The series against Los Angeles could provide answers to whether or not the A's sudden surge in offensive production is sustainable. Oakland leads the American League in scoring in June, averaging 5.63 runs per game after having one of baseball's worst offenses in the season's first two months. Have they benefited from playing in live ballparks and facing mediocre pitching of late? Or has the roster that saw a dramatic reformation in the offseason finally become comfortable and found its stride?
The Dodgers have by far the best group of arms the A's have seen this month and could give the A's brass some insight as to whether or not the scoring increase is tangible or just a façade. Brandon Moss (.278/.350/.861, 1211 OPS with six home runs in 11 games) has provided a dramatic boost in production at first base, but is likely to see a significant drop in those numbers once teams figure out his weaknesses.
After all, Brandon Allen proved last year that a hot start with a new team might not mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. Allen had a stretch from August 13 to the 27th of last season when he went 18 for 58 (.310) before ultimately fizzling out this year when his struggles with off-speed pitches became all too apparent. Moss' history in the big leagues provides evidence on both sides of the fence.
In 2007 and 2008, Moss played in 49 American League games with the Red Sox where he hit .291/.348/.456 and was considered an up and coming player, making him a key piece in the three-way Manny Ramirez trade in 2008. He went from Boston to Pittsburgh with Craig Hansen helping the Red Sox land Jason Bay, a premier outfielder at the time.
But Moss went on to struggle in his three seasons with the Pirates, seeing a 137-point decrease in his OPS in the National League. That begs the question, is Moss simply more comfortable in the AL or were his three years spent as a regular in Pittsburgh's lineup a more accurate reflection as to what type of player he is? Or, is he a significantly different hitter today than the past rendering the numbers from 2007 to 2010 moot? The A's are eager to find out.
A look at the numbers says that Moss is indeed showing plate discipline reminiscent of his time in Boston. According to FanGraphs, he's swinging at 46.1 percent of pitches after swinging at a combined 51.9 percent in his two seasons with the Pirates. With Boston, he swung at 44.6 percent of offerings. His swing-and-miss percentage is slightly up from his poor 2009 season with Pittsburgh, which could be indicative of his stated approach of swinging for more power since joining Oakland's organization.
Moss made significantly more contact in ‘09 with the Pirates than he ever did in his runs with Boston, but his aggression in the box came to his detriment. With the Red Sox in ‘07 – his best season in the majors – he had a BABIP of .368. In ‘09 with the Pirates – his worst year – it dropped to .285.
For Moss, like all hitters, patience and pitch selection has proven crucial to his success. But whether or not that level of patience stays the same as pitchers adjust to him remains to be seen.
As for the Dodgers, they will likely be without Matt Kemp, who is leading the NL in All-Star votes despite making his second stint on the disabled list with a hamstring issue. The runner-up in MVP voting last season has an 1163 OPS in with 12 homers in 36 games this year.
Kemp aggravated the injury and was placed on the 15-day DL retroactive to May 31, but his timetable remains in question. He's taken batting practice on the field recently and was seen tackling Dee Gordon while celebrating a walk-off hit on Saturday, indicating that he might be nearing a return to the field. Kemp represents the main power threat in a lineup that relies heavily on him and Andre Ethier for production.
Ethier, a former A's draft pick, appears back to his normal form. He hit just 11 home runs last season after hitting 20 or more in his previous three years. Last week, the Dodgers and their new ownership group including Magic Johnson and Peter Guber inked Ethier to a five-year, $85 million extension through 2017 with a $17.5 million vesting option for 2018.
The A's drafted Ethier out of Arizona State in the second round of 2003 and shipped him to Los Angeles for Milton Bradley and Antonio Perez. Bradley went on to be a key figure in the team's playoff run in 2006 and was one of the only productive bats in the ALCS against Detroit when he went 9-for-18 with two home runs in Game 2. His time with the A's didn't last long, as he clashed with management the next season and was ultimately traded to San Diego in June 2007.
Without Kemp, Los Angeles has a .241/.327/.331 team slash line and has been reliant on its great pitching in June. On the year, the staff has the second-best ERA in baseball (3.13) and has gotten even better with a 2.92 clip this month, ultimately providing a much stiffer test for the A's than they saw against San Diego and Colorado recently.
The A's have also been dealing with a hamstring injury to a very important player recently. Yoenis Cespedes has been working out and could rejoin the lineup as a designated hitter on Wednesday. That means it's likely Seth Smith will remain the team's primary left fielder for the time being.
