Oakland A's: 5 Things to Look for in Series Versus Pittsburgh Pirates

Nathaniel Jue@nathanieljueSenior Writer IIJuly 8, 2013

Oakland A's: 5 Things to Look for in Series Versus Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Oakland Athletics versus Pittsburgh Pirates: World Series preview? After rolling your eyes, consider that this upcoming series starting Monday night pits the American League West leaders (52-37) against the top team in all of the National League (53-34, tied with the St. Louis Cardinals), for three games in the Steel City. 

    This should be one of the more exciting interleague series in 2013, a matchup between two of MLB’s best teams this season. More intriguing is the fact that both these ball clubs are seemingly defying the odds: Oakland began the season with the 26th highest payroll in the majors ($66.6 million); Pittsburgh falls in right behind at 27th ($66.2 million), according to Deadspin.

    It’s looks to be quite a surprising yet inspiring series for two franchises that have had their respective fair shares of limited success over the past couple of decades.

    This will be just the second visit to PNC Park for the Athletics, whose last appearance in Pittsburgh came in 2001. The A’s have considerable albeit limited ownage of the Pirates: Oakland is 9-0 all time in their interleague series against Pittsburgh.

    The A’s look to continue that dominance this week. However, this season the Athletics face a talent-laden Pirates team that is on pace to halt the franchise’s streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons.

    It will be a formidable challenge for the A’s, who own an 11-4 record against the NL this season. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has an impressive 11-3 record versus the AL. Something's got to give. The Bucs also have the second-best home record in the league (29-15).

    Can the Athletics take down the Pirates in their NL ballpark? Will the A’s again prove they can beat a team with a winning record, on the road? Here are five things to look for during the Athletics’ upcoming series against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

No Designated Hitter? No Problem

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    This is Oakland’s third series this season playing NL rules—without the designated hitter. While the A’s will have to adjust to having their pitchers' hitting, it won’t be as big of a deal as one would expect. Mostly because the Athletics aren’t losing too much when their pitchers are at the plate.

    For the season, the A’s DHs are hitting a sad .230 collectively, with nine home runs and 41 runs driven in. Certainly, they’re not taking true advantage of the extra hitter in the lineup.

    And yet the question remains whether the Athletics, a ball club that ranks 18th in all of baseball in batting average (.250), predominantly with a DH, will be productive offensively against the Pirates.

    Though, the A’s are markedly better away from the pitcher-friendly confines of the Oakland Coliseum (.257 road batting average), PNC Park is one of the stingiest ballparks in MLB. The Pirates have the second-best home ERA (2.75) and opponents’ batting average (.225).

    Thus, it’s somewhat destined that the A’s pitchers won’t help their own causes at the plate during this series.

    Unless that pitcher is Tommy Milone, who is slated to start the series finale for Oakland on Wednesday. Milone might be the secret offensive weapon in this series. The lefty starter is 2-for-7 this season at the plate, with two runs scored and one RBI. Milone is a .222 hitter in 18 career at-bats and only three strikeouts. They aren’t great numbers, but they show he can handle the bat just a little.

    His hitting prowess might come in handy against a tough Pirates club that has an MLB-best 3.15 ERA and .227 opponents’ batting average. In an expected battle between the NL’s top pitching staff and the AL’s second-best pitching staff, the difference for the A’s might be any unexpected production from their starting pitchers’ bats.

Score Early

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    As stated, the Pirates’ success has been the result of owning one of the most dominant pitching staffs in all of baseball. In addition to boasting the lowest team ERA and lowest opponents’ batting average, they’ve allowed the third-fewest home runs.

    They have the third-lowest WHIP (1.20). The most saves (33). Most shutouts (12). The list goes on and on. Up and down the staff—starters and relievers. There is no weakest link.

    Or is there?

    The numbers suggest it might be the Pirates’ starting pitching. The Bucs have tallied only 39 quality starts this season, sixth-fewest in MLB, a strange anomaly for such a dominant pitching staff. True, quality starts are not an altogether telling statistic.

    After all, Pittsburgh’s starters have a 3.33 ERA—second best in baseball. But it’s interesting to see that such a great staff relies so heavily on its relief corps: Pirates starters have thrown the third-fewest innings in MLB (479.0).

    These numbers suggest that the best plan of attack is to batter Pittsburgh’s starting pitchers early in the ball game. Sounds simple enough—even though it won’t be.

    But it might be the key to success for Oakland. The A’s have scored 296 total runs during the first six innings of a ball game—fifth most in all of baseball.

    This won’t be an easy task, as the Pirates have allowed the second-fewest runs scored during the first six innings of a ball game (210). Worse for the A’s, Pittsburgh’s first two starters in the series—Jeff Locke and Gerrit Cole—are extremely young and bring minimal major league experience.

