It was the best of times, it was the worse-but-not-terrible of times. It was a tale of two series. In the first, the Oakland Athletics dominated every facet of the game in a sweep of the Texas Rangers in Arlington. They out-hit, out-pitched, and (barely) out-fielded their main division rival to serve a cold dish of revenge after being swept themselves in Week 4. In the second series, the A's were humbled by the defending World Champion (but currently below-.500) Boston Red Sox. The Sox lineup knocked around the back-end of Oakland's rotation, and their starters limited the A's to three runs in 20⅓ innings. The green and gold was able to salvage the series finale thanks to a gutty performance by Sonny Gray and the bullpen, though, which gave the A's a 4-2 week and a 6-4 road trip.
With the dust settled from Week 5, the A's are still in first place in the AL West and in the American League overall. Their record is 19-12, and no other AL team has more than 17 wins. Their plus-51 run differential is still tops in the Majors, and the next best is Colorado at plus-31. They're fourth in MLB in scoring (and first in walks). They're third in team ERA despite the fact that their starters rank only seventh and their bullpen only fifth, which suggests that they are enjoying a relatively unique balance of success between those two parts of their pitching staff -- the Braves and Brewers are the only other teams that rank in the top seven for both starters' and relievers' ERA, and neither of them can hit like Oakland can.
The offense was led by the team's catchers and Yoenis Cespedes. More on the catchers below; Cespedes batted .375/.500/.625 with four doubles in 20 plate appearances, and he drove in the eventual winning run in the 10th inning Sunday. Despite playing in two hitters' parks, the A's managed only one home run this week and it came off the bat of Coco Crisp. The pitching staff was led by Sonny Gray, who made two enormous starts which both led to A's victories. Fernando Abad and Jim Johnson continued to dominate out of the bullpen, and Sean Doolittle got back on track. On the other side, Dan Straily, Tommy Milone and Dan Otero all had a rough go of it against Boston. Here's a look at the big stories of the week.
It's Always Sonny in Oakland
On Monday, the A's started their series in Texas having lost two straight games (to the Astros) and five out of seven overall. Sonny Gray responded by pitching his first career shutout in the opener, which accomplished several things. It prevented the team from starting an extended losing streak. It set the tone for what felt as important as a late-April series can feel. And it served as a bit of a coming-out party for "Sonny Gray, Budding Ace."
The shutout had all the makings of what an ace starter would do. He dominated a key rival, on the road, in a hitter's park. He put the team on his back when they needed a boost. He served as the "stopper" who keeps the club from losing too many in a row. And he showed that he can be a guy who works deep into games by efficiently cutting through opposing lineups. It's just one game, but when that one game comes from a guy who has all the tools to be this good on a regular basis, it looks extra exciting. This was Sonny's second serious ace moment, after Game 2 of the ALDS last year when he matched Justin Verlander pitch for pitch. It's everything you hoped to see out of him.
Sonny's next start came on Sunday (Sonday?) in Boston. The A's had just lost two straight and looked bad doing so, and they needed a boost. Sonny wasn't as good as he'd been in Texas, but he worked through six-plus innings and left with a tie game. After his rotation-mates had effectively pitched the team out of the first two contests, Sonny kept the A's in the finale and put them in a position to notch a late-inning victory. He didn't earn the win, and his line for the day was only mediocre, but I'd argue that he served as the stopper twice last week.
How Sweep It Is
The A's did bad, bad things to the Rangers last week. Sonny threw his shutout in the first game. In the second game, the lineup torched Martin Perez for eight runs -- he'd only given up a total of six in his first five starts, and he entered the game with a 26-inning scoreless streak including back-to-back shutouts. In the third game, Jesse Chavez allowed just one hit in seven innings and the A's scored a touchdown against Robbie Ross:
It was their second touchdown in the span of a week, after they dropped a seven-spot on the Astros in the ninth inning the previous Friday. And that RBI by Punto was his first of the season. In a game on April 30. He now has 65 plate appearances for the fourth-best offense in baseball, and he has just that one RBI.
