Whatever confidence the Oakland A’s built up during last season’s dramatic playoff run has snowballed it’s way into 2013, leading to an eight-game winning streak that’s featured a whole lot of offense.
Oakland started off last season slowly, hitting .209/.280/.330 combined in March and April before getting hot. They went on have a team OPS better than 746 for the final four months to catapult themselves into the postseason.
But in complete contrast to 2012, the A's have the best offense in the American League to start the 2013 season, hitting .292/.368/.524, giving them an 892 OPS, about 150 points higher than the clip that got them to their division title a year ago. They have scored the most runs in baseball by 10 runs heading into their weekend series against the Detroit Tigers – who eliminated Oakland in an exciting five-game playoff series last October.
There is just about zero chance the A’s finish the season averaging more than 6.6 runs per game. But small-sample size aside, Oakland has been getting significant production from a number of lesser-known players while Yoenis Cespedes is hovering around the Mendoza line and Josh Reddick has missed time with an ailing wrist.
Seth Smith, Brandon Moss and John Jaso have combined to hit .402 while driving in a third of the team’s runs. Moss has been especially impressive after starting the season hitless in his first three games. In seven starts since, he’s hit .500 with a pair of homers and 10 RBIs – with nine coming in the first two games of the Angels' series.
Coco Crisp and Jed Lowrie have been outstanding atop the lineup. Crisp leads baseball with 14 runs scored and has added four homers, giving him an early-season OPS of 1105. Lowrie has moved to the three hole in the lineup with Reddick out and is third in baseball with 16 hits.
Reddick is slated to return from the wrist injury that looked much worse than it ended up being after he collided with a wall down the right field line in Houston. According to reports, Reddick appeared fine while taking batting practice on Thursday, but was held out of the lineup against left-hander Jason Vargas as the A’s continued to pound the Angels for the three-game sweep.
It’s very early in the season, but no road sweep of a division rival goes forgotten, especially for a young team that thrives off momentum. The A's are looking to transform from a young upstart to a contender on every team’s radar. For a team that’s thrived on pitching and defense, this level production from the lineup is sure to turn some heads.
The numbers certainly pop off the stat sheets, but the A’s also benefited from playing bad teams - or a team at the right time. After splitting the four-game set with Seattle, sweeping the Astros shouldn’t be viewed as too lofty a feat. There’s a little more merit to the taking three-straight from the Angels, but the Angels clearly weren’t playing their best baseball and they are far too talented to think they will be out of contention as the season wears on.
That’s why playing a team like Detroit will be a good early-season litmus test for Oakland. The Tigers come in having won four of six while averaging nearly seven runs per game. They took two of three from the Blue Jays and didn’t allow a Toronto starting pitcher to last past the fifth inning.
Detroit leads baseball in average and on-base percentage to start the year (at .313 and .375, respectively). Jim Leyland’s club also has five players with OPS+ clips better than 114, including Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, who are off to good starts in 2013.
Fielder is on a six-game hitting streak during which he has gone nine-for-19 with two home runs and 13 driven-in. Cabrera has 11 hits in his last five games and has reached base at a .542 mark. The production from the most formidable 3-4 combo in baseball has helped leadoff hitter Austin Jackson to a .375/.444/.400 start, where’s he’s second in the league in runs scored with 13, trailing Crisp.
The A’s will send Bartolo Colon (1-0, 4.50 ERA) to the mound to make his second start of the year after the 39-year-old allowed three runs in six innings to the Astros – all coming on a fourth-inning homer from Jason Castro. Colon benefited from six runs of run support and only threw 84 pitches. He proved he was able to maintain his command of the strike zone by throwing almost 70 percent of his offerings for strikes.
Detroit will be a tough test for Colon, who got knocked around in his only start against the Tigers in 2012. On May 10, 2012, the right-hander allowed seven earned runs in just 2.1 innings. His suspension for suspected PED use prevented him from throwing against them in the postseason.
The Tigers will counter with Max Scherzer (1-0, 7.20 ERA), who yielded four runs in five innings in his 2013 debut. The fireballer struck out 231 hitters last season, second only to Justin Verlander.
Scherzer started Game 4 of the Divisional Series last year and pitched well enough to win, but the A’s came back to steal it by scoring three runs in the ninth, highlighted by Crisp’s game-winning single to push the series to a fifth game.
The right-hander has averaged of 93 miles per hour on his fastball in each of his five seasons in the big leagues and introduced a curveball in 2012. But his slider continues to be his best out pitch.
Conventional wisdom says any pitcher that can strike out batters at a good rate is a bad matchup for the A's, but the A’s have the second-best whiff-rate in baseball at 14.2 percent. Detroit has the best mark at 14.1 percent.
Saturday’s second game of the set will see Justin Verlander (1-1, 2.19 ERA) take on Brett Anderson (1-1, 1.38 ERA) in a matchup of aces. Verlander is coming off a loss to the Yankees in which the Tigers were held scoreless, while he allowed three runs in 7.1 innings.
Verlander dominated Oakland in the divisional round in October and was perhaps the leading factor in the Tigers’ win in that series. But he appeared worn down by the time he took on the Giants in the World Series and allowed five earned runs in four frames in Game 1. He allowed a pair of homers to Pablo Sandoval, one of which came on the back-end of back-to-back homers with Marco Scutaro.
Anderson is also making his third start of the young season and is looking to maintain consistency in his first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery.
In his last start, the lefty benefited from facing Houston and getting 10 runs of support, but reached double-digit strikeouts for only the second time in his career (the first came way back in his rookie season on September 18, 2009 against Cleveland). Anderson has walked six hitters in his 13 innings so far and will look to cut that rate significantly to take the next step towards becoming a true ace in the AL.
The series will round out on Sunday when Jarrod Parker (0-1, 6.48 ERA) looks to rebound against Anibal Sanchez (1-0, 1.50 ERA). Parker admittedly hasn’t been very good in his first two outings this year, having allowed 14 hits and six free passes in 8.1 innings.
Sanchez, the recent recipient of a five-year, $80 million extension, is coming off a solid start against the Blue Jays where he threw seven innings of two-run ball, throwing 72 of his 114 pitches for strikes.