Archive for Athletics

Yankees Defeat Surprising A’s Bullpen in Less Surprising Way

NEW YORK — It was a nice, tight AL Wild Card Game until Fernando Rodney showed up. Through five-and-a-half innings, the Yankees led the A’s 2-0 on the strength of a two-run first-inning homer by Aaron Judge off opener Liam Hendriks and an effectively wild four innings from Luis Severino, backed by a pair of dominant frames from Dellin Betances. The Oakland lineup had managed just two hits to that point while striking out 10 times, yet the A’s were still in the game thanks to the four scoreless innings they got from the two pitchers who followed Hendriks — namely, Lou Trivino (who matched his season high with three innings) and Shawn Kelley. A’s manager Bob Melvin, who had elected to bullpen his way through the game, had another decision to make with Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Giancarlo Stanton due up for the sixth.

He chose poorly. The much traveled 41-year-old Rodney, who had been acquired from the Twins on August 9, had not pitched particularly well for the A’s, turning in a 3.92 ERA and 4.52 FIP in 20.2 innings; in September, he was rocked for an 8.38 ERA while walking 10 in 9.2 innings. Melvin literally had half-a-dozen alternatives upon which to call for what might be the most daunting and important stretch left on the table. Nobody would have raised an eyebrow if he’d tabbed Jeurys Familia, Yusmeiro Petit, or rookie J.B. Wendelken, all of whom fared better than Rodney in September.

Rodney got a called strike on a first-pitch sinker, but his second offering was doubled down the right-field line by Judge. Two pitches later, Hicks doubled to center field, expanding the Yankees’ lead to 3-0. A wild pitch sent Hicks to third base as Stanton stepped in, and Melvin had no choice but to pull him and call upon Blake Treinen to save not the game but the season.

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Laying Out the Look of the Wild-Card Pitching

In just a few hours, Luis Severino is going to throw the first pitch of the American League wild-card game. Some relatively short amount of time after that, Liam Hendriks will take the mound. Severino is one of the better starting pitchers in either league. Hendriks is a reliever who, in the middle of this very season, was designated for assignment. As far as the first inning goes, it’s…not an equal matchup. Or it doesn’t feel like one, at least. Of course, there’s more to it than that.

As Jay Jaffe has already written today, the Yankees are using a starter, while the A’s are planning on bullpenning. Hendriks has gotten used to being an opener, but this is going to be a little different, because he won’t be followed by a “bulk guy.” It’s likely to be Oakland relievers all the way down. This is the concept someone always advocates every year around this time, for a winner-take-all, one-game playoff. It’s no way to manage a pitching staff every day of every week of every month. The A’s don’t have to worry about that tonight. All that matters is what’s right before them.

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Lou Trivino Wants You to Know He Isn’t Tired

Lou Trivino, who is 26 years old and six feet, five inches tall, stands up straight when he’s talking to you. He holds his arms — massive, tanned — at his sides, occasionally resting his hands on his hips or clasping his hands behind his back in the manner of an enormous choir boy. Nuke Laloosh with five-day stubble.

When Trivino’s not talking to you, he is pitching for the Oakland A’s. The A’s bullpen, as Jeff Sullivan and then I and then Jeff Sullivan again have noted at various points throughout the year, has been very good all season, and a big part of that success has been Trivino’s performance as a rookie. In (brief) summary: Trivino threw 74 innings for Oakland this year, during which he struck out 82 batters and walked 31. His ERA was 2.92, which is 30% better than the league average. He recorded an 89 FIP-. He was quite good.

Still, his numbers would have been better had I recited them for your benefit a few weeks ago. On September 18th, against the Angels, Trivino recorded two outs and gave up three runs. In his next appearance, on the 21st against Minnesota, he gave up four runs and failed to record an out. When I caught up with him recently in Seattle, I asked him if he was tired.

