This is my Tuesday column on the A’s. WARNING: This is a baseball column. 49ers fans — feel free to skip this.
Before the All-Star break the A’s won 59 games, most in the majors. And the A’s outscored opponents by 145 runs, the best pre-All-Star-break run differential since 1940.
Thing is, the A’s play in the same division as the Angels. And the Angels won 57 games before the break, and 19 of their past 22.
Are the mighty A’s in Dutch? Let’s take stock.
TOP-FIVE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM:
1. Yoenis Cespedes. No baseball player is more fun to watch than Cespedes, not even the Angels’ center fielder, Mike Trout. Cespedes is a great athlete, maybe the best athlete in baseball, and he hits for power, but what sets him apart is his arm. Sometimes it seems like he misplays a soft ground ball in the outfield on purpose, lets the ball clank off his glove and roll a few feet away hoping a base runner will test his arm. You can see Cespedes staring at runner instead of the ball, daring the runner to test him. If the runner rounds third, Cespedes throws a perfect strike from left field to home plate – forget the cutoff man. It’s the most exciting play in baseball.
2. Scott Kazmir. Kazmir is the A’s best starting pitcher, their ace. If the A’s make the Divisional Round of the playoffs, Kazmir should start Game 1 and Game 5, too, if necessary. His ERA is 2.38. He has three excellent pitches he can throw for strikes: a fastball, a slider and a changeup. Sonny Gray has one excellent pitch he can throw for strikes – his curveball. He doesn’t consistently throw his fastball where he wants to throw it.
3. Brandon Moss. Moss is the best home run hitter on the team and one of the best home run hitters in the majors. Moss has 21 home runs this season, more than anyone on the A’s, and he’s not an everyday player. He typically plays only against right-handed pitching; Moss bats lefty. But he has 60 at-bats against left-handed pitchers this season and is batting .267 against them. He’s hitting .268 against righties. He deserves a shot to be a full-time player.
4. Coco Crisp. Who is a better leadoff hitter than Crisp? His batting average in June was .346. His on-base percentage was .426. His slugging percentage was .543. Those are MVP numbers.
Crisp missed four games in a row before the break. Sore neck. Shouldn’t be serious, but he’s 34 and you never know.
5. Catcher. Derek Norris crushes lefties – .358 batting average. And Stephen Vogt crushes righties – .389 batting average. Good combo.
1. Josh Donaldson. Twenty-six hits in 177 at-bats since June 1. That’s a .177 batting average. Those are Eric Sogard numbers. Donaldson also is hitting .228 against right-handed pitchers this season. Donaldson kicks his leg up high when he swings and, when he’s hot, you can see him reading pitches as he’s balancing on his back leg. But when he’s in a slump, he seems to guess and flail at pitches, and frequently chases sliders down and away, out of the strike zone.
2. Second base. The A’s have four second basemen – Eric Sogard, Nick Punto, Andy Parrino and Alberto Callaspo. The only one who isn’t terrible is Callaspo, and he’s pretty bad, hitting .234. He pulled his hamstring on July 11 and now he’s on the disabled list. Billy Beane needs to trade for a good second baseman, preferably one who has range in the field.
3. Shortstop. Jed Lowrie is a good hitter who has no range. And the A’s second-basemen have poor range, too. Poor range up the middle affects groundball pitchers like Jim Johnson. When hitters put the ball in play against Johnson this season, they’re hitting .375. The league average on balls in play is about .290. Johnson still can pitch, but he doesn’t fit the A’s defense. He needs good fielding up the middle to be effective.
4. Two new pitchers. Jeff Samardjiza’s ERA was 2.83 before the A’s traded for him. And Jason Hammel’s ERA was 2.98. But that was in the National League where they faced a pitcher once every nine at-bats. Now they will face designated hitters and the ERAs probably will increase. Hammel played in the American League last year – his ERA was 4.97. Samardzija gets ground balls about 55 percent of the time – the A’s middle infielders may hurt him.
Jesse Chavez, whose ERA is 3.14, may end up being a better pitcher for the A’s than Samardzija or Hammel.
5. The AL West. It’s one of the best divisions in baseball. The Angels are hotter than any other team, and the Mariners just took two of three from the A’s before the break. The Mariners are third in the majors in team ERA and first in batting average allowed. And the Angels are first in runs scored. The A’s are outstanding, but in this division they may not finish in first place or second-place.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.