This week, the top two teams in the American League will square off in Oakland. The Tigers start their second west coast swing of the season against the high-powered Athletics, continuing a series that has blossomed into a friendly rivalry given the teams' recent playoff matchups.
To get the lowdown on this year's version of the A's -- who have also adopted the power of the Zubaz, to some extent -- we spoke with Alex Hall, the newly crowned editor-in-chief of Athletics Nation. Alex also asked us a few questions, which can be seen here.
1. A lot has been made of the Tigers' hot start, but the A's have arguably been better in 2014. Their run differential is in the stratosphere and nobody scores on them. What has been the key to their success so far?
The A's pored through every possible statistical edge and undervalued commodity, and they finally settled on this super-secret strategy: score the most runs in the AL, and allow the fewest runs in the AL. That has really done the trick so far.
On offense, the keys have been working long at-bats using patient hitting approaches (both to draw walks and knock out opposing starters), gaining the platoon advantage whenever possible, and stringing together big innings. The A's can fail with runners in scoring position just like any other team, and they can still have a game in which they fail to get a big hit (like the first two in Toronto over the weekend). But when they rally, they sometimes put four, five, seven runs on the board all at once, and suddenly the game looks like a blowout.
As for pitching, the A's haven't been getting eight- and nine-inning gems from their rotation, but they're getting a solid six-inning start practically every day -- their 31 quality starts in 48 games are tied for third in the major leagues. The starters are keeping the team in games, the bullpen is mostly filling in the gaps, and the lineup is making sure that the run support keeps flowing. I still think that the offense is the strength of this team, not the pitching.
2. Tigers fans are familiar with Sonny Gray after his excellent performance in last year's ALDS. What has he done to take the next step in 2014, and is it sustainable?
I don't know that he's changed much, other than maybe using his changeup slightly more. This is pretty much who he was last year, and this is who I expect he will continue to be. He's got the heat, he's got the plus curveball, and he knows how to use them -- he can also change the look of the curve such that pitch trackers label it as a slider. I'd like to see him lower the walks just a little bit, but I also think he will be one of those pitchers who consistently outperforms his FIP by keeping the homers (and, to a lesser extent, the hits) down below league-average levels. (At the moment, his ERA is 1.99 and his FIP is 3.30; split the difference and say he can keep his ERA in the 2.50-to-3.00 range.)
3. Jesse Chavez has seemingly come out of nowhere to put up a 2.61 ERA in his first 10 starts. Did A's fans expect this? What can we expect from Chavez for the rest of the season?
Nope. When we got him in 2012, the general consensus was "what the hell is Beane thinking?" He looked terrible and seemingly had no redeeming qualities, but Beane stuck with him. In 2013, he began to emerge as a reliever as he regained control of his pitches and stopped walking everybody, and his breakout performance came in June '13 when he recorded 17 outs at the end of an 18-inning win against the Yankees. At that point, some of us began to wonder if he had a future as a starter. When that idea came to fruition in spring training, and then injuries led to an opportunity for Chavez, AN's reaction was cautious optimism. I was about as high as anyone on Chavez entering the season, and even I wouldn't have predicted this level of success two months ago.
Will it continue? Hell if I know. I think his talent is for real, as he now has an impressive arsenal, which is highlighted by a cutter and a curve. He knows how to mix speeds and locations, and he could definitely settle in as a legit No.3 starter. The thing that worries me is his workload. He's never thrown more than 130 innings in a professional season, and I do worry about how he'll hold up in September and (hopefully) October.
4. Once again, the A's have one of the best bullpens in baseball. However, closer Jim Johnson lost his job earlier this season after a pair of 50 save seasons for the Orioles in 2012 and '13. How is the back end of the bullpen shaping up now that Johnson is out of the picture?
Although the bullpen has put up good overall numbers, it has really struggled to hold late leads. The A's lead the AL with eight blown saves, including five by Luke Gregerson. No matter how dominant everyone looks, when it gets to the ninth inning, it doesn't matter who is called upon -- something always seems to go wrong. It's been the only consistent, glaring problem on the team.
Johnson is as far into the doghouse as a pitcher could be. He's being saved for low-leverage situations as the team tries to fix whatever is wrong with him. In his stead, Sean Doolittle has been named the closer, and his 32-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio instills a lot of confidence in me. Dan Otero and Fernando Abad have been fantastic, and Fernando Rodriguez is making his mark with Ryan Cook on the DL. Oakland expects to add Eric O'Flaherty sometime before the All-Star Break as well.