“No, that’s not it,” he said, quickly, with a look at me that suggested that he thought I might have manager Bob Melvin hiding under my jacket. “I know a lot of people think that I’ve been overworked, but that’s not it at all. My arm feels good, my body feels good. It’s just hitters adjusting to me now and I’ve got to adjust back. That’s exactly it. I feel like I know exactly what I need to do, it’s just been a lack of execution. I just need to get back to executing pitches and I’ll be alright.”

There’s some merit to that argument: Trivino was successful enough in his first few months of the season that he’s now getting chances against batters who’ve faced him before. But there’s also the objective truth that he has pitched more innings this in 2018 than he did in either of his past two campaigns, both of which were in the minors.

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The Opener Goes to the Postseason

This year’s AL Wild Card Game will be a battle of competing philosophies, at least when it comes to the choice of starting pitchers. On Tuesday at Yankee Stadium, the opposing managers announced their picks for Wednesday night’s game. The Yankees have decided to remain old-school, with manager Aaron Boone tabbing 24-year-old righty Luis Severino, an All-Star who despite second-half struggles finished fourth in the league in WAR (5.7) and in a virtual tie for fifth in FIP (2.95) — and one whose early exit in last year’s Wild Card Game pushed the Yankees into a bullpen-oriented approach anyway. As for the A’s, a club whose rotation has has lost staff ace Sean Manaea and five other starters to season-ending surgeries, manager Bob Melvin is going the new-school route, with 29-year-old righty Liam Hendriks as his opener — a first of sorts. In eight September starts, Hendriks threw a combined 8.2 innings.

Together, the choices offer something of a callback to a year ago. Heading into the AL Wild Card game, then-manager Joe Girardi was ambivalent about the possibility of saving Severino for a potential Division Series Game One and relying upon his wealth of dominant relievers to face the Twins. “You could do that but that’s not something you’ve done during the course of the season,” Girardi told reporters. “And we have some starters who are pretty qualified to make that start… If you start doing crazy things, things guys aren’t used to, then I’m just not comfortable doing it. You want to keep it as normal as possible.”

Despite Girardi’s reservations, it was clear that the Yankees were built for such a scenario thanks to general manager Brian Cashman’s July 19 (re)acquisition of David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle to add to a bullpen that already included Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances. “A veritable clown car of effective righties who can miss bats and take over before Twins batters get too familiar with Severino,” is how one wag put it.

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Stephen Piscotty Avoids Walks, Hits Dingers

There are a lot of reasons why the Oakland A’s are bound for the playoffs this year. Matt Chapman has produced an MVP-level season, and the club’s bullpen is amazing. Khris Davis, Jed Lowrie, Matt Olson, and Marcus Semien are all having good years, as well.

Unsurprisingly, playoff teams tend to be composed of good players. All of the individuals mentioned so far, however, were also members of a club that won just 75 games a year ago. Their strong play this season has undoubtedly helped the 2018 version of the A’s, but the club has also gotten an important contribution from newcomer Stephen Piscotty.

The right fielder joined Oakland in a winter trade from the St. Louis following a difficult year and a half for him both on the field and off. Despite playing well following his call-up in the middle of 2015 until the All-Star break in 2016, Piscotty’s performance suffered after that. Off the field, Piscotty contended with an infinitely worse blow when his mother, Gretchen, was diagnosed with ALS in May 2017.

Piscotty took some time off that season to be with his family. On the field, he dealt with multiple DL stints and a trip to the minors. It’s hard, if not impossible, to understand what Piscotty was going through. One gets a sense of it, though, from Susan Slusser’s profile of the outfielder published this past May:

“It’s relatively hard to watch, to see the progression take place… I feel so bad. I want to put a positive spin on it, but there are things that are out of our control and we’re just trying to make the best of a bad situation, and hopefully with what we’re doing, we can one day get to a point where other folks don’t have to go through it.”

The trade to the A’s wasn’t a panacea. Piscotty continued to slump at the beginning of the season. His mother died in early May and Piscotty hit an emotional home run in his first game back.

