. Of course, because that’s exactly what you expect from a guy who put a .667 OPS with the Pirates.
Rather than let that ride, they finally brought up Chris Carter, something A’s fans have been waiting for at least three years, if not longer. Ever since Carter was picked up in the deal that sent Dan Haren to the D-backs, their fans have wondered what the payoff was supposed to be. With four of the six players the A’s got in that deal (including Carlos Gonzalez) long since in other uniforms, it’s down to Carter and the occasionally healthy Brett Anderson.
So, after making Carter spend parts of four seasons in Sacramento, enough time to get streets named for him, what did he do? Not let himself be outshone by the likes of Moss: He has clouted five homers in little more than a week’s worth of games.
Now sure, in a month we won’t be talking about how this quick-fix platoon is slugging more than .600. Moss might outperform his Pirates seasons, but he’s still just Moss. But Carter ought to start absorbing more of the job. At a high-offense position it’s a fix akin to what the A’s success did with their DH platoon of Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes this season. You can hope or wonder whether they'll be similarly creative in addressing their other lineup issues, because if even a shot at the one-and-done wild card is going to last, they'll need to be.
It’s a reflection of this season’s mayhem that the A’s -- the A’s! -- might very well be buyers at the deadline. Given the presumably parlous state of their finances, they may be shopping with little more than pennies and good intentions, but for a franchise some people were pegging for 100 or more losses back in February, it’s a surprisingly happy state of affairs.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Second base: Maybin's monster mash. After a breakout season in 2011 for the Padres, Cameron Maybin has been a big disappointment, with a .206/.287/.307 line, but he did belt the season's longest home run on Monday, a 485-foot bash off Trevor Cahill. According to ESPN Stats & Info, that tops Nelson Cruz's 484-foot blast on June 3. Yasmani Grandal also homered for the Padres, making his first three career hits all home runs. That would seem like like a first-player-to-do-it type of feat, but he's the seventh player to do so since 1900, joining Keith McDonald (2000), Alfonso Soriano (1999-2000), Mike Greenwell (1985), Billy Conigliaro (1969), Ed Sanicki (1949) and Chick Fullis (1929). The amazing thing about McDonald: Those were the only three hits of his career.
Third base: Weaving zeroes. Jered Weaver improved to 9-1 with a 2.13 ERA with seven scoreless innings against the Indians and could be in line to start the All-Star Game for the second straight season. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Weaver threw a season-high 20 curveballs, 14 for strikes. Since 2009, Weaver now has 23 scoreless starts, second in the majors to Clayton Kershaw's 28. I still expect Justin Verlander to get the start, but Weaver could be the first to start consecutive All-Star Games since Randy Johnson started for the NL in 2000 and 2001.
Home plate: Tweet of the day. The A's beat the Red Sox 6-1 as they scored five runs in two innings off Daisuke Matsuzaka. Josh Reddick didn't make the All-Star team, but he hit his 19th home run, and former Red Sox prospect Brandon Moss hit his ninth to raise his slugging percentage to .658. Leading to this tweet from Peter Gammons:
Josh Reddick and Brandon Moss 28 HR. Red Sox OFs 20 HR
Josh Reddick and Brandon Moss 28 HR. Red Sox OFs 20 HR— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) July 3, 2012