Ben Zobrist's time with the Oakland A's has not gone as anyone involved would have hoped. Last winter, the A's made a win-now move to acquire him, mainly at the cost of their top minor league prospect. They knew that Zobrist was a one-year rental, and they banked on him either helping them make a playoff push or returning value back at the trade deadline. He got off to a perfectly decent start over the first two weeks of the season, but then he tore his meniscus and missed a month. Now, in the middle of June, he's finally starting to produce.
Here's a breakdown of Zobrist's performance as the year has progressed, with endpoints of varying relevance:
First 14 games: .240/.304/.400, 1 HR, 5 BB, 3 Ks (in 56 PAs)
-- missed 29 games with knee injury --
17 games post-injury: .169/.258/.271, 1 HR, 7 BB, 9 Ks (in 66 PAs)
Last 8 games: .407/.500/.852, 2 HR, 5 BB, 1 K (in 32 PAs)
Zobrist wasn't killing the ball before his injury, but he was doing fine and his plate discipline was as good as ever. He was slow to get going again upon his return, with a lot of weak contact and an increase in strikeouts. But ever since going 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles in the finale of the recent Angels series in Anaheim, he's been absolutely on fire. In those eight games (seven of them starts), he's had the following performances (not specifically in this order):
- 3 multi-hit games, each featuring a pair of extra-base hits
- a game with 4 walks and a hit in 5 PAs
- a game with a 2-run homer in a 1-run win
- a game with a hit and a run in a 1-run win
- an 0-fer, but at least he walked once and scored
My purpose is not to draw any grand conclusions about why Zobrist is hitting well or how long it will last. It's just to point out that the A's paid a premium for a star player, then didn't get much of anything out of their investment for the first third of the season, and now are finally reaping a reward. Zobrist was consistently healthy and excellent for six straight seasons, and then as soon as he got to the 2015 A's he stopped being healthy and he stopped being excellent. Now he seems to be back on track, at least for now.
Is Zobrist back, or is he just hot for a couple weeks to tease us? Can he go big enough to help the A's back into the playoff race, or are we just rooting for him to maximize his trade value at this point? We'll have to wait and find out, just as we'll have to hope that his uncharacteristically shaky defense is a fluke rather than a sign of his age (34).
Zobrist isn't the only hot A's hitter, though. Here are a few more.
Lawrie was another major offseason acquisition, as the main piece in the Josh Donaldson trade. When Donaldson got off to a blistering start and Lawrie struggled on both sides of the ball, second-guessing was impossible to avoid. Fortunately, baseball seasons last more than two months, and Lawrie is showing why he was brought here.
After going 0-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts on May 31, Lawrie's numbers were ugly, but he's looking much better in June.
Apr/May: .266/.294/.372, 4 HR, 8 doubles, 6 BB, 57 Ks (in 199 PAs)
June: .365/.420/.571, 2 HR, 7 doubles, 5 BB, 13 Ks (in 69 PAs)
He's gotten more and more fortunate on batted balls, which accounts for some of the batting average, but he's also hitting for a lot more power. The real key to his improvement, though, and the thing that we should be focused on in terms of his future outlook, is this:
April: 3.3% BB, 29.7% Ks
May: 2.8% BB, 27.8% Ks
June: 7.2% BB, 18.8% Ks
Career: 6.2% BB, 17.9% Ks
Those are the percentages of his plate appearances that end in walks or strikeouts. He was whiffing like crazy to start the year, and that was uncharacteristic for a guy who had made an average amount of contact throughout his young career. But his June plate discipline numbers are back to his career norms, so hopefully that's an indication that he was just struggling for those first two months rather than showing us that the league had figured him out. This year's bad sample is still three times larger than the good sample, so there's still work to be done for Lawrie to prove to us that his resurgence is real, but now he's hitting .291/.327/.422 with a 108 OPS+ and his defense is visibly improved, seemingly up to the excellent levels that were advertised to us upon his acquisition.
And don't look now, but Lawrie had a far better June than Donaldson, who has cooled off to the tune of a .278/.341/.405 line this month -- around 250 OPS points lower than Lawrie. Donaldson is still having another MVP-caliber year and will still almost certainly finish with better numbers, but at least Lawrie is showing that the A's didn't give him up for nothing. (Bonus: Kendall Graveman, also acquired in that deal, has a 2.27 ERA and 3.3 K/BB rate in six starts since returning to the Majors. His ERA+ for the season overall is 97.)
