Game 25, Mariners at Oakland
Nate Karns vs. Kendall Graveman, 7:05pm
Sorry for missing a few games there; I went camping with the family down by Mt. St Helens.
The M’s make their initial visit to Oakland this year, trying to maintain their string of five consecutive series won. The A’s swept the M’s in three at Safeco in early April, but the M’s have clawed their way above the A’s in the standings, and sit a half-game behind Texas for the divisional lead. Now that we’ve seen a few more games, we have a better sense, I think, of who the A’s are and what they do well. Looking at team stats, it’s something of a miracle that the A’s are .500. The A’s have the worst walk rate in MLB, the worst defense in MLB, and rank 28th in BABIP (just ahead of the M’s, who remain in 30th). One of their best paid players, DH Billy Butler, is now a bench bat. After a second consecutive below-replacement level season last year, Butler’s off to another poor start and remains one of the easiest players in the game to defend. All told, their position players rank last in the American League, ahead of only a few of the strenuously rebuilding NL clubs.
The problem’s particularly acute in the outfield, where the A’s attempted to add power by bringing in Khris Davis to fit in around Billy Burns, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick and last year’s Rule 5 find, Mark Canha. It’s early, of course, but the results haven’t been encouraging: Davis and Canha are off to abysmal starts, with Canha striking out 17 times without a walk in 35 PAs, and Davis sitting on a .263 OBP in full-time play. Because neither Canha or Davis are particularly good against LHP (despite being righties), the club’s struggled against lefties, as they hurt Reddick’s (and Stephen Vogt’s) production. A year after grabbing a low-power, buy-low first baseman in Ike Davis, the A’s brought in Yonder Alonso, who’s been their worst every day player. Chris Coghlan had an 11% walk rate last year for Chicago, but he’s off to a slow start, and seen his walk rate nearly cut in half. They’re not this bad, of course, and some regression in BABIP might help them, but they looked like a questionable group on paper, and they’ve done nothing to assuage A’s fans worries thus far.
Their rotation has been a mixed bag, with Rich Hill continuing his utterly remarkable comeback from years of being terrible on the one hand and Chris Bassitt and Eric Surkamp turning in replacement-level performance. In the middle sit Sonny Gray, who’s suffered from some uncharacteristic control lapses this year, and today’s starter, Kendall Graveman. It all adds up to one of the more interesting-yet-completely-average rotations in baseball, especially when you add in the recently-promoted prospect Sean Manaea. They haven’t quite gotten there yet, but unlike with the line-up, you can see how this group could become a solidly above-average unit, especially if Jesse Hahn’s weird bout of awfulness really is over.
So, if their position players have been awful and their rotation’s under-performed, how are they 13-13? Because baseball enjoys a good laugh at the hubris of those who attempt to ferret out its secrets, the answer is, of course, their bullpen. There’s a famous quote attributed mostly to Marx (though the form in which it’s typically used probably came from Engels) that says that history repeats itself – first as tragedy, and then as farce. I keep thinking about that when I look at the fact that the ATHLETICS lead the majors in bullpen WPA *by a mile*. In 2015, the A’s bullpen was historically futile, landing in last place by WPA, nearly 5 full wins back of 29th place. The gap between 30th-29th was as large as the gap between 29th-17th place.
What’s funniest is that the A’s have accomplished this by slaying another old sabermetric sacred cow: that the one thing you needed to avoid were relievers who’d acquired the “veteran closer” label. Relievers were all overpaid, according to this line of thinking, but teams like the A’s had figured out how to bring in unheralded relievers, watch them succeed, and then let other teams pay through the nose for them on the free agent market. The smart clubs don’t bid on, I don’t know, Jonathan Papelbon, they convert a 1B into Sean Doolittle. They stash great relievers in set-up roles so the market doesn’t reflect their value. The A’s, however, brought in two ex-closers, Ryan Madson and John Axford, and got their own ex-closer, Sean Doolittle, back from injury. What do you do with three ex-closers? Abolish the closer role, of course. The A’s lead the majors in saves despite not really having a closer: they use match-ups and whoever’s fresh to determine who pitches the 7th and who pitches the 9th. Madson’s received the most work in save situations, but Doolittle’s got 2, and it’s Axford who’s been used in the highest-leverage spots. The A’s created a solid bullpen out of waiver-wire cast-offs and ex-position players only to watch it go supernova last year. This year, they’ve brought in cast-offs with a better pedigree, and built one of the strangest good bullpens I can remember. In the process, they’ve shot another hole in the idea that bullpen success can be reliably predicted. John Axford’s WPA dominates Craig Kimbrel’s. All bullpens may be farcical, but the A’s are a particularly funny one.
