The Oakland Athletics are rolling. They won five out of six games last week, taking two of three from the Angels in Anaheim and then sweeping the Astros in the Coliseum. Granted, they haven't been tested by any truly great teams yet, but playing bad teams does not guarantee that you will succeed -- especially in April, when it seems anybody is capable of getting off on an early-season heater. For example, Minnesota (a Week 2 opponent) is 9-9, which means they are 9-6 against teams other than the A's. They've also scored 98 runs, third in MLB, for an average of nearly 5½ per game; the A's limited them to eight runs in three games in their own home park. Just because you've played teams that you perceive to be poor does not mean that the victories are empty or less meaningful. Ask the Royals or Blue Jays or Indians how they fared in their early-season record-padding games against the doormat Twins.
With the dust settled from the third week of the campaign, the A's emerged once again with the top record in the American League (13-5), the best run differential in MLB (plus-32), the sixth-most runs scored (87), and the second-fewest runs allowed (55, behind only Atlanta). If citing those stats makes me sound like a broken record, then don't complain; the alternative is Oakland not being the best team in the AL, so I'd be happy to type out this paragraph verbatim for five more months. The pitching staff was led by Jesse Chavez, who made two phenomenal starts which led to a pair of A's victories, and Scott Kazmir, who spun an eight-inning gem. Meanwhile, Jim Johnson, Dan Otero and Fernando Abad combined to toss nine scoreless frames out of the bullpen and earn three wins in relief (two of them by Johnson, and both well-earned). The back of the pen blew two ninth-inning leads against the Angels, but overall the pitching was great.
On offense, Craig Gentry got off to a hot start to his Oakland career by going 6-for-19 last week with three walks, three steals, and two instances in which he came inches from bringing back home runs in center field -- he'll eventually make those plays as he gets more settled in. The rest of the lineup blasted nine home runs, tied for second-most in the Majors last week. Even better, eight different players went deep (only Yoenis Cespedes hit two), illustrating the depth and balance in this offensive attack. With those big-picture facts out of the way, here were some of the other story lines from last week.
The Angels have improved
Last year, the Angels were kind of a joke. Their big, bad team of superstars fell apart, and eventually all you had to do was pitch around Mike Trout and hope that you didn't draw a game against C.J. Wilson and you could reasonably hope for a sweep. That is not the case in 2014.
I picked the Angels to finish second in the division, ahead of the Rangers. I sort of did that just to make a bold pick and be contrarian, but I also did it because we're all aware that there is a lot of latent talent on that roster just waiting to get healthy and/or break out. Things haven't fully come together yet, as evidenced by the team's 8-10 record, but they already look more dangerous than they did last year.
Trout is still a boss. Albert Pujols is officially back, with a .936 OPS, an MLB-leading six home runs, and as many walks as strikeouts. Josh Hamilton was on fire before he got hurt, and Kole Calhoun was hitting for power before he went down; both players should return before the All-Star Break. Howie Kendrick is still above-average on both sides of the ball. The offense that scored the seventh-most runs in baseball last year is up to fourth so far this season and could legitimately keep itself in the top five.
Meanwhile, the A's saw how tough Hector Santiago can be when he keeps the ball in the park, and they didn't have to face Wilson or Jered Weaver. I'm not saying Los Angeles is a threat to steal the division just yet -- that bullpen is still a mess, with a 4.92 ERA that ranks 23rd in MLB, and it blew two games against Oakland last week -- but if last week is any indication, then every series against them should be a tough battle. Every time you look up, Trout/Pujols/Ibanez is coming up and you can't help but hold your breath for next three minutes.
The Astros ... have not. Yet.
The Astros have probably improved as well, but we didn't see it last week. It was the same old Lastros -- a starting pitcher getting knocked out in the first inning, a bullpen meltdown in the ninth inning to blow a save and forfeit a gift-wrapped victory, and seven runs scored in three games. The A's drew 18 walks in the series, including 10 in the first contest against a version of Jarrod Cosart that looked as lost as any pitcher I've seen in recent memory. The improvements are coming, in theory, but they haven't shown up on the field yet.
The transition has started, though. Top prospect George Springer emerged from his minor league cocoon this week to show the world what he is capable of. He displayed his power with an opposite-field double off the wall and an almost-homer in the first inning Sunday that went foul by just a couple feet. He showed he can make contact against an elite pitching staff by going 4-for-13 and striking out only three times. He showed speed on a couple of ground balls and on his first Major League stolen base. But I think the most impressive thing he did came on defense, where he made this catch to rob Coco Crisp of what could have been a double.
Josh Reddick is still alive!
