After overcoming some hiccups in their first week of the 2014 season, the Oakland Athletics recovered in Week 2 to show the world what they are capable of. Granted, the first three games came against a Minnesota Twins team that is likely to be a doormat this year, but even the worst squads win one out of every three. When your only loss in seven days comes at the hands of Felix Hernandez, you should consider your week a success.
Oakland won five of six games last week, which is even more impressive considering that they were all on the road. Their record entering Monday stands at 8-4; they are the only American League team with eight wins, and only the Brewers (10) and Dodgers (9) have more in the senior circuit. Oakland's plus-19 run differential is also tops in the AL, and only Milwaukee has it beat in the NL. Although the A's are only middle-of-the-pack in scoring, they have allowed the second-fewest runs of any team (32), again behind only Milwaukee (29). In terms of ERA, they have the second-best rotation (behind Atlanta, the other club who lost two starters just before the season) and the sixth-best bullpen (and that's with Jim Johnson skewing the numbers). Let's have a look at the major story lines, as well as who stepped up to lead the team to a 5-1 week.
Josh Donaldson is (mostly) back
The Bringer of Rain lived up to his name a bit too literally in the first week, summoning actual precipitation instead of raining down hits upon his opponents. However, in last week's review, I assured you in one section that "Josh Donaldson will be fine, probably." That optimistic prediction was right on the money.
After watching a lot of hard hit balls find gloves in the first week, Donaldson went 9-for-28 with three homers and three doubles last week (.321/.321/.750). Two of those dingers were opposite-field blasts, and one of those went out to the deep part of Safeco Field on Sunday on an afternoon in which it didn't look like you could make a ball clear the wall if you faced Joe Blanton and hit with an aluminum bat (too soon?).
There are still two areas for improvement in Donaldson's stat line, and they both revolve around his batting average. That average hasn't yet caught up with his power, and his peripherals bring good news and bad news. The good news is that his BABIP is only .250, and he's a guy who can expect to sustain a high mark in that category due to a batted-ball profile heavy on line drives. The bad news is that he has only one walk to 15 strikeouts, which is a horrendous figure -- BABIP karma won't help you if you don't put the ball in play. To put that stat in perspective, in 2013 he struck out in 16.5 percent of his plate appearances; he's at 27.3 percent right now.
He's been the victim of a couple of horrible calls (one on a check swing on Saturday that should have been ball four), but this is an area of concern to keep an eye on. Hopefully it will just be a blip and he can get back to last year's rates, when he walked twice for every three whiffs. A good first step would be increasing his O-Contact%, or percent of the time he makes contact when swinging at pitches out of the zone. He's at 42.9 percent, down from 70.8 percent last year (league average is 68 percent); that suggests to me that he is doing a bit of chasing right now and needs to focus on his pitch selection, tighten up that zone, and wait for the offerings that he can punish.
Quality Starts Continue
The Athletics have played 12 games, and they are yet to have a starter allow more than three earned runs. Tommy Milone turned in the shakiest stat line of the season by giving up five runs (three earned) in five innings, but he was a victim of poor defense and his day could have gone a lot differently (and better) if his teammates had backed him up. Even then, he still struck out seven batters without a walk, and that was the worst start of the week.
In six starts, Oakland's rotation tossed 38 innings and allowed nine earned runs (2.13 ERA). In four of those games, they allowed one run or fewer. They completed at least six innings in five of six games, all five of which registered as quality starts. Their strikeout-to-walk ratio was 44:8. If the starters continue to provide a daily effort of six or seven innings and one or two runs, ahead of a bullpen containing five guys who would be legitimate closers, then this team will win a lot of games.
Scott Kazmir stuck out above the rest by making two excellent starts last week. In the first, he clearly didn't have his best stuff but was able to muster just enough to survive six solid innings. In the second, he looked as unhittable as anyone in the league but left slightly early with a minor case of triceps tightness. Jesse Chavez backed up his strong debut with an even better second effort, and Sonny Gray turned looked much sharper in his third outing of the year. Dan Straily could be one of the best No. 4 starters in baseball.
Walk This Way
Oakland is third in the majors in walks with 56, behind only the Twins (59) and the Indians (57). I am going to selectively ignore that both of those teams have played a quarter of their games against Athletics pitching and move on. The A's are being led (slowly, at a leisurely strolling pace) by Jed Lowrie (14 walks, .469 OBP), Coco Crisp (7, .452) and Nick Punto (5, .409). Fortunately, those are precisely the guys who are supposed to be setting the table in the Nos. 1, 2, and 9 spots in the lineup. Only Jose Bautista (16) has more walks than Lowrie in the entire majors (Carlos Santana is tied with 14).
Free Derek Norris!
The Bunyan-esque catcher cracked a pair of lumber-jacks last week, one of which was a game-winner in extra innings. Even better, both bombs came off of right-handed pitchers, leading Lev to conclude that Norris should be the regular starter behind the plate. It should be noted that Melvin isn't waiting around for the platoon advantage to get Norris into games -- he has 19 plate appearances against righties so far and only five against lefties.
So Long, Sam
Sam Fuld was designated for assignment to make room for the more talented version of himself, Craig Gentry. The bad news is, Fuld will almost certainly get claimed on Monday or Tuesday and suit up for a different team by the end of the week. The good news is, if you liked Fuld, you're going to freaking love Gentry. We only knew ya for a couple of weeks, Sam, but it was a blast while it lasted! (Key stats: .233 isolated power, two outfield assists in seven games)
Say It Ain't So, Joe
Joe Blanton has given up on his comeback bid, at least for now. He left the Sacramento River Cats after making just two starts. There were initial reports that he had retired, but I don't believe that has been confirmed. I can confirm that he didn't quit because I made a joke about him earlier in this post, because he had already left the team by then. And don't worry, the Angels still owe him a buttload of money to sit on his butt this year. (According to the editor, "buttload" is not a real word. That's poppycock.)