The Oakland A's are playing about as well as they have all season. It might not be a coincidence that their run of winning eight of nine games has come against teams struggling from the National League West. But with new players contributing almost on a daily basis, it's tough to ignore some of the positive signs headed into the Bay Bridge Series this weekend against the San Francisco Giants.
First, June has seen a rapid turnaround in offensive production for an A's team that came into the month at the bottom in just about every major offensive category. Oakland has scored 101 runs, good for the most in all of baseball, with a team OPS of 788, good for fifth. It's no coincidence the A's are 12-7.
The club has a .225/.303/.362 slash line for the season – compared to a .266/.344/.444 line for the month - raising the question of sustainability versus an improvement that will last the rest of the summer. Sure, it's unlikely the A's will get on base at a .303 clip for the rest of the season, but it's just as unlikely that they will lead baseball in scoring. The best estimate might have the club landing somewhere in the middle when the regular season is over.
Second, the A's pitching staff has been able to back up the offense. Starters have gone 9-6 with a 3.48 ERA, combining for a 2.7 WAR. Oakland's bullpen has been perhaps more valuable, combining for a 2.68 ERA and 3.09 FIP. Ryan Cook is perfect in save situations, improving on his already stellar year for his new team. In the last three innings of the game, Cook has allowed just two runs in 31.2 innings pitched, good for a 0.57 ERA.
Third, the A's have managed to win games this month without clicking on all facets. Even against a Colorado Rockies team that has had a terrible first two and half months of the season, the A's were able to win games with their bats after getting poor outings from their starters in two of the three games.
In the most recent series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the A's bats struggled to score runs against one of the better pitching staffs in the National League, but Oakland's pitchers were able to pin the Dodgers down enough to pull off the three-game sweep. In the sweep of the NL's best team, A's pitchers allowed just eight hits, the fewest yielded in a series since 1918.
It's far too early to project the rest of the summer for the A's, especially after playing the majority of games this month against the National League West. Overall, the American League has dominated the Senior Circuit to the tune of a 120-91 record heading into Friday, giving credence to the idea that it's not just the quality of the A's play that has led to their recent success.
With Brandon McCarthy's injury-prone shoulder always a concern paired with the oblique injury to Bartolo Colon, the A's starting staff could be in for a drastic decline in production. To date, the insurance policies of Tyson Ross and Graham Godfrey haven't exactly proven reliable, making the health of the team's starting pitchers the all-important wild card going forward.
An interesting addition to the mix could be starter A.J. Griffin, who has had a very good year between Double-A Midland and Triple-A Sacramento. In eight starts with the River Cats, the right-hander has gone 3-2 with a 2.81 ERA and has two complete games to his credit. His 0.94 WHIP and 5.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio have made waves, elevating his status to a candidate for a promotion.
Going forward, the A's schedule gets much tougher. After this weekend against the Giants, the A's go to Seattle for three games, but then head to Texas to finish off the month. They then come home to play Boston and Seattle before the All-Star break.
The next four weeks of the schedule could be the most important and telling stretch of the season. After a road series in Minnesota, the A's return to play the Rangers and Yankees at home, then travel to Toronto and Baltimore before returning to Oakland for a series against the Rays. Without a day off, they'll play six games against the Blue Jays and Angels to finish off the home-stand.
That's seven-straight series against teams in playoff contention. If there's uncertainty about the team's direction now, the picture should be much more clear by then.
San Francisco took two of three from Oakland at home back in May when the A's were in the midst of one of their worst stretches of the season. The Giants hold the edge record-wise with 38-32 mark compared to Oakland's 34-36, but the Giants haven't won a game in the Coliseum since June of 2009. In interleague play, the Giants are 5-7 and the A's are 9-6.
After a very good 2011 with Kansas City, Melky Cabrera is having far and away the best year of his career with the Giants. The outfielder has a slash line of .363/.399/.532 thanks to his 101 hits, 15 doubles and seven triples in just 67 games. He leads a completely revamped outfield that has seen very productive years from Angel Pagan (770 OPS) and Gregor Blanco (749 OPS) who have all played very well defensively.
Friday's series opener features two talented right-handers at very different points in their career. Tim Lincecum (2-8, 6.19) is having the worst year of his standout career. He will take on rookie Jarrod Parker (3-3, 2.82) who has been very good in his first stint as a major leaguer.
Lincecum has the worst ERA of any full-time starter in baseball and leads the NL in losses. The two-time Cy Young Award winner's struggles have been well documented, but the reason behind those struggles remains unclear. His velocity has been on a steady decline since 2008 as he's attempted to transform the way he pitches from having an emphasis on power to command.
Parker has allowed two runs or less in all but two of his 10 starts. Take away starts against Arizona and San Francisco where he allowed six runs each, Parker has allowed just seven runs in 53.2 innings. That's good for a 1.17 ERA.
The right-hander acquired in the Trevor Cahill trade from Arizona is coming off of one of his most impressive starts of the season where he shutout the Rockies in Colorado and allowed just three hits in seven innings with just one walk. Early on, walks have become one of the biggest indicators for Parker. He hasn't lost a start when he's walked less than four hitters.
Saturday afternoon's matchup will be a tough one for the A's. Oakland will send Tyson Ross (2-6, 6.11) against the talented lefty Madison Bumgarner (8-4, 2.92). Ross will be filling for Colon, who has yet to be put on the disabled list with his oblique injury. The last two seasons have been a struggle for Ross, who looks to reclaim his status as one of the organization's most talented young right-handers.
Ross pitched very well in McCarthy's stead Saturday against the Padres, throwing six innings of one-hit ball. But he walked four, lowering his strikeout to walk ratio to just 1.16 on the year. The Cal alum has struggled to stay down in the strike zone since injuring his oblique last May. Until he hones in his control, he'll have a tough time sticking in the major leagues consistently. He has good enough stuff to be a solid pitcher on any team, but must command the corners of the strike zone if he wants to take the next step in his development.
Bumgarner is having a very impressive third season for the Giants. After being a vital piece of the World Series-winning rotation in 2010, he's put up quality numbers as one of the tougher lefties to hit the NL. With a plus fastball and sweeping breaking pitch, Bumgarner's slingshot delivery is deceptive to both right- and left-handed hitters.
Bumgarner has been devastating to lefties however, allowing just a 398 OPS and 6.00 strikeout to walk ratio.
Sunday's game 3 will feature both clubs' aces with Brandon McCarthy (6-3, 2.54) going against Matt Cain (9-2, 2.34). Both pitchers have been very effective of late, with the edge going to Cain thanks to his perfect game just two starts ago against the Astros on June 13.
While Cain has wins in eight consecutive starts, McCarthy has earned victories in six of his last seven outings. McCarthy's home numbers have been very good, allowing just a 1.57 ERA and .221 average against. On the road, Cain has a 3.48 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in seven starts.
In early April, the Giants made Cain the highest-paid right-handed pitcher in baseball history by inking him to a six-year, $127.5 million deal with a vesting option in 2018 that could total his earnings to $141 million. It has paid off for San Francisco so far, as he is having the best full season of his eight-year career in all three triple-crown categories.
McCarthy hasn't made three consecutive starts on time since the middle of May. After his May 17 start in Texas, he went on the 15-day DL to give his ailing shoulder some time off. He then went on to make two quality starts in June, but skipped his next outing before throwing seven two-hit, shutout-innings this week against the Dodgers.