Today’s starter, Kendall Graveman, was one of the low-ceiling, high-floor pitching prospects the A’s acquired in the Josh Donaldson
disaster trade. Graveman has never racked up strikeouts, but uses a low-spin sinker and cutter to get plenty of ground ball contact. He’s never been a hard thrower, but he looks to have added about 1 MPH to his fastball this year, going from about 90-91 last year to 92 so far in 2016. His sinker is still his most-used pitch, but he’s using it slightly less thus far in favor of his cutter and curve. The cutter is slider-y, with some glove side movement at about 87 MPH. He uses it like a slider, too, keeping it down and away from right-handers. With a sinker/slider profile, you might think Graveman would have some platoon split problems, but in his brief career, he’s handled lefties much better than righties. Indeed it’s righties that continue to trouble him, as they’ve hit 14 of the 20 HRs he’s given up (he’s faced an essentially equal number of RHBs and LHBs). That’s too many HRs for someone who yields so few fly balls, and it’s a problem for someone who doesn’t miss many bats. To be fair, Graveman is “only” a 4th starter, and hasn’t been too bad in that role, but the “low ceiling” part of his scouting report remains pretty evident. He’s alternated some good starts and bad ones this year, with a 3 HR drubbing by the Tigers balanced with an 8 K win over the Yankees in the Bronx.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lind, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Marte, SS
9: Martin, CF
Will Karns continue to ride his curve ball? This is one of the more anticipated starts of Karns’ career, I’d think – if Karns is able to make the leap not to an ace, but a dependable 2-3 starter, the M’s start to look a bit different, and a bit more formidable.
The Rainiers blasted Las Vegas 12-1 last night behind another great outing from James Paxton. The lefty gave up a HR in the first, then limited the 51s to just four other hits over 6 IP, striking out 7 and walking 1. The Rainiers open a series with Salt Lake tonight; Adrian Sampson’s on the mound. Game time’s 6:05 at Cheney, and the weather is perfect for a game and a beer.
Jackson beat Mobile 6-4 as Tyler O’Neill homered in his second straight game. He’s up to 6 on the year, pushing his season line to .313/.383/.578. The two clubs were rained out in today’s travel day game.
Bakersfield got a solid start from Tyler Pike and a 4 run 5th inning, then held on for 6-5 win. Bakersfield’s line-up isn’t clicking quite yet, managing a sub .700 OPS as a team, but the league as a whole has been uncharacteristically punchless. Bakersfield’s .699 OPS is in the middle of the Cal League pack thus far, which is nice to see after they finished as the worst offensive club in the league last year. Today, Eddie Campbell leads the Blaze to Rancho Cucamonga to take on ex-UVA pitcher Josh Sborz.
Clinton completed the organizational sweep with an 8-4 win over Dayton. Kyle Wilcox had his best outing of the year, going 6 shutout innings allowing just 2 hits and, crucially, 1 walk. Matt Walker pitched the 7th, giving up a run, then ran into more trouble in the 8th, giving up 3 more runs without recording an out. The L-Kings still had a 6-4 lead, then added two more in the 9th. Clinton starts a series tonight against Fort Wayne, with Nick Wells on the mound. Starting for the Tin Caps is Jacob Nix, a Padres prospect, and a pitcher the Astros drafted and agreed to an over-slot bonus with back in 2014. When Brady Aiken didn’t agree on the Astros underslot deal, the Astros lost a huge chunk of their bonus pool, meaning they could no longer honor their agreements with Nix and another pitcher, Mac Marshall. Nix went in the 3rd round to San Diego, and signed a deal for about $600k less than the reported deal he had with Houston.