    The scouting reports on them must be somewhat thin, particularly because so few A’s hitters have faced either of them. Jed Lowrie is 1-for-2 in his career against Locke, with one home run. Chris Young is hitless in his lone at-bat. No A’s hitter has seen Cole so far in the pitcher's brief career.

    Thus, the series may come down to Oakland’s familiarity with Pittsburgh’s lefty Francisco Liriano, who spent his previous seven seasons in the AL, mostly with the Minnesota Twins.

    Liriano, who is scheduled to start the series finale on Wednesday, has appeared in 14 games against the A’s throughout his career, 12 of them starts. He owns a 3-4 record with a 4.59 ERA against Oakland, with 80 strikeouts in 64.2 innings.

    If the Athletics are able to split the first to games of the series against Pittsburgh’s talented starters, the rubber match could fall upon the left arm of Liriano, who has historically struggled against Oakland. 

Stop the Pirates' Running Game

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    One of the assets to the Pirates offense is the running game. In particular, the speed of Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte.

    The Pirates rank fourth in the NL with 63 stolen bases, with these two outfielders combining for 45 of them. Marte ranks second in the league with 27. On the other hand, Oakland sits in the middle of the pack in the AL, having allowed 50 stolen bases in 64 attempts. Their 22 percent caught stealing rate is 12th best in the league.

    Fortunately for Oakland, two of their starters have been difficult to run against this season. Bartolo Colon, who starts the opener on Tuesday, has amazingly allowed just one stolen base all season. The lefty Tommy Milone, who is to start the finale, has allowed only three stolen bases in five attempts this year.

    The key will be Wednesday’s starter, Dan Straily. Baserunners been successful in nine of 12 stolen-base attempts against the right-hander this year.

    Thus, it’s important for the Athletics to not only limit their base stealing but to also keep Marte and McCutchen off the bases altogether. The real problem will be figuring out how to do that. 

Pirates' Defense

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    If there is a hole in the Pirates’ team, it’s the gaping one in its defense. Specifically, the left side of its defense.

    Pittsburgh has committed 64 errors this season, second most in the NL. The Pirates third basemen have made 16 errors (third most in NL); 16 more by their shortstops (most in the NL). Throw in five errors by Pirates left fielders and the Bucs have the worst left side of the defense in all of baseball.

    But what can the A’s do about that? How do you really take advantage of a porous defense?

    Fortunately, the Athletics face two left-handed starting pitchers this series—Jeff Locke and Francisco Liriano. This bodes well for an A’s lineup that is built on platooning hitters. Right-handed bats Derek Norris and Chris Young, for example, will see plenty of playing time during these two games. Starters Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson will also be expected to produce.

    Unfortunately, Oakland hits very few ground balls as a team. The A’s have a 0.64 ground ball/fly ball ratio, lowest in the AL. They are stacked with fly-ball hitters.

    If the Athletics want to accept a few giveaway throwing or fielding errors, it’d be helpful if they pulled the ball on the ground toward the left side of the Pittsburgh defense. Any freebie baserunners could prove to be beneficial.

Welcome to the Bigs, Grant Green

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    Another one of those right-handed bats that will be called upon to produce during this series is that of Grant Green.

    The A’s first-round draft choice in 2009 was called up from Triple-A Sacramento on Monday and is scheduled to make his major league debut against the Pirates on Tuesday night. He will get the start against Pirates lefty Jeff Locke.

    There is much hype within the organization surrounding Green’s promotion, as the 25-year-old finally makes his long-awaited debut after four-plus years in the Athletics’ minor-league system.

    But with A’s infielder Adam Rosales struggling mightily at the plate and on the field this season, the Oakland front office figures now is as good a time as any to get a looksee at the team’s much-ballyhooed prospect.

    Green comes with some obvious pluses and minuses in his overall game. This season with the Sacramento River Cats, Green is hitting .318 with 11 home runs and 49 RBI. His job is to bring a little pop to the middle infield in a platoon with light-hitting left-handed hitter Eric Sogard.

    However, the delay in Grant’s arrival to the A’s is highlighted by his inconsistent defense. The River Cats have played him at multiple positions in the infield and outfield because he isn’t exactly stellar at second base.

    But the Athletics must believe that his offense will offset his defense, and that the end product will be better than the production of Rosales.

    If all goes well, Grant will fit in nicely and enjoy a palatable platoon at second for the rest of the season. Worst-case scenario, he doesn’t hit that well and struggles at second base—the same result as if Rosales were on the roster.

    But at least the A’s would finally have a gauge of where the former first-round pick Green is in terms of his big-league ability.

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