With best record in AL, Oakland Athletics continue to surprise with resourcefulness
Jesse Chavez entered the 2014 season still wearing the label of a sub-replacement level journeyman, but through six starts, he's become the latest example of Oakland's magic under general manager Billy Beane and manager Bob Melvin. On Wednesday, hours after A.J. Griffin became the second Oakland starter to undergo Tommy John surgery this year, his seven innings of one-hit shutout ball helped the A's complete a three-game sweep of the Rangers in Arlington. The series began with the two teams tied atop the AL West at 15-10 and ended with the A's holding a three-game lead, having returned the favor of last week's road sweep by the Rangers — and by an emphatic 25-4 margin to boot.
Even with back-to-back division titles on shoestring budgets relative to their heavy-spending rivals, the A's continue to find new ways to surprise, adding recipes for success to Moneyball Two: Eclectic Boogaloo. Chavez entered the year with a career ERA of 5.48 in 234 2/3 innings spread out over 191 games, just two of which were starts, "good" for a -2.3 WAR. Thus far, he's been just one of the hurlers who have stepped up amid Oakland's rotation decimation, the grim tally of which also includes Jarrod Parker's loss to Tommy John surgery (his second) in March. Through six starts, he's carrying a 1.89 ERA with a staff-best 9.7 strikeouts per nine and a 5.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Chavez, Sonny Gray (1.76 ERA) and Scott Kazmir (2.11 ERA) — the trio who kept the Rangers at bay while the Oakland lineup battered Yu Darvish, Martin Perez and Robbie Ross for 22 runs in 11 1/3 innings this week — have combined to deliver 16 quality starts out of 18 while helping the A's starters to the league's lowest ERA (2.85) via the second-lowest home run rate (0.7 per nine) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.3).
A 42nd-round draft-and-follow by the Rangers back in 2002, Chavez passed through the hands of six teams before reaching the A's in August 2012. Though possessing mid-90s velocity, his control problems led to gaudy walk and home run rates (3.6 and 1.7 per nine through the 2012 season) while yielding subpar whiff rates; team after team thought they could be the one to straighten him out, to no avail. Under pitching coach Curt Young, Chavez has backed off the use of his four-seam fastball and slider in favor of a slow curve and a cutter, enabling him to keep the ball down and find the corners of the strike zone. Thanks to that recipe, the A's turned him into a serviceable reliever last year (3.92 ERA and 8.6 strikeouts per nine in 57 1/3 innings) before moving him to the rotation this year.
Via BrooksBaseball.net, the change in Chavez's pitch selection is striking:
FF is four-seam fastball, SI is sinker, CT is cutter, CB is curveball, SL is slider, CH is changeup. Chavez is still getting his swings and misses from his changeup and breaking ball, but the cutter has become something of a swing-and-miss pitch as well as a means of generating groundballs more consistently; he has allowed just 0.6 homers per nine for the green-and-gold over the past two years.
Kazmir, who reemerged with the Indians last year after making just one major league appearance in 2011 and none in 2012, has undergone a makeover as well, relying more on his sinker and cutter and less on his four-seamer:
Thanks to that shift, the 30-year-old southpaw is getting far more groundballs than ever before; his 54.7 percent groundball rate is miles above his career 39.6 percent mark. Meanwhile, he's got a 5.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio, up from last year's 3.4 and more than double his previous career ratio of 2.2.
As for Gray, who tossed a three-hit shutout at the Rangers on Monday, the 24-year-old righty is simply showing that last year's 64-inning, 2.67 ERA audition was no fluke; his FIPs for the two seasons are 2.70 and 2.74, respectively. Through 105 major league innings, he has a 2.31 ERA, 8.9 strikeouts per nine, 0.4 homers per nine and a beefy 53.5 percent groundball rate — a combo that backs the A's decision to make him a first-round pick in 2011, and one that bodes well for the future.
That trio isn't all that the A's have going for them. While the rest of the rotation (Tommy Milone and Dan Straily) has been unremarkable and both Sean Doolittle and Jim Johnson have struggled in the bullpen — to the point that Luke Gregerson is the staff leader in saves with three — the A's offense has scored 5.29 runs per game (fourth in the AL) while allowing a league-low 3.18. Thanks to that combination, their +59 run differential is 19 runs better than the next-best team (the Angels) and 14 runs better than the third- and fourth-ranked teams (the Marlins and Rockies, because who else were you going to guess?) combined. Their offensive performance is all the more impressive given the run-suppressing nature of the Oakland Coliseum; as with their 141 ERA+, their 118 OPS+ (on .261/.351/.412 hitting) is the league's best.
Lineup-wise, manager Bob Melvin is once again up to his old tricks, platooning in several spots to the point that A's hitters have had the platoon advantage 73.3 percent of the time, second in the AL only to the Indians' 77.4 percent. Righty Derek Noris and lefty John Jaso form the catching tandem, with switch-hitter Nick Punto and lefty Eric Sogard the second-base team. Elsewhere, lefties Brandon Moss and Daric Barton have shared time at first base, while righty Craig Gentry has gotten into the centerfield mix with switch-hitter Coco Crisp.
Those combos have packed a punch. Of the team's 13 players with at least 47 plate appearances, eight have an OPS+ of 100 or better, including six of the team's seven most heavily-used position players: Crisp (148), third baseman Josh Donaldson (146, on .279/.338 /.533 hitting, good enough for a spot on my April All-Stars), shortstop Jed Lowrie (146), leftfielder Yoenis Cespedes (138), Moss (131) and DH/infielder Alberto Callaspo (116). By mixing and matching, the A's have the league's second-best walk rate (11.4 percent) and on-base percentage, while they're third in slugging percentage. Chavez probably isn't going to keep up a sub-2.00 ERA the rest of the year, but that doesn't mean the A's are going away anytime soon, even with an $80.9 million payroll, which ranks 26th in the majors to the Angels' $158.2 million (fifth) and the Rangers' $133.5 million (10th). As it's been for most of Beane's 17-year tenure, the organization's resourcefulness continues to be its hallmark.