Monday, September 11, 2006

Dugout Splinter - Oakand Athletics

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Published this week in GameDay, and republished so the last line can prove, once and for all, that I'm an idiot.

Long September
The Bay area seems fond of grand juries investigating baseball. Can someone please investigate what the hell this team does over the All-Star break? The A’s have been unstoppable since the All-Star break – again. Last year they went 32-14 from the All-Star break through August. The year before that they were 31-14. They were 35-13 in 2002. 32-13 this year is practically yawn-inducing.

This year’s streak has led some to suggest the AL West race is over. What hasn’t been as widely reported (at least nationally) is that September hasn’t been particularly kind to this franchise. Over the last two years, the Athletics have slumped in September, which essentially cost them postseason appearances. There are similar concerns this year, since the Athletics are only 5-4 in their first nine games of the month.

That may not sound like cause for concern, but consider that they’ve had home series versus the Rangers and Orioles, and a road series versus the Devil Rays. Now comes the hard part. This series begins a 10 game set versus the AL Central, though they get to host series versus the White Sox and Indians. Following that, seven of their last ten games are versus the Angels, who are lurking just 5.5 games behind them in the AL West.

What’s Working
A team’s that won twice as many games as it has lost since the All-Star break obviously has some things working…

Billy Bean’s Offseason Deals - This winter, in true Moneyball fashion, the Athletics tried to exploit a perceived market inefficiency – obtaining talented “clubhouse cancers”. First they traded for Milton Bradley, (yes, that’s his real name.) who had been traded by the Indians and the Dodgers despite being a center fielder with speed and power entering the prime of his career. He missed a good chunk of the season with an injury, but when healthy he’s been the Athletics third best hitter.

The biggest offseason gamble was signing Frank Thomas, who wasn’t just a clubhouse cancer, he was an injured (and fragile) clubhouse cancer. He also hasn’t stayed healthy the entire year, but he’s batted enough to qualify for the end-of-year awards, which makes him a leading candidate for “Comeback Player of the Year”. Heck, with 35 home runs and 97 RBI in this anemic lineup, you could make a decent case for MVP. Best of all for the cash-strapped Athletics, he was only guaranteed $500,000 this year, though he’ll likely make almost $3 million when all his incentive bonuses are paid. That’s still a bargain for his production.

Youth - Oakland’s other power source has been second year player Nick Swisher. Swisher had a monster April and May, but has slipped significantly since then, and is only batting .248 since the All-Star break. But his 31 home runs and 85 RBI are second on the club, and at just 25 years old, he looks to be a productive player whom Oakland can count on in the future.

The Defense – Oakland’s reputation is that of a softball team, going back to the Bash Brothers and continuing through the Giambi Brothers. That’s too bad, because this team is the polar opposite of that perception. They now live on pitching and defense, and if you think that’s playing the game “the right way,” you’ll love this team.

I’d like to spout some statistics about how fantastic Oakland’s defense is, but the statistics that are usually cited are mostly worthless, and the statistics that might be more useful are both obscure and lack obvious value. Nevertheless, in their May visit, they were clearly the best defensive team to come through the Metrodome this year. Watch and judge for yourself.

The Bullpen – Everyone is wondering how the Athletics ran away with the AL West. The answer is their bullpen. Barry Zito is one of the most highly regarded starting pitchers in baseball, and he leads the Athletics rotation in ERA. But there are six members of the Athletics bullpen who have ERAs lower than him.

Closer and 2005 Rookie of the Year Huston Street (30 saves, 3.17 ERA) is returning from a groin injury, but his replacement, Justin Duscherer (3.19 ERA) saved eight games in his absence and will now return to the eighth inning setup role. Pitching in front of them is Kiko Calero, whose 3.12 ERA is lower than either one of them. In less critical roles are guys like Ron Flores (2.96 ERA), Chad Gaudin (2.48 ERA) and Joe Kennedy (1.11 ERA). If you’re someone who likes to beat the traffic, you can feel pretty comfortable that the score won’t change much after the sixth inning in this series.


Oakland: Kirk Saarloos (7-7, 4.68 ERA)

  • 2006:109.2 IP, 130 H, 38 K, 45 BB, 17HR

  • 2005:10-9, 4.17 ERA, 159.2 IP, 53 K

  • Q: How can a right-hander who can’t strike people out and has questionable control survive as a starter in this league, let alone have a respectable 4.68 ERA?

  • A: He keeps that ball down. Way down. Saarloos is an extreme groundball pitcher, getting twice as many ground balls as fly balls this season.

  • He’s also induced 23 double plays this year, which ranks him fifth in the American League, despite having 35 fewer innings pitched than anyone above him.

Tuesday: Matt Guerrier (0-0, 3.04 ERA)

  • 2005: 0-3, 71.2 IP, 46 K, 3.39 ERA

  • 2006: 53.1 IP, 62 H, 29 K, 17 BB, 5 HR

  • We know Guerrier as a middle reliever, but he started 80 games in AAA before being called up. His record was 23-29 with a 3.99 ERA, and 348 K in 487.2 innings.

  • Guerrier is the lucky recipient of the decision to protect Scott Baker by placing him in the bullpen. With Liriano returning, it isn’t clear whether the Twins view this as a one time start, or whether he’ll get some more opportunities as the season continues. That may depend as much on how Silva pitches on Monday as how Guerrier pitches on Tuesday.

  • In his career, he’s pitched in 85 games, most of them in long relief, and still doesn’t have a win. This would be a nice time for it.

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