After going 16-12 in April and losing their first game of May, the Oakland A's are a tough team to figure out. The offense has been even better than last season, while the starting pitching has taken a dramatic step back. One thing we do know: the A's are streaky. The A's head to New York to play the Yankees as winners of three of their last four games, hoping to win their first series over a team outside of the American League West.
Since Oakland's nine-game winning streak in early April, the pitching staff has allowed 5.4 earned runs per game and 24 homers in 18 games. In their recent trip to the East Coast, the A's went 1-5 against the Rays and Red Sox. And aside from Bartolo Colon, none of the starters the A's relied on so heavily in 2012 have shown a semblance of consistency.
Fastball command seems to be the biggest issue for the entire A's starting staff. Starters have leaked pitches out over the plate and up in the zone, leading to disastrous results. Especially disconcerting for the A's has been the number of home runs allowed in their home park, usually considered one of the toughest in the league for power hitters. Opponents have hit 25 long balls in just 17 games at the Coliseum.
A blip in the radar in the form of a small sample might be to blame, but if the struggles persist, the A's might have to hit the "panic" button on the young staff early in the season. If fatigue from pitching into the playoffs last year – with four starters setting new career-highs in innings – is the culprit, Oakland might be looking at a very real problem.
That's why the idea of a six-man rotation has been thrown around. But Brett Anderson finally hitting the 15-day DL to rehabilitate his ankle foils that idea, for now. If he comes back in two weeks and the rotation has struggled in the meantime, it might be a very real option for the A's to think about. With so many starters ascending up to the majors last year, the number of viable options the team has in the system has dwindled.
On the positive side, Yoenis Cespedes' reinsertion into the lineup has been a huge boon for the previously struggling club. Since coming back from a strained muscle in his hand, Cespedes has been responsible for two game-tying hits in the ninth inning and he drove-in seven runs in his first three games back. Much has been made of the ridiculous split where Oakland is 93-48 with Cespedes in the lineup and 17-32 when he doesn't start. The A's lost eight of nine before Cespedes returned, then won three of four.
On the first day of his return – when the A's and Angels played the loony 19-inning game – Coco Crisp and Chris Young suffered hamstring and quad injuries, respectively. That put Cespedes back in center field. Crisp needed to go on the disabled list. Young did not.
Oakland then decided to call up Luke Montz, a catcher that can play first base, rather than an outfielder to replace Crisp.
It was an interesting move in a couple respects. First, with Seth Smith having a very high level of success against lefties (.435/.480/.739) in 23 at-bats, the A's must keep Smith in the lineup every day, taking away potential at-bats from the right-handed half of the platoon role A's manager Bob Melvin has been so fond of. Second, the loss of Crisp makes John Jaso the likely leadoff hitter in his absence. Adding a third catcher gives the team much more flexibility behind the plate and take some of the burden of Jaso's legs. The A's will also be facing several lefties over the next 10 days, and Montz hits left-handers particularly well.
With the A's missing Crisp and facing so many lefties, Jed Lowrie's contributions will continue to be key for Oakland. Lowrie is off to a good start with his new team. He has a 931 OPS and a 1.4 oWAR coming into the series against the Yankees. With Crisp on the DL, Lowrie assumes the team lead (along with Josh Donaldson) in walks with 15. Lowrie is the team batting leader with a .327 average, and he is second on the team in OBP to Derek Norris with a .412 mark.
The Yankees come in with an impressive 17-10 record despite being decimated by injuries to their star players. On Sunday, Kevin Youkilis and Joba Chamberlain joined Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Texiera, Curtis Granderson and others on the disabled list.
Thanks in part to 20 home runs combined from Robinson Cano, Travis Hafner and the resurgent Vernon Wells, the Yankees have scored the sixth-most runs in baseball while their 4.00 team ERA ranks eighth.
As a tam, the Yankees have actually hit a little better on the road thus far this year, although they still have a 764 OPS at home. New York has struggled against left-handers (665 OPS), but they have dominated left-handed pitching (842 OPS).
The series kicks off on Friday night when A.J. Griffin (2-2, 4.65 ERA) takes on C.C. Sabathia (4-2, 3.35 ERA). Griffin has struggled in his last two starts – both against AL East teams – allowing a combined 13 runs in 11 innings. In his three starts prior, all coming against AL West foes, Griffin had a 2.25 ERA in 20 innings with the A's winning all three games. The right-hander will need to avoid giving up home runs in Yankee Stadium. He's allowed two in each of his last two starts.
Sabathia has typically gone deep into games, but he's also allowed his fair share of runs in his last few starts. He has been especially susceptible in the first inning of games, allowing three home runs and a 1135 OPS. If he's able to weather the storm early, he has been outstanding in innings 4-6, allowing just a 1.59 ERA.
Saturday's game two will have the Yankees' Phil Hughes (0-2, 4.67 ERA) go against Bartolo Colon (3-0, 3.38 ERA). After losing in Hughes' first three starts of the year, the Yankees have won in his last three starts, despite the right-hander not getting the decision. In his last two starts, Hughes has allowed two runs in each, lowering his ERA from 10.29 to 4.67.
In his last start, Hughes whiffed nine Blue Jays in six innings, allowing seven hits. Throwing mostly fastballs and sliders, Hughes has cut his walks down significantly to start the season and should see some success once his BABIP drops from .369, mostly from allowing 17 hits in his first seven innings of 2013.
Colon has undoubtedly been the A's best starter, having allowed just one walk all year and throwing strikes at a very high rate. But the righty is coming off his worst start of the early season, having allowed five runs on nine hits in six innings. The only two homers Colon has allowed came in his first two starts. One problem he might have in Yankee Stadium might be his fly ball numbers in his last four starts. He's allowed 52 fly balls to 28 balls on the ground.
Andy Pettitte (3-2, 3.86 ERA) and Dan Straily (1-0, 6.35 ERA) will toe the rubber in Sunday's finale. Straily has made just two starts for the A's so far and figures to get at least two more in the absence of Anderson. Straily started the game on Monday that went 19 innings, allowing two home runs and six runs total in 4.2. Like others in Oakland's rotation, Straily has struggled with fastball command. He has been able to maintain a great strikeout rate, but the majority have come on his off-speed pitches, particularly his slider. Both of his home runs against the Angels came on fastballs in the heart of the plate. The key for Straily's success in the big leagues is staying down in the 'zone.
Pettitte has been very good in his 18th big league season. The 41-year-old has an ERA+ of 108 thanks largely to his 3.57 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Pettitte has been much better on the road than at home, however, allowing a .360/.396/.500 slash line in his two games in the Bronx. He has also struggled against right-handed hitters, allowing an 840 OPS compared to a 522 clip against lefties.
Mixing in cutters at a high rate, Pettitte has been getting ground balls at a sound 1.67 clip compared to fly balls. Look for the A's to stack the lineup with right-handed hitters against Pettitte as they look to get on the winning track before heading to Cleveland.?