The Oakland Athletics have the best run differential in like the entire universe. The Orioles will be taking them on this weekend. This struggling rotation against the prolific Athletics offense is probably a bad matchup, to say the least.
To get a little perspective on the Athletics, we talked to our counterparts over at Athletics Nation, who, as far as I can tell, has never waded through raw sewage overflow at the O.co Coliseum. Check out my answers to their Q&A. Enough preamble, here's the interview with Alex Hall:
Mark: It's no secret that the Athletics are unafraid to work a walk. This upcoming series will feature the most walk-friendly team against one of the least walk-friendly. The A's draw a walk 11% of the time; the Orioles only walk 6.4% of the time. How much of that comes from acquiring patient players and how much of it comes from players listening to coaches about patience? If it's the latter, can we trade you a new stadium plumbing system for those coaches?
Alex: I'm sure there's a little of both. Guys like Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Jed Lowrie, John Jaso and Derek Norris all had long track records of plate discipline and solid walk rates in either the minors or their previous Major League stops, and I can't think of anyone on the current roster whose patience has dramatically improved since he arrived. On the other hand, Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick are each free swingers who the A's have not been able to (or interested in?) taming into selective hitters.
So, I suppose the emphasis is more on the side of acquiring players who demonstrate good discipline. And while I'm sure the organization still preaches patience throughout the minors, I think the A's have learned not to try to force hitters to be something they're not -- if a guy succeeds because of his aggressive approach, then you might mess him up by telling him to take more pitches. This team's offensive strategy seems to center around waiting for the right pitch to swing at, which results in longer at-bats, higher pitch counts for opposing starters (and thus more bullpen exposure), and a lot of walks (aka base runners). Oh, and better pitches to hit.
And no, you can't have hitting coach Chili Davis. Just as at the dinner table, a broken plumbing system is a small price to pay for really good chili.
Mark: On top of the league-leading team OBP, the Athletics also have the second-best slugging percentage in the AL as a team. It's almost like if you have a team full of guys who take walks and have modest power, you'll score a lot of runs. I don't even have a question about that, I'm just envious. Orioles fans get mad at awful at-bats from hacktastic players like Adam Jones and Jonathan Schoop. The A's don't look to have problems like that. When you watch your team at the plate, what frustrates you about them? Is there even anything? I may hate you all. I'm sorry.
Alex: Watching the A's hit has been a blast so far. They rarely get cheated in their at-bats, they have a ton of power, and at any moment they can go off for a half dozen runs in one inning. Yoenis Cespedes can get a bit frustrating when he gets behind in the count and starts chasing pitches, but he's doing that way less often this year and he's still a fantastic middle-of-the-order hitter. Josh Reddick is an enigma; he'll show signs of life for a couple days and then go back to looking over-matched for two weeks. (Note: Reddick is on the DL, so you won't see him this weekend.) Daric Barton could never repeat his five-win 2010 season, in which he led the AL in walks, but he's down in Triple-A now so you won't see him either. In their places, Oakland has Kyle Blanks (1.100 OPS, two homers in 29 PA's) and 2013 playoff hero Stephen Vogt (3-for-9 with an RBI double so far) who are both off to great ... oh, shoot, that's probably not helping. Sorry. Umm, Eric Sogard is hitting only .195?
Mark: One thing that stands out to an outsider like me is the way that the platoon of Derek Norris and John Jaso looks to have been used with such success at the plate so far. Are you happy with this platoon situation? Would you prefer if there was one player good enough to catch every day?
Alex: I can't think of a better position at which to have a platoon than behind the plate. Catching 130 or 140 games takes a huge physical toll, and there are some A's fans who still think Kurt Suzuki could have developed into a much better hitter if Bob Geren hadn't run him into the ground in his mid-20s. Having two strong options means that they can both stay fresh, although they often sub for each other late in games as match-ups dictate. They're such good hitters that Bob Melvin has started to find opportunities to get them both in the same lineup, and the addition of Vogt as a third catcher means that one of them can DH without leaving the team without a backup. Quite frankly, both Norris and Jaso are good enough to play every day, but they're even better when they don't have to.
Mark: Who the hell is Jesse Chavez, and how is he so good? I don't expect to see him in this series, but I need to know the answer.
Alex: Jesse Chavez is the reason that I don't question Billy Beane anymore. When Beane picked him up in 2012, it was hard to figure out why. But since arriving in Oakland, Chavez has added a fantastic cutter and made the proverbial change from throwing to pitching. He used to try to pump heat past everybody, and now he mixes speeds and locations and comes at hitters with an arsenal of four or five pitches (cutter, sinker, curve, change, occasional 4-seam, according to Brooks Baseball). He's actually fallen back to Earth a bit lately, with a 4.25 ERA and deflated peripherals in his last six starts dating back to May 6, but even if he pitches like that for the rest of the season he will have been an overwhelming success. From now on, when Beane goes for a player and I don't understand why, I just roll with it. After all, he could be the next Jesse Chavez.
Mark: Jim Johnson accumulated a whopping 101 saves for the Orioles over the past two seasons. How have you enjoyed having this top-tier closer shutting down the ninth for you? Sorry (not sorry). Real question: Our old friend Johnson has been getting a steady rate of ground balls, yet is suffering from an extremely high BABIP. He's also walking the world. Is there any idea what's going on with the sudden erosion of his peripherals?
Alex: I was going to ask you the same thing. I just assumed that you'd captured Johnson's talent in a magical baseball on his way out the door and then transferred it into Zach Britton, like in Space Jam. I guess I'll need to come up with a new theory now.
Johnson says everything is fine and that he's making good pitches. Beane says the right things, but the actions speak louder -- Johnson never pitches with a close lead anymore (or at all, really), and it's rumored that he's available and was nearly traded to Miami this week. The BABIP I can handle, but the walks are perplexing and the 6.26 ERA just isn't getting the job done. Looks like you guys really dodged a bullet with Johnson, since you're paying $7 million less for your closer with an ERA over 6.00.
Thanks to Alex for taking the time for the Q&A. May the best team win. Actually, forget about that, because Oakland is probably the best team. Oops.