A few weeks later, though, Oakland was still hovering around .500. At that point, Piscotty had reached base just six times in his 35 plate appearances after the homer. There was little indication that, over the next four months, Piscotty would be one of the best hitters in all of baseball. As the table below demonstrates, though, that’s precisely what happened.

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The Newest Exciting Oakland Athletic

It’s almost laughable how quickly the A’s have pulled away in the AL wild-card race, but back on the morning of August 3, everyone woke up to what was then just a half-game advantage over the Mariners. At that point, the chances of the A’s making the playoffs came down to more or less a coin flip. When the standings are tight, problem spots are magnified, and the A’s decided to make a change in center field. On the evening of that particular Friday, Ramon Laureano made his major-league debut. In the bottom of the 13th, he walked it off with a game-winning single.

What’s happened since then has a lot to do with a lot of players. Several different A’s have performed very well. Several different Mariners have not. These days, the A’s aren’t worried about making the playoffs; they’re trying to get a home game, or even a direct trip to the ALDS. But every contender wants to be as good as it can be, and on the year, in center field, the A’s have combined to be worth 1.5 WAR. Laureano by himself has been worth 1.7, over just a handful of weeks.

Last November, Laureano was traded to the A’s from the Astros, who elected not to protect him on their 40-man roster. Laureano has since become crucial to Oakland’s present and future.

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Edwin Diaz, Blake Treinen, and the Greatest Reliever Seasons Ever

Reliever performance is volatile, fluky even from year to year. One season, a closer is dominant; the next, he’s just average. Over the past 40 years, there have been 59 relief seasons of at least 3.0 WAR. Only Rob Dibble, Eric Gagne, Rich Gossage, Tom Henke, Kenley Jansen, and Craig Kimbrel have produced seasons of that standard consecutively. By comparison, 10 starting pitchers have exceeded 7.0 WAR in consecutive seasons (67 seasons total), and 10 position players have exceeded 8.0 WAR in consecutive seasons (83 seasons total). Those 59 relief seasons were compiled by 41 different relievers, and three of those seasons are happening right now.

Josh Hader’s second half hasn’t been as good as his first after a forgettable All-Star Game, but with a 1.83 FIP and a 2.08 ERA, Hader is right at 3.0 WAR. In a lot of seasons, a solid finish to the year would make Hader the highest-rated reliever by WAR. This year, however, Hader is solidly in third place behind Edwin Diaz and Blake Treinen.

A year ago, Diaz posted a 4.02 FIP and a 3.27 ERA. That’s not bad, but it’s also not great. Diaz struck out 32% of batters faced, which is quite strong, but he also walked 12% of batters and gave up 10 homers. This season, Diaz is using his slider a bit more to get swings outside of the zone. The results have been staggering: he’s increased his strikeouts by about 50% while decreasing his walks and homers by 50% as well. With a few weeks to go, Diaz has piled up 3.7 WAR thanks to a 1.38 FIP — or 34 FIP- when factoring in league and park, which allows us to compare across eras. Only four relievers have ever put up a FIP- that low: Wade Davis, Gagne, Jansen, and Kimbrel (twice). The increased specialization of the closer role means that those four players all come from the past 20 years. Although Diaz’s 1.95 ERA and 48 ERA- are very good, they are not the best marks in the game. That honor goes to Treinen.

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Manaea’s Loss Further Thins Oakland’s Decimated Rotation

Does anybody have a phone number for Vida Blue or Dave Stewart? Maybe Tim Hudson? The A’s could use another starter for their playoff push, because on Tuesday, they got the definitive news on Sean Manaea, and it was quite bad. The 26-year-old lefty hasn’t pitched since August 24 due to what was initially diagnosed as shoulder impingement and then revised to tendinitis in his rotator cuff. Not only will he not return this season, as initially hoped, but he’ll undergo arthroscopic shoulder surgery next week, and is expected to be sidelined through 2019.

