One month ago, a scuffling Tigers team flew across the country for an afternoon game on Memorial Day against the Oakland A's. They got their tails handed to them in game one, but found a way to split a four game series out west. Now, the Tigers are playing better baseball and only had to fly halfway across the country.
As has become a tradition anytime these two teams face off, we exchanged questions with Athletics Nation, SB Nation's Oakland A's blog. Head honcho Alex Hall was kind enough to answer our questions. You can see my responses here.
1. Since these two teams last met, the A's have continued to destroy opposing teams. They are an AL-best 50-30 and are underperforming their pythagorean record by four games. Everyone knew that they were good, but did you expect them to be this good?
The better question is if they will continue to be this good. Leading the Majors in record at the end of June is cool, but people only remember who's ahead at the end of September. The offense appears to be for real, and I think that many A's fans expected it to be -- it was fantastic last year and returned every important player this year, with some of them developing and improving. A couple of minor injuries (Kyle Blanks, Josh Reddick) are starting to test their depth, but Stephen Vogt has stepped up as super-sub who can catch and play outfield and Nate Freiman returned to the Majors on Sunday and hit a home run in his first game. (Freiman was batting .277/.361/.493 in Triple-A.)
The pitching, specifically the rotation, has been the surprise and it appears to be the shakiest part of the team's foundation. The guys themselves are solid -- I fully believe in all five of Oakland's starters talent-wise (assuming that Drew Pomeranz will be back before too long and that Brad Mills is a short-term replacement), but Sonny Gray and Jesse Chavez are still getting used to a full-time workload and it's starting to show with some inconsistency. I'm optimistic that Scott Kazmir will stay strong all year, but no one would be shocked if he didn't. And Pomeranz and Tommy Milone are more likely to endure but less likely to dominate. On the other hand, the bullpen is back on its feet and has plenty of replacements in Triple-A, including the imminent return Eric O'Flaherty.
Any team can get ruined quickly by injuries, but some are more likely than others to be affected. If Oakland loses a couple more starters, the team could be in trouble -- Dan Straily is treading water in Triple-A and then there's nothing in the cupboard after that. If a hitter or a reliever goes down, the A's can probably withstand that. But talent-wise, this group appears to be for real and if they all stay healthy this team could legitimately win 95 games.
2. Josh Donaldson was a surefire MVP candidate a month ago, but is hitting just .184/.221/.296 in June. Who has stepped up in his place?
Donaldson lost his way after the Manny Machado Game and has only partially found his way back. He's stabilized the drop in batting average, but he isn't hitting for a lot of power lately. He seemed to take those struggles into the field with him, too, as he made a ton of throwing errors and may have even cost the team a couple of games with his arm. That, too, is mostly in the past.
In the meantime, Yoenis Cespedes has picked up the slack and has started to show hints of taking the next step in his development toward stardom. Cespedes has been getting a ton of national attention lately, and he's the kind of guy who seems to rise to the biggest occasions in the biggest situations in front of the biggest crowds. He batted .327/.373/.505 in June with four homers and 18 RBI while continuing to throw out runners from left field (now MLB-leading 10 outfield assists on the season). He will almost certainly be an All-Star in July, and he has an outside chance to start (close fourth in voting at last update).
Coco Crisp has been on a hot streak in the leadoff spot and has virtually quit striking out. Derek Norris continues to alternate hitting 1.000+ OPS's and then getting physically beaten by the catcher position -- he's been hit in the head by backswings in three different games this season and left Friday's contest with back tightness, but he's also batting .349/.429/.628 in 50 PA's in June. There are enough good hitters in the order that even when one or two of them struggle, there is enough firepower left to keep things warm.
3. Who is Brad Mills and why is he starting on Tuesday?
Brad Mills showed up in Oakland with a resume that included things like "can throw a ball with left hand" and "once got paid to pitch" and "has active pulse." The A's acquired him from the Brewers for literally one dollar, so I now call him Buck Mills. He's 29 years old with little apparent upside, but he had a 1.56 ERA in Triple-A and was striking out four batters for every walk, and those kinds of things get Billy Beane's attention when he's desperately scrambling for an injury replacement (for Pomeranz).
And wouldn't you know it, he's worked out alright so far. His control was shaky in his first outing, but he didn't allow a run until the seventh his next time out (and didn't walk anybody) and the team won both of his starts. His fastball tops out in the high-80s and is more likely to run around 86-88 throughout the course of a game, but he has a big-time curve and a decent changeup. He's probably not a long-term option unless Beane fully sold his soul to the baseball devil this year, but he's filling in quite nicely so far. He also might get destroyed by Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez if they aren't fooled by his curve. I'll just be impressed if he can get Torii Hunter out, since that would make him the first A's pitcher in history to do so (citation needed).
4. Speaking of starting pitching, four of your starters -- Scott Kazmir, Drew Pomeranz, Jesse Chavez, and Sonny Gray -- have an ERA of 3.20 or better. Which guy would you want on the mound facing Justin Verlander in Game 7 of the ALCS -- let's face it, it's going to happen -- and why?
Give me Kazmir. Gray is probably the best we've got and of course he succeeded against Verlander last October (once, at least), but his aforementioned inconsistency will worry me if it continues throughout the summer. Young pitchers, even ones who you expect to be great, will have growing pains; this doesn't mean that I'm doubting his talent or his future. It's just that this is his first full season in the Majors and I'd feel safer with the more experienced veteran in the biggest October start.
Kazmir has rounded out as this year's Bartolo Colon. He throws strikes, he gets through games efficiently, and until his disaster start in New York against the Mets last week he'd been amazingly consistent. I have a feeling like he will be the ace leading the A's through the playoffs, which is a position that I formed a couple of minutes after reading this question and reserve the right to change as the situation develops.
5. Your closer, Sean Doolittle, has 56 strikeouts and just one walk this season. Our closer, Joe Nathan, has four outings with more than one walk this season. What is it like having a competent closer and knowing that the game is over in the ninth inning?
It feels amazing. Doolittle just went through one of the great relief stretches in MLB history. He retired 25 straight hitters before giving up a double to Giancarlo Stanton on Saturday (acceptable failure) and was just past 26 scoreless frames before Casey McGehee knocked in Stanton with a bloop single (less acceptable, but McGehee is hitting over .300). To illustrate the feeling, here is the answer I gave Amazin' Avenue before the Mets series, when they asked me for a scouting report on what Doo throws:
"First, he throws strike one, probably a fastball on a corner. Then the catcher throws the ball back. Then he throws strike two, usually a foul ball the other way on a heater that the batter didn't quite catch up on. The umpire gets a new ball and sends it to the mound. Then he throws strike three, likely on some high heat that the batter swung straight through. Then he screams a bloody war cry as his majestic, gingery beard flows in the wind. Every so often he throws a slider instead, just to mix things up, but not often."
6. Which ball-magnet catcher takes more punishment this week: Alex Avila or Derek Norris?
I'll go with Avila, because I don't yet know if Norris will be playing. As previously mentioned, he left Friday's game with a sore back and didn't play again in Miami, even though a lefty started on Sunday. There's no definitive word yet on his status and there are three right-handers starting for the Tigers, so we'll just have to see who is in the lineup when it's announced Monday. It'll probably be Vogt catching and John Jaso as the DH. Jaso will somehow get hit by a foul ball while standing in the on-deck circle.