The Oakland Athletics are often lauded for their quality pitching, but we here at Athletics Nation know that it's the offense that really makes this team tick. Granted, the pitching has been phenomenal, but you have to weigh that against the pitcher's park that they call their home and the defense that plays behind them, which ranks fourth in MLB by both Fangraphs' measure and by Defensive Runs Saved. The lineup, on the other hand, leads the Majors in scoring by a wide margin in that same run-suppressing environment.
The even crazier part of this team is that they are scoring all these runs despite some major slumps by key contributors. Josh Donaldson went on a high-profile cold streak in June and July, Jed Lowrie lost his groove in late April, and Josh Reddick hasn't been particularly good since his monster first half in 2012. Donaldson and Reddick made up value with their defense, of course, and Lowrie's struggles were partially masked by the fact that he plays shortstop, which is traditionally a glove-first position. But the fact remained that one-third of the everyday lineup was doing absolutely nothing for long stretches this season.
Well, there's good news, Athletics Nation. All three of those hitters are now on fire. In the good way, where people dump a bucket of Gatorade on you for your heroics, not the bad way, where people dump a bucket of Gatorade on you to douse the flames and save your life. Let's take a look at each player to get a better grasp on where they are at this exact moment; after all, season stats are a good way of gauging a guy's true ability but sometimes a bad indicator of the current fortunes of a streaky hitter.
It's not secret that Donaldson was struggling the last several weeks. After the Manny Machado Tag Game on June 6, Donnie was batting .280/.373/.552 with 17 homers in 60 games. His walk-to-strikeout ratio (34-to-55) was a bit down from last year but still perfectly fine.
Then, something went wrong in his head. Maybe he was flustered by Machado, maybe he was distracted by his impending All-Star debut, or maybe baseball players just go cold now and then. Over the next month, he batted .144/.186/.225 with two home runs in 28 games. He walked only five times, against 24 strikeouts. He was lost. Even his defense began to slip, which is a great sign that a hitter is pressing.
But hey, whaddya know. Turns out that Donnie is probably good after all, and that the fluke was probably the cold month and not the two calendar years of greatness. He has rebounded to hit .308/.393/.538 with three homers in his last 14 games, with seven walks and only six strikeouts. One of those homers was a huge walk-off blast to snatch victory from the claws of defeat.
He's making contact again, he's hitting for power again, he's driving in runs again, and his plate discipline is better than ever. He's gotten a hit in 12 of those 14 games, and failed to reach base in only one of them. And, although there's a fair amount of Astros and Rangers in those last 14 games, half of them also came against the Giants, Mariners, and Orioles, including Tim Hudson, Felix Hernandez, and Hisashi Iwakuma. As two-week samples go, this one is perfectly legit.
The drought is over, y'all. The Bringer of Rain is back.
Lowrie's slump went on a bit longer than Donnie's did. He actually started the season strong, with a .292/.434/.449 line through his first 25 games. To that point, he owned a deed to the strike zone and wouldn't let anyone else in, with 20 walks and only 12 strikeouts. He looked like he wanted the Silver Slugger that was ridiculously given to J.J. Hardy in 2013.
But then, on April 28, his deed to the strike zone was foreclosed. Over his next 56 games, he batted .185/.251/.270, with 19 walks and 38 strikeouts. That's not a bad BB:K mark on its own, but consider that he basically went from two walks for every strikeout to two strikeouts for every walk. That's a huge swing (and a miss). His OPS was .883 on April 27, but it bottomed out at .634 on July 4.
But then, Lowrie strung together five straight two-hit games, and it was off to the races. All of the horrible BABIP luck he'd been getting all year turned around and everything he made contact with began falling for hits. Over his last 18 games, starting July 5, he's hitting .357/.378/.514. At first glance, his plate discipline doesn't seem to have improved -- three walks to six strikeouts, the same 0.50 ratio he had going during his slump. However, a deeper look shows that he's simply making more contact; during the slump, he was whiffing in 16.2 percent of his plate appearances, but during his current heater he's only striking out 8 percent of the time. In other words, he's cut his K's in half.
It seems that the answer for Lowrie was to become more aggressive. Note that his batted ball profile (liners, grounders, flies) is virtually identical to the excellent profile he put together last year, and then consider that his .243 BABIP is likely to creep back up toward the .290 mark he posted last year, or at least his .260 career mark (that he put together mostly before he started to hit liners 23 percent of the time).
And then there's Reddick. Unlike the previous two players, his struggles have spanned multiple seasons. In the first half of 2012, he put himself on the map with a line of .268/.348/.532, 20 home runs, and about one walk for every two strikeouts. Then, in the second half, he plummeted to .215/.256/.391, knocked only a dozen homers, and cut his walk rate in half while maintaining the strikeouts. He followed that up in 2013 by batting .226/.307/.379, again with a dozen homers but this time in 114 games. The only positive that came from that campaign was that he improved his plate discipline, mostly be reducing his strikeout rate.
There were always excuses. Maybe the league just adjusted to him in 2012 and it was his turn to adjust back. Maybe his early April wrist injury messed up his '13 campaign and he never fully recovered from it all season long. Maybe he was over-correcting by trying to become more selective at the plate, and he needed to stick with the aggressive approach that brought him success in '12. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I was certainly one of the apologists, and I still am.
But then he started 2014 by hitting .214/.279/.339 in the first two months (50 games), with only three homers, and with three strikeouts for every walk. The average still wasn't there. The power was even more gone than before. And the gains in plate discipline had mostly vanished. Then he went on the DL with a knee injury, and it was easy to look at that as a blessing in disguise -- a way to get his struggling bat out of the lineup and try out someone else without having to remove him from the organization entirely. Stick him back in the oven until he's done, as it were.
Well, if he was under-cooked before, he's not anymore. He came back from his DL stint and went 5-for-11 with a triple and a couple walks in four games. Then he went on the DL again, as the knee wasn't fully healed. Then he came back again! And adding up all of his 11 games since that first trip to the shelf, he's hitting .317/.410/.600, with five extra-base hits (including a mammoth homer), three walks, and only four strikeouts. It's the smallest of all of the samples, but it's also the most encouraging in a way. We were waiting all year last season to see Reddick string together a good week, and now he's done it. Is it possible that he can return to being a productive hitter, even if he'll never be his first-half 2012 self again?
All of these encouraging numbers come in tiny sample sizes. We're talking about 14, 18, and 11 games, respectively. But we're also talking about two legitimately good hitters and one who has shown the capacity to be good before, so it's not the same as getting excited over Stephen Vogt coming out of nowhere to post a monster month. No matter how much you believe in him, you expect Vogt to regress at some point and stop hitting .350, or even .300. But with these guys, it's the opposite; you expect them to regress up from their uncharacteristic slumps, and that's exactly what they've done these last couple weeks. And again, particularly with Donnie and Lowrie, those stretches against the Astros and Rangers are offset by games against Felix and Huddy and other strong opponents.
Don't get too caught up in the specific numbers; they are just here to prove a point. The A's offense was starting to slow down a bit in June and July, and that was partly due to the struggles of some key hitters. Those hitters are back, for now, and with them on board the offense has come back to life. This is still the best team in baseball, and the best offense in baseball. And now it's noticeably better than it was a month ago.