The second half of the season is upon us. The Oakland Athletics enter the latter portion of the campaign with the best record in baseball, at 59-36. After the Angels and their 57 wins, the next-highest total is 54 by the Dodgers. The A's still have that plus-145 run differential, although it has been fairly stagnant for weeks now; only the Angels are within 90 runs of that total, at plus-89. The A's are second in scoring (behind the Angels), and tied for first in fewest runs allowed (with the Mariners). No one can touch the AL West right now.
These are the expected pitching matchups for the series:
Fri: Jeff Samardzija vs. Chris Tillman
Sat: Jason Hammel vs. Wei-Yin Chen
Sun: Sonny Gray vs. Kevin Gausman
The A's have reset their rotation, and the two new trade acquisitions will take the first two turns. Shark looked good in his first two starts, but Hammel struggled in his debut. Tillman is a right-hander with a 4.11 ERA (96 ERA+) and poor peripheral stats. Chen is a finesse lefty who has dominated the A's in four career starts -- 1.00 ERA in 27 innings, with 16 hits, 25 strikeouts, and eight walks. However, he's only got a 4.15 ERA so far (95 ERA+), and he's giving up a ton of homers; the A's will need to swing the bat to beat him because he won't give in and issue free passes (1.6 walks per nine innings). Gausman quieted the A's the last time he faced them with seven innings of one-run ball. The Orioles are in first place in the AL East, with a four-game lead over the Blue Jays and a five-game advantage over the Yankees. Oh, and Manny Machado is here.
1. Chris Davis is hitting for power (15 homers) but not much else (.199 batting average). Has he lost any playing time, or are the Orioles showing full faith in him to overcome his struggles? And at what point do you start to worry that he will never repeat his success from the last couple years, or has that point already passed?
SF: Davis has not lost any playing time. He's been given a day off here and there, but that's it. And honestly, there really isn't anyone on the bench that would be worth replacing Davis with, even in his depleted state. Maybe Delmon Young (at DH with Steve Pearce at first and Nelson Cruz in left), but I have more faith that Davis will get it together than I do desire to see Young play every single day.
I have already begun to worry that he will never repeat his success from the last couple years, and I'm glad that the Orioles didn't do what many fans were clamoring for this off season, which was an sign him to an extension. Davis has been trying to work around a sore oblique for most of the season, so I can rationalize his loss of power to that, maybe. But a lot of his drop in batting average seems to come from his inability to compensate for the shift that teams have been playing him in. If you look at his spray chart for this year, most of his outs have come in shallow right field, balls that look like a hit off of his bat but which end up going right to the second baseman. Of course, he's also swinging helplessly at pitches he can't reach a lot this year, so who knows. He doesn't even look like the same player, but the player I saw from 2012-2013 looked legit. It's hard to imagine he's gone forever.
2. Manny Machado is obviously a hot topic in Oakland for this series (expect to hear booing). What is the fan perception of him on the other side of the aisle? Were his antics in June endearing because of the emotion he showed, or annoying because he sort of embarrassed himself on a national stage? Or is this just a case where you unconditionally love the players on your team through their highs and lows, even if you'd dislike them if they wore another uniform?
Machado's actions in the last series with Oakland weren't in the least bit endearing. I can't think of one instance where I saw an Orioles fan say anything like that. They were immature and an embarrassment to both Machado and the Orioles. That being said, of course, Orioles fans have generally forgiven Manny and welcomed him back after his suspension. I think that's for a few reasons.
Orioles fans have seen Manny grow up. We watched him from short season Aberdeen up to Double-A Bowie before he was promoted to the majors. We have never, ever seen anything from Manny like what happened that weekend. The closest I've seen is him giving a little lip to an umpire after striking out, but even that fell within the jerky range of normal behavior. So I think that while his antics were terrible and deserved punishment, I've never seen a pattern of that kind of behavior from him. He's never been a problem player, and one (albeit weekend-long) event doesn't change that.
Another thing is that I think the Orioles fans saw something a little different than A's fans and maybe some other baseball fans from around the country. His blow-up at Josh Donaldson at third base was absurd and his bat-throwing was immature, rash, and dangerous. But I don't know many Orioles fans that thought Machado was maliciously attacking Derek Norris with his back swing, and that seemed to be precisely what some non-Orioles fans thought. Edited videos of Machado laughing after the incident were running rampant, and it was outrageous. Manny acted dumb and Manny behaved badly, but Manny is not a cartoon villain.
And finally, since Oakland left town Machado has hit .315/.357/.519. And since returning from his five-game suspension he is hitting .484/.515/.774. That'll cure a lot of ills. We have a saying at Camden Chat that we don't mind if a guy eats kitten tacos as long as he plays well. Depending on how well he plays, we may even be willing to prepare said kitten tacos. I think that's true for most teams to an extent, but I also don't think that Machado has reached kitten taco territory yet. Hopefully he never will. (Editor's Note: Lock up your Craig Gentry, just to be safe.)
