Five days ago, the A's were under the radar and the Jays were finished.
Tonight, they'll meet at the SkyDome in the biggest matchup on the
baseball calendar. The rampaging A's have lost all of two games this
month. They just hung a four-game sweep on the Yankees and have roared
into the second wildcard spot. Their game centers around aggressive
pitching and excellent defense, but this month they've also played some longball.
The A's have 11 walkoff wins this year, a testament to their bullpen's performance and their "timely" hitting throughout the season. Here is the obligatory feel-good story about their youthful clubhouse chemistry. It's actually pretty entertaining.
It's hard to root against tonight's starter, 29-year-old Aussie lefty Travis Blackley, a star-crossed ex-prospect on the biggest roll of his career. The Mariners signed him when he was 17, and he looked promising until late in 2004, when he tore his labrum and lost a full year to shoulder surgery. The injury torpedoed his career, and in 2007 the Mariners punted him to San Francisco in exchange for human outfield highlight reel Jason Ellison. Blackley persevered. He was an unsuccessful reclamation project in the Giants, Phillies, D'backs, Mets and A's systems, and also made cameos in Mexico for los Dorados de Chihuahua and in Australia for his hometown Melbourne Aces. He spent his 2011 in Gwangju pitching for the Kia Tigers. Finally, this year, the Giants took another flyer on Blackley. He rewarded them by allowing 1 run in 23.1 innings for AAA Fresno. The Giants called him up, he was unremarkable, the Giants had too much pitching, they DFA'd him, Oakland signed him off waivers, and the rest is history.
Blackley has posted a 3.36 ERA and a K/BB ratio over 3, allowed just one homer all year, and averaged six innings a start despite being initially used as a swingman. He'll likely begin the game by Establishing The Fastball. It sounds like he's been doing a fantastic job of locating his pitches, a lot like what Aaron Laffey's doing these days. Easier said than done against a big scary lineup like Toronto's, but Blackley's last two starts were against Texas and he did fine: 4 runs in 12.1 innings. He has a 170-point OPS split this year and tends to be very aggressive against lefty batters; he's faced 63 of them, K'd 7 and walked 0. Fastball around 90, hard slider, big hammer curve, change, and he pitches from the stretch at all times. Who was the last Jay starter to try that? Ted Lilly?
Wednesday, it's another strike thrower. A.J. Griffin is a 24-year-old rookie righty, a SoCal native and 13th-round pick in the 2010 draft out of San Diego who's forced his way to the majors in a hurry. Fastball around 90, slider, change, and a big slow lollipop curve in the high 60s with which Griffin often tries freeze hitters. In general, I think that is a decent idea early in the count, but stupid in pitchers' counts when conventional wisdom says the hitter should be protecting. Griffin's curve, however, is pretty hard to argue with under any circumstances. Here's a GIF collection from Fangraphs' Carson Cistulli. Griffin has 4.3 P/PA, which is exceptionally high for a pitcher who walks as few hitters as he does.
Thursday, it's yet another strike thrower, and the closest thing to a brand name the A's will send to the mound this series: lefty Tomaso Milone, an LA native and USC product acquired from the Nats in the Gio Gonzalez trade. (Aside: Man, was I ever wrong about the Nationals' rotation. I was very skeptical about Gonzalez, Zimmermann and Jackson, but they've been brilliant.) That said, the A's didn't get fleeced in the deal: Milone spent three years on the Nats' slow track dominating the minors, and he has held up his end of the bargain as a rookie.
Milone has been aggressive, hittable, and effective. He has a 3.34 ERA. He throws strike one to 70% of hitters, has a line drive rate of 24.7%, and has surrendered 16 homers this year. Notably, he's given up only 1 in Oakland, and 15 away from the cavernous Coliseum. ERA splits: 0.91 home, 5.69 away. Fastball around 90, cutter, change and curve, and with that repertoire he has been more effective against RH than LH batters: a 50-point OPS split, and a much better K/BB rate. Milone flattened the Yankees in his last start, striking out 10 over 7 shutout innings, and he's got a 1.10 ERA over his past six starts with 36 K and 3 BB. I think the Jays are a nightmare matchup for him. Something's gotta give.
