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Stabilizing the Top of the Lineup (Code Name: Fortnight Bovine)

Moooooooooo-ve aside, Coco. Cowgill is here to steal your at-bats.
Moooooooooo-ve aside, Coco. Cowgill is here to steal your at-bats.

Last night, I had a dream that Collin Cowgill went 6-for-6 in a game. Sadly, it’s not that surprising that I was dreaming about an A’s game, because I’m a big dork.

It’s also not that surprising that my dream featured Cowgill. I was out of town for the weekend and didn’t get to watch any baseball; upon returning to find that Oakland had dropped 2 of 3 to the Royals, one source of solace was the fact that Collin Cowgill had continued his solid run at the plate. He has now started in six of Oakland’s last eight games, and has reached base at least twice in each one. His overall line in those games is 11-for-22, with a .572 OBP thanks to 4 walks (against only 3 strikeouts). He is hitting an awful lot like the guy who batted .354 at AAA Reno last season, making contact and showing plate discipline. His power, which was moderate in the minors (.188 isolated slugging %), has disappeared for the time being, but Cowgill puts up a fight every time he’s in the box and might be capable enough at getting on base that he can serve as an effective top-of-the-order hitter. Considering that he is a plus defender and was an excellent base-stealer in the minors (30-for-33 in AAA last year), he could find himself receiving more starts as long as he continues to produce.

Cowgill’s hot streak could not have come at a better time for the Athletics. The team is mired in a 1-10 slump, and has struggled to score runs all season (to the surprise of no one). The most glaring weakness has been the top of the order, where Jemile Weeks found himself hitting .199 on May 21. Weeks was routinely followed by auto-outs like Coco Crisp (sick and disgruntled), Cliff Pennington (slumping horribly), and Eric Sogard (a Keebler Elf). The result was an OBP in the neighborhood of .250 from the top two spots in the lineup, which left the bases empty for far too many of Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes’s at-bats. It’s difficult to drive in runs when there is nobody on base; 10 of Reddick’s 14 homers have been solo shots.

Thankfully, Jemile Weeks has begun to heat up at the plate as well. After sitting out on May 22, Weeks put together a 9-game hitting streak, which was broken yesterday when he was unsuccessful in a pinch-hitting appearance. During the streak, Weeks went 13-for-36, for a .361 average and a .425 OBP (4 walks to 7 strikeouts). He raised his average by 30 points over that 9-game span, and will enter tonight’s start batting .228. Even more encouraging, though, has been the improved patience and plate discipline that he has demonstrated all season long. In 2011, Weeks struck out nearly 3 times more than he walked (62:21 K:BB ratio), and walked in only 4.8% of his plate appearances. Since he was hitting for a high average, he still got on base enough to be effective in the leadoff spot (though just barely, with a .340 OBP). However, this was really the first time in Weeks’ professional career that he had been such an aggressive hitter. He walked in over 10% of his minor league plate appearances, while making lots of contact and avoiding strikeouts.

This year, Weeks has more than doubled his walk rate while keeping his already-excellent strikeout rate perfectly static. His ability to get on base despite a slumping bat has been his only saving grace at the plate this year, as he hasn’t hit for average or power when he has made contact. With his keen eye and quick bat, though, you had to figure that it was only a matter of time until the hits started falling in for Weeks. Hopefully, his success at the plate during the team’s losing streak will continue, and he can regain the form that he showed in his breakthrough 2011 campaign. If so, this sophomore slump may have been a blessing in disguise, as it forced Weeks to focus on taking more pitches and working good at-bats rather than swinging early and often and relying on BABIP to get himself on base.

Oakland has failed to score runs all year, and that lack of success has extended up and down the lineup. The black holes in the top two spots have been the most crippling problem, though, and that tide may finally be turning. If Weeks can build on his recent success (and not miss time with his recent hip strain), and Cowgill can continue to get on base consistently, this lineup might finally start to produce at a high enough level to win more games and, specifically, avoid long losing streaks. Fortnight and Bovine setting the table for Shreddick and the Demigod, with Kila Monster lurking after them? If nothing else, our lineup could lead the league in nicknames.