Smith has been vital to the team's offense lately, hitting .394/.487/.778 with three home runs and six doubles in his last 11 games. Smith originally came to the A's as a much better hitter against right-handed pitching than against lefties, but has evened those numbers out this year. His OPS is actually 12 points higher (836) against left-handers than his 828 mark against righties, making it much easier for A's manager Bob Melvin to pencil him into the every day lineup.
Tuesday's first game of the series will see the return of Aaron Harang (5-3, 3.59) to Oakland and the return of Brandon McCarthy (5-3, 2.79) to the rotation. McCarthy missed his start on Saturday after feeling pain in his throwing shoulder once again. The staff ace has already gone on the DL once this year because of his throwing shoulder and will be watched very closely on Tuesday.
Tyson Ross threw well in his stead against the light-hitting Padres, but his inconsistencies in the majors this year led to his demotion to work on his command. After losing Bartolo Colon to an oblique injury on Sunday, the A's can ill afford another trip the DL for McCarthy, who has won his last five decisions and been a stabilizing force for a starting staff that has struggled of late.
Harang, a former A's farmhand, has won his last two decisions and is coming off his only start of the year where he didn't allowed an earned run. On June 12 against the Angels, he threw seven innings and allowed six hits with five strikeouts, but walked four. The right-hander made his major league debut for the A's in 2002 after the team acquired him from Texas for second baseman Randy Velarde in November of 2000. Oakland went on to include him in a package that brought in Jose Guillen in 2003, who became an integral part of the division championship team.
Harang had gone through a steep decline since winning 32 games combined in 2006 and 2007 with the Reds, but appears to be back on track this season with a 3.61 FIP that registers as his best to date. He throws mostly fastball and sliders with control sometimes becoming an issue. He's averaging 3.36 walks per nine innings, which is his worst mark since his season with the A's in 2002.
Wednesday night's game two features two young starters Tom Milone (6-5, 4.48) and Nathan Eovaldi (0-2, 1.82). Eovaldi will be looking for his second career win after making six starts for the Dodgers last year, when he went 1-2 with just 28 hits allowed in 34.2 innings. A hard-throwing right-hander, Eovaldi is another starter that throws mostly fastballs and sliders. His fastball averages nearly 95 MPH and he throws it 72 percent of the time.
Eovaldi has made just four starts this year and allowed just one earned run in his last 12 innings.
Milone is still looking for his first win since May 21 and has lost his last two decisions. But Wednesday's start will be his first home start since May 27. The soft-tossing lefty is coming off two poor performances on the road in bandbox ballparks. In Arizona, he allowed four runs on nine hits in five innings and then allowed eight runs in just four frames in Colorado, lifting his ERA on the road to 7.42.
But in Oakland, Milone is 4-1 with a 0.98 ERA and 0.85 WHIP in five starts. The dichotomy in his home/road splits remains staggering this deep into the season, but A's are hoping another good home start could allow the rookie to regain his confidence and feel on the rubber.
Thursday's series finale provides a very interesting matchup of two talented young pitchers. The Dodgers will send Clayton Kershaw (5-3, 2.86) to the hill against Jarrod Parker (3-3, 2.82). Kershaw is coming off a Cy Young Award last season when he went 21-5 with a 2.28 ERA.
The seventh-overall pick in 2006 has been nothing less than outstanding in the first five seasons of his career with Los Angeles. The hard-throwing left-hander hasn't had an ERA above 2.91 in any season since his rookie year in 2008, when he was just 20-years old. He made just 16 starts with Double-A Jacksonville in the Southern League in 2007 and 2008 before being called up to the majors, just two seasons after he was drafted out of Highland Park High School.
Kershaw made a start against the A's back in 2009 when he allowed four hits in 5.2 innings with eight strikeouts.
Parker will be looking for his third win his last four starts when he takes on Kershaw and the Dodgers. His last home start was a masterful performance against one of the best offenses in the majors when he stymied the Rangers over eight shutout innings allowing just one hit. He sandwiched a bad start in Arizona – six runs in five innings – between another shutout performance in Colorado, when he allowed three hits in seven innings.
Parker was unable to locate his off-speed pitches in Arizona and ultimately paid the price for five walks and a grand slam allowed. But he was much better against the Rockies, walking just one and striking out six.
The right-hander focuses on varying speeds and actions on his fastball while using his changeup as a put-away pitch. He usually waits to throw his slider until the second time through the opponent's lineup, but has burned badly when he's unable to throw it for a strike.