The timeline isn’t unlike that of a late-season Tommy John surgery candidate such as the White Sox’ Michael Kopech, but returns from shoulder surgery are far less predictable than those from ulnar collateral ligament repair. In Manaea’s case, the exact diagnosis is unclear, at least as far as the general public goes; the range of possibilities could include a bone spur in his shoulder, and/or a tear in his rotator cuff, labrum, or anterior capsule — or some combination of those injuries. Manager Bob Melvin told reporters, “The specifics we’ll talk about more after the surgery, so we’ll know exactly what was repaired.”

Ouch. Say, what’s Barry Zito doing these days?

Manaea is the 10th Oakland starter to land on the disabled list (a total of 13 stints, according to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser) and the fifth to suffer a season-ending injury. The other four were Tommy John recipients: Jharel Cotton and A.J. Puk were cooked before the season even started, while Opening Day starter Kendall Graveman and April 1 (game four) starter Daniel Gossett combined for just 12 starts before going down. Indeed, the first cycle through the A’s rotation looks like the dwindling cast of a horror movie, with Manaea (who started the season’s second game) and Andrew Triggs (who started the fifth, and is now on a rehab assignment, recovering from a nerve irritation issue) currently sidelined. Daniel Mengden, who started the season’s third game, is the only one currently active; in late June and early July, he served a DL stint for a sprained right foot. Also out are lefty (and perennial DL denizen) Brett Anderson, who is nearing a return from ulnar nerve irritation, and righty Paul Blackburn, who’s without a timetable as he works his way back from lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow).

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The Oakland Bullpen Has Been a Borderline Miracle

Over the weekend, the A’s swept the Rangers. On its own, that’s hardly remarkable. The A’s are a good team, and they’re playing for something. The Rangers are a worse team, and they’re playing to stop playing. Given the extra distance the A’s put between themselves and the Mariners, this might’ve been the weekend the AL playoff picture was basically decided. Where it gets interesting is when you see how the A’s won the three games. Besides scoring 23 runs, I mean.

On Friday, the A’s resorted to using an opener, in the person of Liam Hendriks. He threw a scoreless inning. On Saturday, Edwin Jackson started, and he allowed four runs in three innings. On Sunday, Trevor Cahill started, and he allowed three runs in 2.2 innings. The A’s starters combined for 6.2 frames, with a 9.45 ERA. Many have been skeptical of the A’s for a while, and they’ve pointed to the starters as the reason. The starters, you see, are not great.

But all the innings not thrown by starters were thrown by relievers. Over the weekend, no team’s bullpen threw more innings than Oakland’s 20.1. It allowed a wOBA of .250, with a 2.66 ERA. The A’s swept the series, even though the starters weren’t helpful at all. Part of the reason is because they hit. And part of the reason is because of the relief. Relieving has really been the main story here. Even I can’t believe the statistics.

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A Conversation with Oakland Assistant GM Dan Kantrovitz

The small-market Oakland A’s are outperforming expectations — they have a habit of doing this — and, as always, their front office deserves plaudits. Billy Beane famously fronts the group, with David Forst acting as his right-hand man in the general manager’s chair. And then there’s Dan Kantrovitz, whose primary duties are encapsulated with this line in the team’s media guide:

[Kantrovitz] is involved in all aspects of the A’s baseball operations department with a primary focus on overseeing statistical analysis for evaluating and targeting players in the amateur draft, free agent and trade markets.

Currently in his fourth season as Oakland’s assistant GM, Kantrovitz has both the background and the expertise to thrive in his role. The possessor of a master’s degree in statistics from Harvard, he’s served in multiple capacities within professional baseball, including a three-year stint as the director of scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals. This is Kantrovitz’s second go-round with his current club, as he previously worked in the Oakland front office from 2009 to -11.