3. Journeyman Steve Pearce has found a home in left field for the Orioles and is hitting like crazy -- .316/.383/.567. What can you tell us about this surprising performer? Do his peripheral stats (and/or your eyeball test) suggest that he can continue this success, or is he just a temporary bonus who you enjoy while you can (like Stephen Vogt hitting .358)?
SF: Steve Pearce is everything you never knew that you always wanted. He brings his own bowling ball to charity bowling events, he's the only Oriole who can beat J.J. Hardy at ping pong, he's the guy who got the short end of the stick in the most Astros GIF ever. He is the hero of Birdland, where many citizens declare their loyalty to #TeamSteve.
Anyway, Pearce is likely a temporary bonus that we will enjoy while we can. But he was a highly rated prospect with the Pirates for a time, so maybe he's just a late bloomer. Whatever the case, his hitting looks legit to the eye test. His BABIP is higher than normal, but his line drive percentage is way up, which could fuel an increase. His HR/FB% is almost 17, which is much too high for him to sustain. But he just looks locked in all the time. Right now, Steve Pearce is the guy you want at the plate when the Orioles need a big hit. And no, it hasn't stopped feeling weird to say that.
LOOK OUT BEHIND YOU, STEVE!! -- Photo credit: Rob Carr
4. What's the catching situation in Baltimore with Matt Wieters out for the season?
SF: Most of the catching has been done by longtime O's farmhand Caleb Joseph. He can't hit, but he throws base runners out like crazy. He's also a fan favorite just because he's been in the minors so long, and because he once gave an interview early in his minor league career in which he said that he thinks he could make the big leagues, because even Matt Wieters needs a back up.
Also on the team is Nick Hundley, who came to the Orioles from the Padres at the end of May. He started off slow, but has gotten a few clutch hits that we'll maybe remember him by when he's gone in a few years.
5. Adam Jones gets tons of awards, and among them have been multiple Gold Gloves (including the last two years). Do you think he's the best defensive center fielder in the AL? And if not, is he at least close enough that those Gold Gloves were deserved?
SF: Adam Jones is a very good baseball player who I think doesn't get as much credit as he deserves amongst Orioles fans. But no, I don't think he's the best defensive center fielder in the AL. I think he's a good fielder (although generally advanced stats don't like him much), but he doesn't always get great jumps, leading to catches that look spectacular because he has to race and leap to get them, which leads to highlights on SportsCenter. All three years that he was awarded the Gold Glove, there was in my opinion someone more deserving by a clear margin.
I will say that I think he has been much improved this season and seems to be in better position to make catches than in years prior. It's nice to see. Now stop making me talk bad about one of the best players on the team!
6. Kevin Gausman threw a gem against the A's in June and will start in the finale on Sunday. Given that Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, and Miguel Gonzalez have put up average ERAs with poor FIPs to back them up, and Ubaldo Jimenez is on the DL, is the 23-year-old Gausman (3.29 ERA, 3.56 FIP) already the staff ace just seven starts into his rookie season?
SF: I think that if you ask people on the Orioles who the staff ace is, they'll tell you Chris Tillman. But it's clear that the most talented pitcher on the staff is Kevin Gausman. They've been kind of running him back and forth between the minors and majors this year (in an attempt to control innings pitched or service time or who knows what else), but the word is that he'll be a fixture in the rotation from here on out. That excites me, because the Orioles need him. The rest of the rotation is capable of putting up a good start on any given day, but Gausman makes me feel good about the game going in every single time. That's nice to have.
Plus, he's a four eyes, which makes my husband happy.
7. Zach Britton is lighting it up as the closer -- 1.30 ERA and 15 of 17 saves converted. We've seen him as a starter, but what is the scouting report on Britton The Closer? That is, what, if anything, does he do differently as a short reliever?
SF: Zach Britton was another one of those highly touted starting pitchers who couldn't put it all together and really only made the team out of spring training because he was out of options. But he has looked like an entirely different pitcher since he became a full-time reliever. Like many pitchers, his velocity went up when he went to the pen, which means that he is a lefty pitcher who can throw a 97 mph sinking fastball. It's sick.
One thing that he struggled with as a starter was his control, putting up a 10.1 percent walk rate in games that he started. This season that's down to 7.8 percent. It's hard to say why. Maybe he figured something out and would have better control over longer starts (he started the season as a multi-inning reliever with no problems). Or maybe it's just better that batters don't see him more than once. But whatever the reason that he's been able to command his pitches and throw strikes, it has turned him into a force out of the bullpen.
8. Can you please write us either a haiku or a limerick about Nelson Cruz, who is one off of the MLB lead in homers with 28?
Nelson Cruz hits a lot of home runs
It's no surprise, just check out his guns
But what's caught me off guard
Witnessed right at the Yard
Is his love for his teammates and fun
Case in point:
Thank you, Stacey, for participating in the Q&A!
The series starts tonight. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m., Samardzija vs. Tillman. The Orioles have last year's home run king (Davis), this year's almost-MLB-leader in homers (Cruz, one behind Jose Abreu), and a guy who competed in last week's Home Run Derby (Jones). Of course, the A's had two guys compete in said Derby and one of them won it, so it's entirely possible that we could see some dingers this weekend.