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Orioles vs. Athletics: Series Preview August 8th-11th

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The Orioles begin a West Coast swing against the worst team in the AL.

The season is a little more than two-thirds complete, and the Orioles lead the American League East by one game. The team continues its road trip with a West Coast swing, starting against the Oakland Athletics.

The Athletics are cellar-dwellers in the American League West, sitting 16.5 games behind the Texas Rangers. Their run differential of -94 is the worst in the American League and fifth-worst in baseball behind the Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Philadelphia Phillies.

The one player on whom the A’s thought they could count, Sonny Gray, has been injured and ineffective. Another standout pitcher, former Oriole Rich Hill, is now a Dodger. Their best hitter, Josh Reddick, is also now a Dodger. At least the A’s got some good prospects in that swap. The biggest offensive threats are former-Oriole Danny Valencia and has-the-same-sounding-name-as-an-Oriole Khris Davis as the two biggest offensive threats, featuring a wRC+ of 125 and 114 respectively.

The A’s deserve their 48 wins, but just barely. Their Pythagorean record is 45-65, and their BaseRuns record is 47-63. Credit the bullpen and its 12th-overall xFIP of 4.05 with preventing runs in tight spots. Look for appearances by Andrew Triggs, Daniel Coulombe, and Liam Hendriks, all of whom have been serviceable in relief.

Now for the matchups:

Game 1: Kevin Gausman (3.73 xFIP) vs. Kendall Graveman (4.53 xFIP)

It’s KG vs. KG, G-man vs. G-man.

Kevin will reach a career-high in innings pitched this game, sitting just three behind his 2014 total of 113.1. He’s earned it, too. Chris Tillman’s getting all the attention for his high win total and the fact that he doesn’t suck as badly as he did last year, but Gausman is the team’s best pitcher right now.

Both he and Tillman have very high strand rates, but Gausman has the strikeout and walk rates to back it up. His 16.7% K-BB% not only leads the staff, it ranks in the 73rd percentile among qualified starters.

If Gausman has one weakness, it’s dingers. He’s given up 20 so far this year, about the 21st percentile. But dingers are up league-wide, meaning in context, Gausman’s HR/FB rate of 17.6% isn’t as bad as it might seem. HR/FB rates also tends to regress to the mean, hence the sub-4.00 xFIP.

Graveman is best known as one of the guys Oakland got for Josh Donaldson. Graveman was okay last year but has been a bit worse this year. He gets a lot of ground balls but also serves up a lot of dingers, which is weird in the pitcher-friendly O.co Coliseum.

Fun fact about Graveman: On April 20th of this year he became the first pitcher to bat at the new Yankee Stadium, and the first pitcher since Babe Ruth to hit cleanup. Third-baseman Valencia (who was hitting cleanup that day) injured his hamstring and left the game. Jed Lowrie was DH’ing that day and moved to third. Per MLB rule 6.10(b), if a DH moves to a position, that team loses the DH spot. Hence Graveman, the starter that day, had to bat for himself.

Game 2: Wade Miley (4.30 xFIP) vs. Zach Neal (4.16 xFIP)

Miley makes his second appearance as an Oriole. I predict good things. He’s been fooling more and more batters recently:

Pitchers don’t luck into high strikeout and low walk rates the way they can luck into low BABIPs or high strand rates. We need to see more, but perhaps something’s clicked for Miley.

Neal is a 27-year-old rookie, which probably means he’s not that good. He’s certainly been bad this year, although his 5.25 ERA is inflated by his crazy-low 65.6% strand rate. He’s also a groundball machine who’s been giving up long balls left and right. Hm. Maybe the A’s have a type.

Game 3: Yovani Gallardo (5.43 xFIP) vs. Undecided

Gallardo is having the worst season of his career. Which is not surprising. He underperformed his xFIP by a whopping 20 runs last year, relying on an unsustainably high 77.2% strand rate to mask a very bad 6.7% K-BB rate.

This year, he’s stranding runners at roughly a league-average rate. As a result, he can’t hide from his even-worse 3.7% K-BB rate, and his 5.45 ERA matches his xFIP nicely. Count the team lucky any time it wins one of his starts.

Game 4: Chris Tillman (4.35 xFIP) vs. Undecided

Tillman is having a very good year. After three straight years of a declining K-BB rate, Tillman used a slider to boost his strikeout rate to nearly league-average. Unfortunately, he’s also walking batters at his highest rate 2010. Still, the resultant K-BB rate of 11.7% is his best since 2013.

I do call shenanigans on his high strand rate. At 79%, he’s getting very lucky. Although his K-BB rate is his highest since 2013, it’s still below-average. Unlike Gausman, he’s not talented enough to continue working out of jams the way he’s been doing.

My prediction: It’s kinda foolish to make one without knowing who’s throwing for the Athletics in the last two games, but I’m feeling saucy. The Orioles will win the series 3-1.