Prior to the Astros series, I was going to write an article advocating Brandon Moss as a potential full-time right fielder. Such a move would open up first base for another offensive-minded player, which could pump up the lineup even further. My basis for this argument was that Moss can play a totally decent right field (as opposed to an adventurous first base), which would help mitigate the defensive downgrade from Josh Reddick. This play was going to be the thesis of the article:
Granted, Reddick would have made that catch as well, and then he would have thrown out the retired runner heading back to the dugout for a second out. But just the fact that Moss could be average in the outfield would make him an even more valuable player than he already is.
But then, Reddick played the Astros.
Reddick went 7-for-13 in the three games against Houston with a home run, a double, and only two strikeouts. That line lifted his average from .098 to .204, and his OPS from .293 to .549. It's only three games against one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball, but even the Astros get more than half of their opposing hitters out. Can Reddick build on this breakout performance and re-cement himself as the everyday right fielder?
It ain't over til it's over
The signature trait of this A's team is its ability to stage late-inning comebacks and secure walk-off hits. Whereas in 2011 you could safely turn off the TV if Oakland went down 2-0 in the third inning, these days you know that there is always a legitimate chance that the team could find a way to win no matter how long the odds. Well, I have good news for you: They've still got it.
Coco Crisp already collected the A's first walk-off of 2014 in the fourth game of the season, but the heroics came in bunches last week. On Monday, John Jaso turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 victory with a pinch-hit home run in the ninth inning in Anaheim (see video below). On Tuesday, they were down 6-3 but came back, took the lead, blew it, and then won in the 11th on an RBI double by Josh Donaldson. On Saturday they trailed 3-1 in the ninth against the Astros, but five of their first six batters reached base in the final frame and Reddick ultimately delivered the walk-off hit (see video above). This team never gives up, they never surrender, and they fight down to the final out.
Jesse Chavez is the 1st #Athletics pitcher on the Opening Day roster to allow 1 ER or less and toss 6 IP or more in each of his 1st 4 starts— Oakland Athletics (@Athletics) April 20, 2014
Just like we all expected.
Leading the league! ... in errors.
The Athletics hold an interesting distinction. They have the most wins in the American League, but they have also committed the most errors in the field -- their 20 miscues tie them with the Dodgers and Nationals in the NL, and Texas is the AL runner-up with 17. Josh Donaldson leads the charge with five errors (second in MLB), while Jed Lowrie (expected) and Daric Barton (unexpected) are tied with three apiece. Alberto Callaspo also has three, but two of them came at first base, which I'm told is incredibly hard to learn on the fly (especially if you're 5'9). All of these errors take a toll on the pitching staff, requiring the hurlers to record extra outs and spend more bullets than necessary getting out of innings that have become high-leverage through no fault of their own.
There is good news, though. It turns out that errors are a really dumb way to measure a player's (or team's) value on defense. Ultimate Zone Rating ranks Oakland 17th in defense, just a tick below average. Defensive Runs Saved has the team in 19th, with a value of negative-4 runs. Those are still in the bottom half, but they're a damn sight better than dead last. (Note the usual disclaimers about small-sample defensive metrics.)
And if you need something to make you feel better about Donaldson:
There was a big hullabaloo on Friday when the Astros took exception to Jed Lowrie bunting in the first inning with a seven-run lead. I'm not going to get too deep into this except to say that unwritten rules in baseball are stupid, complaining about other teams trying to win games in a sport with millions or billions of dollars at stake is more unprofessional than "showing someone up," and Bo Porter should focus more on developing the skills of his players than on the actions of his opponents. You're here to entertain us, first and foremost. Your feelings come second, just as the feelings of a salesman come second to the numbers he or she posts in the eyes of the employer.
But really, I think Lowrie summed up the ridiculousness of this episode in his post-game quote:
"I still don't get the reaction, given the situation," Lowrie said Saturday morning. "I know we had scored seven runs, but like I said yesterday, it's a Major League game, you don't know what's going to happen. They were playing a full shift. That's what I don't get. Why is it OK for you to shift down seven runs, but it's not OK for me to bunt? You're still trying to get me out, and you think you have a better opportunity to get me out by shifting. So obviously you're not waving the white flag by shifting."
"At one point they were one swing away from being back in the game. It ended up not being that way, but you never know what's going to happen. ... (Manager Bob Melvin) told me, 'If they promise not to score any runs, then I don't care, but it's the first inning.'"
And let that be the end of it. Quit whining and play the game, or go home and watch it (then you can whine about it, like we do). Jon Morosi of Fox Sports also penned an excellent piece on a similar topic today, and if I'm citing Fox as a news source then you know I must be serious.
Sonny Gray might be a wizard
We saw Sonny's first defensive magic trick in Week 1. He learned a new spell this week, and he cast it perfectly against the Astros.
Obviously, his patronus is an elephant.