The Oakland Athletics have dominated the lowly Houston Astros all season. But in this past series, Houston may have been the better team. The A’s finally lost their first game of the season against the Astros and were fortunate to walk away with two one-run victories in the other games.
Still, wins are wins; and the A’s did what they needed to do to take two of three in a road series. Oakland remains three games ahead of the Texas Rangers in the American League West, which is all that really matters in the end.
However, for a playoff-caliber team such as Oakland, criticism comes with the territory. The higher the expectations, the more scrutiny abounds. Dissection of each play, each game, each move, each player accompanies each not-so-great performance. And since the Houston series was about as ugly as it could get aesthetically, there are many concerns about the A’s.
Here are five reactions about the Athletics after their series against the Houston Astros.
With so many position changes, in addition to the revolving platoons at other spots, it's amazing that Oakland hasn't been terrible on the field.
But against Houston, the A's were.
The A's received straight F's for their defensive play, as they committed three errors in each of the first two games of the series. In the opener, Oakland was fortunate to eke out a victory, while Tuesday ended in a 5-4 defeat, a direct result of two ninth-inning throwing errors (and a passed ball).
Much of the focus has been on the terribly porous defensive play of shortstop Jed Lowrie, whose .955 fielding percentage ranks as the lowest at his position in the American League. In addition to his 12 errors at shortstop, Lowrie has two more while playing second base. He's obviously a huge liability up the middle, and the Athletics did make attempts to mask his insufficiencies in certain games by using Adam Rosales at short with Lowrie at second.
That experiment did not work. Rosales made six errors of his own at shortstop. The A's feel as if they've run out of options in their mix-and-match middle-infield approach, and now Lowrie is currently slated as the permanent shortstop, with a second-base platoon of Eric Sogard and, for the time being, Grant Green, who has three errors in a mere five career games.
Yes, Oakland's defense is terrible up the middle. Especially when you add six combined errors and five passed balls at the catcher position. But as ugly as the defense has been, and as bad as they played against the Astros this week, there is no need to panic, no need for sweeping defensive upgrades or adjustments. No need to clamor for Cliff Pennington's amazing glovework. While Oakland ranks 10th in the AL in team fielding, defense will not be a major problem for the A's, despite recent struggles.
Why? Because of their pitchers.
That's right: Oakland's pitching style will not allow for the team's weakest link (infield defense) to be an issue. The A's have allowed the second-fewest ground-ball outs in the AL. And their league-leading 1,121 fly-ball outs are a whopping 150 more than Baltimore's total. With Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes in the outfield, every fly ball is catchable.
So, while most teams preach keeping the ball down in the strike zone to induce groundballs, A's pitchers should continue trusting their defense by lofting outfield flies.
Athletics closer Grant Balfour would be the first to admit he has not been a perfect pitcher this season. An earned-run average of 2.03, five home runs allowed and 14 bases on balls would support his case.
Still, Balfour had been perfect at doing his job: closing ballgames. Which he did 44 times in a row dating back to last season, a franchise-record saves streak. A streak that came to an end in the Astros' 5-4 victory, with the home team walking off after scoring three runs in the ninth inning.
Defensive mistakes affected the outcome. And the good fortune that contributed to the remarkableness of Balfour's streak simply ran out. After all, streaks are a combination of great talent and a dash of luck. Balfour's luck caught up to him on Tuesday.
That he got this far without a blown save is amazing, because his talent, or stats, did not support his then-perfection. In fact, ESPN.com's AJ Mass may have cursed Balfour with an analytical piece that same day that outlines the predictability of success of each MLB closer based on their numbers. Balfour was featured among the more unreliable group of relievers in the Danger, Will Robinson! category. Mass even suggested that if and when Balfour's streak was to end, it could be a preview of bad things to come.
A different streak of unsuccessful relief appearances by Balfour would not be a huge surprise. After all, Balfour temporarily lost the closer job in May of last year after a brief bad week in which he blew two saves and gave up six runs in four appearances.
So the questions after Tuesday's meltdown will be how Balfour bounces back and how he'll perform down the home stretch of the 2013 season. His astounding first half, which earned him an All-Star Game selection, was maybe too good. Will the second half be balanced by inconsistency? More blown saves? How many?
The A's won't make a change in the closer role if Balfour has another bad stretch, given his success this season. But with Oakland having appeared in an MLB-leading 33 one-run games, the A's will have to be careful how the bullpen (i.e., Balfour) performs. Their path to the playoffs depends on him.