The A's out-scored the Rangers 24-5 in the three games. Revenge never tasted so sweep.
A Tale of Two Catchers
Few teams get significantly above-average offensive production out of their starting catchers. Even fewer teams get it out of two different catchers. Here are the lines posted by Oakland's two backstops last week:
Derek Norris: 6-for-15, 2 doubles, 4 walks, 2 strikeouts
John Jaso: 6-for-13, 1 triple, 3 walks, 2 strikeouts
For the season, Norris has a 1.007 OPS (187 OPS+) with more walks than strikeouts. Jaso has a .733 OPS (111 OPS+) and looks like he's starting to heat up. With this strong platoon, the A's are putting a good hitter behind the plate every single day. Getting that kind of offense from a traditionally defense-first position is a huge advantage, especially when you pair it with the offense they get out of shortstop Jed Lowrie (138 OPS+).
The A's lead the Majors in walks with 143, although they trail the Twins in BB% since they've needed more plate appearances to accrue those free passes. But they also lead MLB in walks-per-strikeout at 0.62 (league average is 0.40). A look at some of the impressive plate discipline stats in the A's lineup:
Lowrie still sticks out above the rest, but Sogard has quietly turned in an impressive ratio despite an otherwise ugly stat line (he had more walks than strikeouts in his minor league career). Coco is backing up the career-best plate discipline he showed last year, and Cespedes is still walking at a career-high rate and striking out less than he ever has. Callaspo is actually striking out more than he ever has, although he is not swinging and missing any more than normal.
There is more to baseball than walks. But walks (and a lack of strikeouts) signify plate discipline, which means that hitters are laying off the slop and waiting for pitches they can hit. More walks lead to a higher OBP, which tends to correlate with scoring. Walks drive up pitch counts, which allows the team to cut into opposing bullpens. This is a good trend.
This play happened, and it was hotly debated from many angles.
Did the umps make the right call that Pierzynski didn't violate the plate-blocking rules? Did the ump miss the fact that Donaldson was safe anyway? And why didn't the fine folks in New York review the safe/out call while they were looking at the plate-blocking, which Jeremy Koo pointed out is specifically allowed for (nay, encouraged) in the rules:
[I]f a Crew Chief exercises his discretion to initiate Replay Review of a call involving the application of Official Baseball Rule 7.13, the Replay Official shall review any other reviewable call on the runner at home plate on that play (e.g., whether the runner was forced or tagged out at home plate even if Rule 7.13 was not violated).
We report, you decide.
Daric Barton did a good thing
He's had his struggles this year. But this play saved the game.
That play took cojones the size of Colon, and no one else on the team would have executed or even attempted it. Say what you will about Barton, but give him props for that play. It was huge.
Just bask in the glory:
Abad, 2014: 12⅓ innings, zero runs, zero inherited runners scored, 2 hits, 3 walks, 15 strikeouts
Oh, and one of those walks was intentional, because Abad doesn't believe in bullying.
Jim Johnson, Closer?
Johnson is now up to 10⅓ consecutive scoreless innings. In that time, he has surrendered seven hits and two walks while collecting nine strikeouts and three well-deserved wins. On Sunday, he entered a tie game in the ninth with a runner on and promptly induced an inning-ending double play. In the 10th, after Barton's heroics, he found himself with a runner on first and one out and got another double play to seal the game.
Hot takes? The fact that Johnson is generating ground balls and double plays (and not allowing walks or runs) suggests that he is back from whatever struggles plagued him in early April, and the fact that he's coming in to that situation in that game suggests that he is likely Bob Melvin's current pick for closer. I still think it's 99 percent likely that Johnson gets the next save opportunity, even if that comes on Monday -- he only threw 16 pitches to record those five outs against Boston.