Vogt finally went through a rough patch, particularly in the first half of June, but he's gotten back on track over the last week. In six starts and a pinch-hitting appearance, he is 11-for-24 (.458/.500/.833) with 2 homers, 3 doubles, 11 RBI, and three walks. Included in that stretch is a pair of 3-hit games, another 2-hit game, a grand slam, and no 0-fers. Vogt has been the A's best hitter for most of the year, and it's good to see him swinging a hot bat again.
Hey, I'm as surprised as you are. After May 27, Fuld made only two starts in a two-week span before returning to the lineup somewhat regularly on June 10. His average for the season had dropped below the Mendoza Line. But in his last 10 games, six of them starts, he has batted 8-for-20 with a couple doubles, a couple steals, and four walks. In two of those games, he reached base to spark game-winning ninth-inning rallies in one-run victories. It's nothing Earth-shattering, but it's nice when the No. 9 hitter in your lineup is contributing. Fuld doesn't usually post big numbers, but he's capable of getting really hot for short stretches and we're seeing one of them right now, however long it may last.
... and the rest
Billy Burns could easily have been on this list, as he's on his second straight 12-game hitting streak. By that I mean that he went on a 12-game streak, then had a single 0-for-5 day, and now is on another 12-gamer; in other words, he's hit in 24 of his last 25 games, and 11 of those games have included multiple hits. On this particular streak, he's hitting .377 with an .858 OPS and five steals, and over the full 25-game stretch he's at .345 with an .841 OPS. Can he keep it up? Nico just wrote an excellent post on that topic.
Billy Butler took a couple days out of the lineup the weekend before last, and since then he's gone 7-for-17 with a homer and two walks. On one hand, a couple of those hits were a bit lucky. On the other hand, he was coming off a 9-for-59 stretch, so let's take what we can get at this point. I'm not really any more excited about Butler than I was two weeks ago, but at least he's showing some signs of life. The best news is that he's no longer the everyday cleanup hitter, a role he wouldn't be well-suited for even if he was hitting like he used to in his prime; he's been batting fifth or sixth since returning to the lineup.
After sitting for four straight games, Eric Sogard has started the last seven contests. He's doing absolutely nothing noteworthy, which is good because "boring" is his ceiling and noteworthy will usually mean "his stats made me throw up on my keyboard." But nope, he's at .276 over the last week, with a .689 OPS and three multi-hit games. Totally, wonderfully boring.
In six starts since leaving the friendly confines of Fenway Park, Josh Phegley is 4-for-19 ... but those four hits were a pair of doubles and a pair of homers. That powerful line comes with only a pair of strikeouts (plus a pair of walks!), and as long as Phegley keeps making lots of contact it seems like he has enough pop to get his share of extra-base hits. He continues to profile as a low-average, low-OBP, high-power hitter -- his isolated slugging percentage is up to .207 for the season. And as a bonus, his rate of nailing basestealers is up to 43 percent, so he's got at least one strong skill on both sides of the ball.
Marcus Semien doesn't have a multi-hit game in June, and he hasn't homered since May 12. Pick your endpoint -- since that last homer, he's hitting .217 (.569 OPS) in 36 games, and in June he's at .197 with just one RBI. His OPS+ for the season is exactly 100, so he's teetering on the edge of league-average. The good news is that his plate discipline is still fine (Ks have increased, but so have walks) and that his defense has already visibly improved since Ron Washington was brought in to help.
Mark Canha was swinging a hot bat but then was left out of the lineup for several days, a maddening trend I expect will probably continue until someone on the team figures out that he isn't a platoon player. He should honestly be starting over Butler at this point. He's got 0-fers in three of his last four games but he's only played in four of the last nine; I wonder what kind of groove he could get into if he played everyday. He's still third on the team in homers despite being just eighth in plate appearances. Meanwhile, Ike Davis is 2-for-10 in three starts since his return from the DL, and Max Muncy has a double in each of his last three starts. Muncy will probably get a lot less playing time now that Ike is back.
Since last homering on June 12, Josh Reddick is 7-for-38 (.184) in nine games, with no walks and only one extra-base hit. I am zero percent worried. Everyone has a bad week sometimes, and this one is truly just a case of picking a meaningless endpoint in his game logs. Just as Vogt recovered after a brief swoon, Reddick surely will too -- after all, he's still not striking out, with only three Ks in those 38 PAs.
Oakland is sixth in MLB in runs per game, and in June they rank fourth. The lineup, though inconsistent at times, has been a massive strength overall. Between that, plus the best starter's ERA in the AL and an 11-8 record so far in June, the A's are doing everything they can to at least get out of the cellar.