I love playing against the Oakland Athletics. They have long been one of baseball’s most intriguing franchises, from the Swingin’ A’s to the Bash Brothers to the Moneyball era. Executive vice president Billy Beane has consistently marched to the beat of his own drum, giving fans and analysts plenty to talk about over the years. Even their uniforms are cool. Add in their rabid fanbase and recent playoff rivalry with the Detroit Tigers, and you have one of my favorite series of the year.
The games tend to be very competitive, too. We all remember the five-game series they played against one another in back-to-back years, but the regular season battles have been just as close. Since the 2010 season, the A’s and Tigers have played 50 regular season games. The Tigers hold a slim 26-24 edge in those matchups, but have been narrowly outscored, 221 to 217. Even in 2016 the last place A’s put up a good fight, winning three of seven with a run differential of just -1.
These A’s might be even worse off than last season’s outfit, though. The 2016 A’s were dead-last in the American League with 653 runs scored, just 4.03 per game. They have been even worse in 2017 thus far, scoring just 3.71 runs per game. Park adjustments help push them closer to the middle of the pack in terms of offensive production, but average baserunning and a high strikeout rate have limited their efficiency at scoring the few runners they do put on base.
Unfortunately for Oakland, their pitching has not been much better. They have a 4.45 team ERA, third-highest among AL teams. Their starters have been among the least efficient in the league, which results in more stress on a bullpen already depleted by injuries. There are reasons for hope in the rotation — some shiny advanced metrics and a now-healthy Sonny Gray among them — but it hasn’t been pretty thus far.
This is the west coast, though, and anything can happen. Can the Tigers break through with a series win in Oakland?
Game 1: RHP Michael Fulmer (2-1, 3.19 ERA) vs. RHP Andrew Triggs (4-1, 1.84 ERA)
Largely unknown by those outside the Bay Area prior to the season, Andrew Triggs has gotten off to a wonderful start in 2017. The crafty righthander has a near-sidearm delivery to hide a somewhat fringy arsenal, but his arm angle and pinpoint command have helped him stymie opposing lineups early on. All six of his earned runs came in one bad outing against the Seattle Mariners on April 23, but he coughed up unearned runs on two other occasions. Oddly, righties are hitting much better against him, with a .673 OPS (compared to .263 for lefties) in 67 plate appearances.
Game 2: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (3-1, 6.18 ERA) vs. RHP Jesse Hahn (1-2, 2.53 ERA)
If there is one type of pitcher capable of completely shutting down this Tigers lineup — well, besides someone like Max Scherzer — it’s someone like Jesse Hahn. The 27-year-old righthander features a two-seam fastball that has actually gained velocity over the past few years, along with the type of slow, looping curveball that always seems to give Detroit fits. Both generate a ton of ground balls, though his ground ball rate only sits at 43.6 percent this year. Perhaps most concerning of all for the Tigers is an early bump in strikeout rate, which hints that he is finally healthy and ready to be the solid mid-rotation starter Oakland wanted when they acquired him in 2014.
Game 3: LHP Daniel Norris (2-2, 4.00 ERA) vs. RHP Sonny Gray (0-1, 6.00 ERA)
Between arm issues, a porous outfield defense, and some natural regression in home run luck, 2016 was a season to forget for Sonny Gray. The then-26-year-old starter saw his ERA jump by nearly three full runs, leading some to question whether the 2015 All-Star would ever return to form. Gray missed the first month of the 2017 season with a lat injury, but his velocity was at pre-injury levels in his first start of the year on May 2. He gave up three home runs, though, hinting at a continuance of the bad home run luck that plagued him throughout 2016.
Who’s hot: Khris Davis
While Yonder Alonso has been the more productive hitter for the A’s this season, Davis’ numbers seem more sustainable. He leads the team with 10 home runs, and is slugging .600 in 27 games. The biggest difference between this year and his 2016 season isn’t the power — Davis slugged .524 and hit 42 home runs last season — but rather the walks. The 29-year-old outfielder has drawn 16 walks already this year, a 14.2 percent rate, and is getting on base at a .354 clip. It remains to be seen whether Davis’ eye at the plate has actually improved or if he’s just being pitched around, but either theory suggests he will be on base more often this year. He still has a healthy amount of swing-and-miss to his game, but the Tigers would be wise to avoid him in this series.
Who’s not: Matt Joyce
The former Tigers outfielder earned a two-year contract this offseason after hitting .242/.403/.463 with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2016. Unfortunately for the A’s, that deal already looks like a bust. The 32-year-old Joyce has hit just .197/.284/.329 in 88 plate appearances this season, a line reminiscent of his 2015 season in which he posted a 61 wRC+ in 93 games with the Los Angeles Angels. His numbers have improved lately, but he still has a sub-.300 on-base percentage after reaching base safely four times on Thursday.
How the Tigers win the series
On the whole, Oakland’s starters have struggled to prevent runs this year. Their 4.20 ERA is one of the highest among American League clubs — they are just 0.06 runs away from second-worst — and they are struggling to log many innings. While they have been roughly league average in generating quality starts, their average of 5.4 innings pitched per start is tied for the second-worst rate in the AL.
That might not matter in this series, though. Triggs and Hahn have been the glue of the rotation, combining for 1.4 of Oakland’s 2.2 fWAR in 55 1⁄3 innings. Hahn has been particularly tough to solve, and is averaging over 6 1⁄3 innings per start, one of the top rates in the AL. Gray did not look sharp in his lone start of the year, but is a former All-Star in the prime of his career. Given how limited the A’s have been offensively, the Tigers need to figure out a way to solve Oakland’s strong starting pitching. If they can put together early leads — or drive up pitch counts, at the very least — they can help mitigate the one advantage the host A’s may have in this series.