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Kantrovitz on the A’s outperforming expectations this season: “With three weeks left, a lot can happen. I wish I had a good answer to explain the team’s performance so far, but I think you’ve got to start with the guys on the field. So many of our players are having great years — and, in some cases, career years. Then you can factor in that David [Forst] and Billy [Beane] and the coaching staff have made some good decisions along the way. Maybe we have had some good fortune on top of it?  Also — and this is maybe hard to quantify — I think the effect of a guy like Jonathan Lucroy on our pitching has been significant.”

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Daily Prospect Notes Finale: Arizona Fall League Roster Edition

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Note from Eric: Hey you, this is the last one of these for the year, as the minor-league regular season comes to a close. Thanks for reading. I’ll be taking some time off next week, charging the batteries for the offseason duties that lie ahead for Kiley and me.

D.J. Peters, CF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Level: Double-A   Age: 22   Org Rank: 7   FV: 45+
Line: 4-for-7, 2 HR, 2B (double header)

Notes
A comparison of DJ Peters’ 2017 season in the Cal League and his 2018 season at Double-A gives us a good idea of what happens to on-paper production when a hitter is facing better pitching and defenses in a more stable offensive environment.

D.J. Peters’ Production
Year AVG OBP SLG K% BB% BABIP wRC+
2017 .276 .372 .514 32.2% 10.9% .385 137
2018 .228 .314 .451 34.0% 8.1% .305 107

Reports of Peters’ physical abilities haven’t changed, nor is his batted-ball profile different in such a way that one would expect a downtick in production. The 2018 line is, I think, a more accurate distillation of Peters’ abilities. He belongs in a talent bucket with swing-and-miss outfielders like Franchy Cordero, Randal Grichuk, Michael A. Taylor, Bradley Zimmer, etc. These are slugging center fielders whose contact skills aren’t particularly great. Players like this are historically volatile from one season to the next but dominant if/when things click. They’re often ~1.5 WAR players who have some years in the three-win range. Sometimes they also turn into George Springer.

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Daily Prospect Notes: 8/29/2018

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Cal Stevenson, OF, Toronto Blue Jays
Level: Advanced Rookie   Age: 21   Org Rank: NR   FV: 35
Line: 3-for-4, 2B, 4 SB

Notes
College seniors are expected to dominate short-season leagues after signing but what Cal Stevenson has done merits some discussion, in part because he played through a hand injury this spring that may have clouded his actual skill. Stevenson has a .513 OBP at Bluefield because he has walked nearly three times more often than he’s struck out. He’s also stolen 21 bags in 22 attempts since signing. These numbers corroborate scouting reports which compliment Stevenson’s plus speed and bat-to-ball skills before noting his likely corner-outfield defensive projection and lack of characteristic power for the position. But let’s keep an eye on this guy because Toronto has a track record of making swing adjustments to bat-first college players that have helped those players become more viable prospects.

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Strength of Schedule and the Pennant Races

No team plays a completely balanced scheduled over the course of a season. Some divisions, naturally, are better than others. Because intradivisional games account for roughly 40% of the league schedule, there is necessarily some irregularity in the strength of competition from club to club. Interleague play, which represents another 10% of games, also contributes to this imbalance. Given the sheer numbers of games in a major-league campaign, the effect of scheduling ultimately isn’t a major difference-maker. Talent and luck have much more influence over a club’s win-loss record. In any given month, however, scheduling imbalances can become much more pronounced.

Consider this: at the beginning of the season, just one team featured a projected gain or loss as large as three wins due to scheduling. The Texas Rangers were expected to lose three more games than their talent would otherwise dictate. Right now, however, there are eight teams with bigger prorated schedule swings than the one the Rangers saw at the beginning of the season — and those swings could have a big impact on the remaining pennant races.

To provide some backdrop, the chart below ranks the league’s schedules, toughest to easiest, compared to an even .500 schedule.