A lot of credit for Oakland's winning ways in 2013 is based on the fact that they have basically the same blueprint as 2012's division champion team. Except for one major difference: the running game. The Athletics are not as kleptomaniacal on the basepaths as they were last season.
In 2012, Oakland ranked sixth in the AL in stolen bases (122) and second in success rate (79 percent). This year, their numbers have plummeted (11th in thefts, ninth in success rate); and their 51 stolen bases as a team are well below the league average.
Part of the slow-down is personnel. Last year, the A's featured five players with double-digit stolen base totals, including Jemile Weeks (16) and Cliff Pennington (15), both of whom contributed nicely to last year's ground game.
The other factor is injuries that have plagued Oakland's most threatening base stealers. Coco Crisp, among the league leaders annually, has been obviously affected by injuries. He only has 15 thefts in 79 games this year after tallying 39 in just 120 games last season. Additionally, Yoenis Cespedes has only been successful in five of 11 attempts this year, after stealing a respectable 16 last year.
Against Houston, Oakland appeared to make an effort to rejuvenate the running game, stealing two bases in the series opener. Then in Tuesday's loss, the A's grounded into four double plays, stalling and ending several run-scoring opportunities. Clearly, Bob Melvin isn't as confident in playing small ball; and the current A's roster just isn't as fleet of foot.
That's why the A's have largely relied upon the long ball this season, even though they aren't exactly a high-powered home run-hitting team. But they have no choice: They don't steal as many bases, and they don't sacrifice runners over (their 10 sacrifice bunts are the fewest in the AL.)
Unless Crisp himself carries the entire running game with his legs, look for many more inning-ending, rally-killing double plays the rest of the way.
Probably the most overlooked player on the A's roster is John Jaso. The 29-year-old was quietly acquired last offseason to be the left-handed bat in Oakland's catching platoon. His career was much like those of many of the A's regulars, oscillating between many levels, meandering through many rosters.
The book on Jaso was standard: He had average power and he walked a lot. Perfect for the A's. Defensively, he was average, too, fortunate to have caught excellent pitching staffs in both Tampa Bay and Seattle.
So far with the A's, Jaso is living up to his billing, not lighting it up offensively, but not stinking it up either. For the season, he's hitting .271 with three homers and 21 runs driven in. Though he hasn't been a power threat, his plate discipline has allowed Melvin to insert Jason into the second spot in the batting order. That selectiveness was on display against Houston, as Jason received four bases on balls in two games played, and he reached base safely six times. Despite playing in only 70 games, Jaso's 38 walks rank third on the team and 28th in the AL.
In the Billy Beane era, the A's as a franchise have had notorious high-walk players. From Mark McGwire to Jason Giambi to John Jaha to Jack Cust, the Athletics have always had a player among the league leaders in bases on balls. Jaso is that guy for this year's ballclub. The difference is thta Jaso doesn't hit a lot of home runs.
Which means the hitters behind him in the batting order will have to.
Can a player earn Comeback Player of the Year award honors after a bounce-back performance midseason?
Considering the utterly abominable start to 2013 for A's starter Jarrod Parker, and where he stands right now, he should be a candidate.
After an atrocious spring training during which he was torched for a 7.45 ERA, .309 opponents' batting average and 1.55 WHIP in five starts, Parker continued to struggle during the beginning of the season. After a May 6th outing that resulted in four earned runs, on four solo home runs, in five innings pitched, Parker's record stood at 1-5, and he had a 7.34 ERA. He had allowed 50 base hits in 34.1 innings, in only seven starts. There was consternation that an epic sophomore slump was brewing for the 24-year-old.
While we might not know how much concern was running through the heads of A's management, we do know what happened to Jemile Weeks after his subpar second-season performance in 2012. With the depth of starting pitching in Oakland, Parker could easily have been sent to Sacramento for the rest of the season if he didn't get back on track.
Which, again, speaks to how impressive Parker's turnaround has been after that May pummeling. In the 13 starts since, Parker has had 12 games in which he has gone at least six innings and allowed three or fewer earned runs. The lone non-quality start was when he three 3.2 scoreless innings but came out of the game after injuring his hamstring. Along the way, he has lowered his ERA to 3.79, and his record now stands at 6-6.
It's been nothing short of incredible to see him right his own ship. After giving up those 50 hits in 34.1 innings, Parker now ranks ninth in the AL in batting average against. Amazing.
Everyone knows how awesome the vaunted A's starting rotation is. But it would not be where it is now if not for Parker's tremendous midseason U-turn. Back on track, headed in the right direction, this does not bode well for the rest of the league.
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