5. Josh Donaldson was arguably baseball's biggest surprise in 2013, putting up 7.7 WAR and finishing 4th in the AL MVP vote. This year, he seems to be out to prove that it was no fluke. Is he the team's MVP again so far this year?
The team's MVP? He's been the MVP of the AL so far, and it's not even close. He leads the league in bWAR, and trails only Mike Trout in fWAR. He's actually been better than last year -- he's increased his power (10 homers already after 24 last year), and he trails only Jason Heyward in defensive runs saved among all MLB defenders. So, he gets on base and hits for power as the No. 3 hitter in the league's best offense, and he rates as one of the three-to-five best defenders in all of baseball at any position, all while playing for a first-place team who leads the baseball in wins. Sounds like an MVP to me. He's even among the league leaders in RBI, just in case. Amazingly, he's a good bet to exceed last year's WAR total.
6. Yoenis Cespedes had a monster rookie season in 2012, but struggled throughout most of the 2013 season. This year seems to be an average of the two extremes. What should we expect out of him going forward?
Cespedes is showing that last year was a sophomore slump. There were three major problems last year -- his plate discipline went down the tubes, his average plummeted, and he didn't hit for any more power than he did in '12 to make up for it. This year, he's addressed the plate discipline, with a career-high walk rate and a career-low strikeout rate. That improved approach has allowed him to pick better pitches to drive, and his isolated slugging has inched upwards to a career high. The only thing left is that batting average, which is still hovering around .250 thanks to a minuscule BABIP.
Given how hard he hits balls, and the speed which allows him to beat out infield hits, I can't fathom why he would have a consistently low BABIP. If he can get his average up toward .280-to-.300, he can go from being an intimidating hitter to a straight-up All-Star. Will that happen? That remains to be seen. All I know is that the power is for real and he will always get his homers, even if not much happens in his other at-bats.
7. Compared to our Tigers, the A's had a relatively quiet offseason. Who was the team's most important acquisition and why?
I'll go with Drew Pomeranz. The A's picked him up as a buy-low, former-prospect reclamation project in exchange for the perpetually injured Brett Anderson. Well, Anderson is already back on the 60-day DL and has only one more year of (expensive) team control after this one, while Pomeranz has made three starts for Oakland without allowing a run in any of them. With starting pitching depth at a premium, adding another reliably healthy arm to the mix has been a lifesaver. The fact that he's been good so far has been an even bigger plus. And as his arm stretches out and he's able to go six and seven innings when he's on his game, Pomeranz could go a long way toward reaching the level of success that was expected of him when he went fifth overall in 2010.
8. The Tigers have gotten the better of the A's in the playoffs recently, including a pair of excellent series in the past two seasons. If current trends hold and these two face off in this year's ALCS, who wins?
I won't know because I will have my head buried in a large pile of infield dirt. I sat through the last two Game 5's at the Coliseum, and I don't know if I can see the team go down like that again. All I ask is that if you beat us in the ALDS again this year, please sweep us. Don't let me get my hopes up.
That said, the offense has gotten better and better each year. Maybe this is the year we finally score a run off of Justin Verlander. Hope springs eternal in sports. Our last three playoff exits have come at the paws of the Tigers, and that can't possibly happen a fourth straight time, can it? Can it?
9. Derek Norris' haircut and beard have gotten out of control. If Game of Thrones were about baseball, which character would Norris be and why?
Norris actually trimmed his beard a bit last weekend, but he still looks like he should be wielding a sword. Someone on AN suggested that if Norris were a GoT character, he would be a bastard named Derek Snowriss.
However, I will go with The Hound. Like Norris and his catching gear, The Hound is always wearing armor all over his body. He is scruffy and scraggly like Norris. He usually looks like the strongest, burliest guy on the screen. And when the situation demands, he can be a total badass, despite potentially having a gentler heart than his appearance lets on. In this scenario, I guess that Sonny Gray is Arya Stark and the two are roaming the countryside building their battery-mate rapport while Norris teaches Sonny to "kill" his opponents with strikeouts. Sonny and Arya do bear a striking resemblance.
Once again, thanks to Alex for taking the time out of his weekend to answer our questions. You can read my responses about the Tigers here. Be sure to check out Athletics Nation for all things A's this season!