The Diamondbacks have a pretty rough go of it. Outside of five games against the Padres, the other “worst” team they play is the San Francisco Giants. They have one series each against the division-leading Astros, Braves, and Cubs along with a pair of series against both the Dodgers and Rockies. If Arizona were chasing these teams for the division or Wild Card, their schedule would present them with a good opportunity for making up ground. Given their current status, however, it just means a lot of tough games down the stretch.

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What the A’s Have Done With Mike Fiers

A few weeks ago, when the A’s traded for Mike Fiers, I couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to say. It’s not that I thought it was a bad move — it’s that I thought it was a boring move, an unremarkable move. A very modest rotation upgrade that would be hard to dress up for FanGraphs readers over 900 words. I tried — I dug into all the familiar statistics and websites — but nothing jumped out. The Mike Fiers trade, to me, belonged in the same transaction category as the Aaron Loup trade. It was a move that happened that I didn’t need to analyze.

Fiers has started three times for the A’s. The A’s have won all three games, and Fiers has allowed three runs over 18.1 innings. Even more, he’s allowed only one walk, while racking up 21 strikeouts. In a short amount of time, Fiers has made himself remarkable. He’s done enough to draw my attention again. When a player goes on a hot streak, it’s natural to wonder what might be different about him. Sometimes — many times — a hot streak is just a hot streak. Fiers, though, has indeed made a few tweaks. Understanding it’s always impossible to conclude that a given tweak has directly led to greater success, let’s take a look at how Fiers has changed since getting to Oakland.

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The Unlikely Ascent of Oakland’s Bullpen

There are a lot of things going right in Oakland these days. For one thing, there are early indications that a red-hot rental and home-ownership market might finally be cooling off, even if only slightly (and very tentatively), thereby bringing four walls and a roof somewhat closer to reach for hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans in the Bay Area. For another, the unemployment rate continues to drop (although wage growth is persistently and irritatingly slow to rise). And for a third, the Oakland Athletics have been the best team in baseball (west of Jersey Street) for over a month.

For a team to go 22-8 over any stretch, as the A’s have just done since July 10th, when they were last 10 games back of the Astros, requires a lot of things to go right. It requires Tony Sipp to hang a slider to Matt Olson. It requires a sweep of Texas on the road. It requires, in short, a little bit of that fairy dust that seems to have been scattered around the HoHo Coliseum since the days when Scott Hatteberg and Jonah Hill wandered those green fields — and the A’s have had that and all these things. But it also requires a lights-out bullpen, which the A’s have manifestly also had in recent days, and it’s this feature of the club’s recent experience on which I’d like to focus for a moment, because it wasn’t clear at the beginning of the season that this level of bullpen success was something the A’s would achieve or even necessarily aspire to.

The 2017 edition of the Oakland bullpen mostly sucked. By FIP (4.44), it was the ninth-worst in the game, by ERA (4.57) the sixth-worst, and by WPA, which is as close a measure as you can get to answering the question “was this bullpen good when it counted?” it was rock-bottom — the very worst in the game. If all you knew about the 2018 edition of the A’s pen is that it would no longer include Ryan Madson (who recorded a 2.06 ERA last year), you might project that it would take a step backwards this year, even after accounting for the winter additions of xwOBA darlings Ryan Buchter, Chris Hatcher, and Yusmeiro Petit in a busy offseason for Billy Beane.

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The Return of Transaction Jackson

Pictured: Edwin Jackson, the first time he played for Washington.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

Once upon a time, 12 teams and 15 years ago, Edwin Jackson was a Dodgers phenom who outdueled Randy Johnson in a major-league debut that happened to fall on his 20th birthday. Six trades, one All-Star appearance, one no-hitter, and several free-agency signings — some lucrative, some humbling — later, he’s the co-holder of a record for colorful laundry. Forget the “E Jax” nickname, the 34-year-old righty should be known as “Transaction Jackson.” Suddenly, he’s come back from the brink of professional oblivion to pitching as well as he has in half a decade with a performance that has not only helped the upstart A’s take possession of the second AL Wild Card spot, but has almost exactly coincided with their surge past the Mariners.