Bullpen: Righty closer Ryan Cook, part of the Trevor Cahill haul from Arizona, throws really damn hard and induces lots of popups. In contrast to the starters, he pitches away from contact; his 13.3% BB rate almost exceeds the three starters' rates combined. Cook's almost strictly a fastball/slider guy, so anyone who bats lefty should have a fighting chance. However, the league is hitting .115/.244/.223 off him.
Grant Balfour is still a power pitcher, but he's no longer Captain Fastball; his fastball is down to the low 90s and he's throwing a few more sliders to compensate. Lefty Jerry Blevins throws hard for a funky pitcher. Lefty Jordan Norberto, acquired from Arizona, also throws hard, and he overwhelmed the minors with Effective Wildness that has been okay in the bigs as well. He's gone nuts with the facial hair. Righty Jim Miller throws really damn hard and induces popups. Righty Evan Scribner and lefty Sean Doolittle round out the pen.
Come to think of it, I figure Oakland Coliseum with all its foul territory has to have a really favorable park factor for infield flies. So maybe all these guys aren't quite as deceptive or overpowering as I'm making them sound. Still, it's absolutely accurate to say that the starters are aggressive and the relievers are not.
Defense? Oakland, with all its strike-throwing starters, has remarkably (or not) held hitters to a .273 BABIP, lowest in the majors. All of their regular position players are above-average on the fielding stats except for Jemile Weeks and Yoenis Cespedes. Josh Reddick, in particular, has been outstanding in right field, with a +13 DRS rating. If the A's pitchers can find a way to keep the ball in the park, they might just hang in there against the dreaded Jays.
Offense? It's been timely, and it's been much improved recently. The Athletics are hitting a dismal .228/.302/.377 on the year. Only the Mariners have been worse, and only the Orioles are comparably bad. The A's are top 5 in the majors in K and BB rate, and they've hit 101 homers despite the unfavorable home park. The problem is hits - they're not a slow team by any means, but their .268 BABIP is lowest in the majors. See what I mean about the park? (It certainly can't help that they play in a division with the slick-fielding Rangers, Angels and M's, either.)
On the other hand, they're on a serious hot streak: .250/.304/.439 since June 28, with 30 homers. And all season they've hit unusually well with two out - .235/.326/.411, which is quite an improvement from their grand totals. And they've run well: 73 SB against 22 CS is fantastic. Coco Crisp leads them with 19 steals. This lineup is not a pushover.
There are a few castoffs from extreme hitters' parks who have flourished in Oakland. Josh Reddick, who's using Colby Rasmus' facial hair, has been Oakland's best hitter and was probably the most egregious all-star snub in the AL. I'm sure the Red Sox are thrilled they traded him for a proven closer. Seth Smith, the Rockies' old fourth outfielder, hasn't lost a beat in moving to Oakland; his raw .249/.355/.450 line is right around his career norms minus 20 BA points. He tends to DH against righties, and will likely come off the bench all three games this series. Ex-Red Sox Brandon Moss has spent a month in Oakland and put up double-digit homers already. He may sneak into the lineup against Romero tomorrow. Chris Carter has 5 homers in 44 PA, and he was only hitting .267/.389/.482 at AAA. The eternal Jonny Gomes is on fire as a platoon starter and veteran leader. It feels like just yesterday he was the Rays' great beacon of hope, and now here he is. And so on.
Yoenis Cespedes has lived up to the hype and then some. He's not much of an outfielder, and he's a butcher in center, but he has serious power and has shown that he can cope when pitchers don't give him anything. So far, so good.
Song to Advance Scout by: Oakland, do you wanna ride? (Note: PG-13 but righteous)
In the spirit of "who the hell are these guys?!":