Jackson, who tied Octavio Dotel’s major-league record of 13 teams played for when he donned the green and gold for the first time, has been on quite an odyssey since that 2003 debut. He’s been traded in deals involving Danys Baez and Lance Carter (from the Dodgers to the Devil Rays in 2006), Matt Joyce (from the Rays to the Tigers in 2008), Curtis Granderson, Max Scherzer, and Ian Kennedy (from the Tigers to the Diamondbacks in a three-way, seven-player deal in 2009), Daniel Hudson (from the Diamondbacks to the White Sox in 2010), Mark Teahen and Jason Frasor (from the White Sox to the Blue Jays in 2011), and Dotel, Corey Patterson, Marc Rzepczynski, and Colby Rasmus (from the Blue Jays to the Cardinals on that same July 27, 2011 day, without even getting to suit up for Toronto). In his first taste of free agency, he signed a one-year, $11 million deal with the Nationals in February 2012. In his next one, he signed a four-year, $52 million deal with the Cubs in December 2012 — the first big free-agent deal of the Theo Epstein regime — but after a so-so first season (8-18, 4.98 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 2.0 WAR), his performance deteriorated to the point that in mid-2015, having delivered just an additional 0.8 WAR and converted to a relief role, he was released with $15.63 million remaining on his contract.

It’s at that point, on July 27, 2015, where this particular journeyman’s journey through the majors reached the lightning round; since then, Jackson has pitched for the Braves (2015), Marlins and Padres (2016), Orioles and Nationals again (2017). Over that three-season, six-team span (including his final months with the Cubs), he threw 215.2 innings with a 4.92 ERA, 5.24 FIP and -0.6 WAR, the last mark the second-lowest total of any of the 204 pitchers with at least 200 innings in that span. In his three starts for the Orioles and 13 for the Nationals last year, Jackson pitched to a 5.21 ERA and a career-worst 6.14 FIP in 76 innings, “good” for -0.3 WAR.

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The American League’s Only Playoff Race

While the AL East race appears to have tilted decisively towards the Red Sox over the past five weeks, an even more dramatic turnaround has taken place in the AL wild card race over an even longer timeline, one involving the Mariners and A’s. This one has yet to be decided, which is good news, because it’s practically the last race standing in the Junior Circuit.

Through June 15, the Mariners were running neck-and-neck with the Astros despite a massive disparity in the two teams’ run differentials, a situation that — as I had illustrated a few days earlier — owed a whole lot to their records in one-run games (22-10 for Seattle, 6-12 for Houston). The A’s, though solidly competitive to that point, were something of an afterthought, far overshadowed by the Mike Trout/Shohei Ohtani show in Anaheim:

American League West Standings Through June 15
Team W-L W-L% GB RS RA Dif PythW-L%
Astros 46-25 .648 366 220 146 .717
Mariners 45-25 .643 0.5 311 284 27 .541
Angels 38-32 .543 7.5 319 286 33 .550
A’s 34-36 .486 11.5 304 313 -9 .487
Rangers 27-44 .380 19 297 379 -82 .390
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

On June 16, despite placing Matt Chapman on the disabled list with a contusion on his right thumb, the A’s, who had lost to the Angels 8-4 the night before, kicked off a five-game winning streak, taking the two remaining games of the series that weekend, then two from the Padres at Petco Park and the first game of a four-game set against the White Sox in Chicago. Though they merely split a four-gamer on the South Side, they swept four from the Tigers in Detroit, sparking a six-game winning streak that also included two victories at home against the Indians. Remarkably, they’ve strung together two separate six-game winning streaks since then, as well, one against the Giants (a pair of walk-of wins) at home and the Rangers in Arlington from July 21 to 26 and then another from July 30 through August 5 at home against the Blue Jays and Tigers. Alas, that one ended on Tuesday night against the Dodgers.

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The A’s Signed One of the Bargains of the Winter

The A’s occupy one of the AL’s two wild-card slots, and the other day they picked up Mike Fiers. They’re about to use him out of the rotation. I tried — I promise — to come up with some kind of Mike Fiers article, but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t think it would be interesting. The A’s added a below-average starter, but, into the rotation he goes. That might be the real story here, how the A’s have gotten where they are despite a patchwork rotation that no one expected. The A’s have given Brett Anderson nine turns. They’ve given Edwin Jackson — literally Edwin Jackson — eight turns. Fiers probably will help, if only for the fact that he can reliably pitch. The group he’s joining appears paper-thin.

Which isn’t to suggest that I don’t think much of Sean Manaea. Manaea, at least, has been a familiar constant. But there’s a surprise in here, too, a guy without whom the A’s would be struggling. Contact rate measures bat-to-ball contact per swing attempt. The lower the contact rate, the better a pitcher is at generating whiffs. I looked at every starter this year with at least 50 innings. The guy with the lowest contact rate allowed is Chris Sale. In second is Patrick Corbin. In third is Max Scherzer. In fourth is Trevor Cahill. The A’s signed Cahill for $1.5 million in the middle of March, seemingly as a response to losing Jharel Cotton. Cahill’s started 13 times, and he’s ended up an absolute bargain.

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Matt Chapman Is Amazing

On June 15, the A’s lost to the Angels 8-4. For Oakland, it was their fourth consecutive loss, and it dropped them to a record of 34-36. At that point, the A’s were 11 games back of the Mariners, and while the underlying numbers suggested the standings should’ve been an awful lot closer than that, they weren’t, and there was little the A’s could do. You’ll remember it seemed like the AL playoff picture was already decided. The Mariners had a firm grip on the second wild card.

That race is now officially tied up. The A’s and the Mariners are both 18 games over .500. In the Mariners’ defense, it’s not like they’ve collapsed — since June 16, they’ve gone a mediocre 18-20. The A’s have gone a baseball-best 30-10. The Mariners have spun their wheels, while the A’s have caught fire. It looks like a coin flip the rest of the way. The playoff picture is settled no more.

How is it that the A’s have surprised as much as they have? How is it that baseball’s lowest opening-day payroll is currently tied for a playoff spot? Much credit has to go to the bullpen, led by Blake Treinen, Lou Trivino, and, now, Jeurys Familia. The bullpen has been incredible when it’s had to be. But as is always the case, this has been a team effort. Matt Chapman is a member of that team I’d like to bring to your attention.

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Sunday Notes: Eugenio Suárez Added Power and Sterling Sharp is a Pitching Ninja

Eugenio Suárez played in the All-Star Game earlier this month, so in some respects he’s not under the radar. But in many ways, he really is. The Cincinnati Reds third baseman is slashing .301/.387/.581, and he leads the National League in both wRC+ and RBIs. Were he playing in a bigger market, those numbers would make him… well, a star. Which he is… in relative anonymity.

Opposing pitchers certainly know who he is, and that’s been especially true this past week. Going into last night, Suárez had homered in five consecutive games, raising his season total to 24. That’s two fewer than last year’s career high, which came in his third season in Cincinnati. Count the Tigers’ former brain trust among those who didn’t see this coming. In December 2014, Detroit traded the then-23-year-old to the Reds for (gulp), Alfredo Simon.

“I don’t think anything has really changed,” Suárez claimed when I asked him about his evolution as a hitter. “I just play baseball like I did before. I’ve always been able to hit, just not for power like last year and this year.”

He attributes the power surge to maturity and hard work in the offseason. Asked to compare his current self to the 17-year-old kid who signed out of Venezuela in 2008, Suárez said the biggest difference is physicality. Read the rest of this entry »