With a full month of the season in the books, the Oakland A’s find themselves in a pretty enviable spot – eight games above .500 and leading the American League West.
They’ve provided several reasons for encouragement, but also some areas where obvious improvement is needed. Let’s hit the rewind button on April and offer up some end-of-the-month observations and awards:
Most Valuable Player: Third baseman Josh Donaldson gets the convincing nod here. He stumbled out of the gate with a cold first week at the plate, but since then has turned it on with terrific across-the-board numbers.
Donaldson leads the A’s in home runs (7), RBI (23), runs (22), hits (34), doubles (10) and ranks second in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.871). Yes, he’s also committed more errors (6) than any other major league third baseman. But I’d be surprised if we’re still talking about Donaldson’s defense as a concern by the All-Star break.
He’s looking very comfortable as the third hitter in the order, and whenever something good is happening for the A’s offensively, Donaldson always seems to be playing a role in it.
Most Valuable Pitcher: Are we taking the easy way out by tacking on a separate award just for pitchers? It seems fitting this month given that this sub-category had several strong candidates by itself. It was a close race until Sonny Gray threw a shutout Monday at Texas and outdueled Yu Darvish, setting the stage for an Oakland sweep.
It’s easy to take the 24-year-old Gray for granted already. But don’t downplay the significance of what he’s doing with such little experience. He’s second in the American League with a 1.76 ERA to go with a 4-1 record, and he’s allowed just one homer in 41 innings. His command still needs improvement, particularly early in games, as his seven first-inning walks would suggest. Everyone’s gotta have something to work on, right?
Biggest surprise: Raise your hand if you predicted Jesse Chavez would have the A.L.’s third-best ERA at the end of April.
You’re lying. Put that hand down.
It’s one thing to baffle hitters in the Cactus League, and it’s another to do it when the games start meaning something. Chavez has been a revelation as the No. 3 starter, a huge pick-me-up for the A’s after season-ending injuries to Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin. His ERA sits at 1.89 after six starts, and he’s averaging 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings compared to just 1.9 walks.
One of the coolest things about Chavez is something that fans don’t get the chance to see. Most pitchers, on their day to start, stay holed up inside the clubhouse while their teammates stretch and take batting practice. Chavez comes out and sits alone in the dugout for a period, taking in the sights and sounds of the pregame activity. It’s an outside-the-box move from a journeyman reliever who took an outside-the-box route to Oakland’s rotation.
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Biggest disappointment: No doubt, it’s the bullpen’s struggles to close out victories. Late-inning relief was assumed to be the A’s biggest strength, but it’s been a surprising trouble spot. And it’s been contagious, with Jim Johnson first losing a grip on the closer’s role, and then Sean Doolittle and Luke Gregerson encountering some trouble nailing down victories.
The A’s six blown saves entering Thursday’s play were tied for the most in the majors. There’s lots of speculation on when, or if, Johnson will be reinstated as closer. But it’s also interesting to watch whether 2012 All-Star Ryan Cook or lefty Fernando Abad assert themselves into the late-inning mix and how that might affect things.
Most memorable moment: On April 19, the A’s trailed the Houston Astros 3-1 before scoring three in the bottom of the ninth to pull out a 4-3 victory. Jed Lowrie began the comeback with a home run, Alberto Callaspo tied it with an RBI single and Josh Reddick won it with a walkoff single against Chad Qualls.
Is there anything that conjures up memories of back-to-back division titles quite like a stirring comeback?
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Biggest reason for encouragement: The A’s haven’t played close to their best baseball and they’re still 18-10 and hold a three-game lead in the A.L. West. The defense has been spotty, with the 25 errors tied for second-most in the league, and the A’s have shot themselves in the foot with several baserunning breakdowns. Many of the errors have come on correctable routine plays, and entire seasons don’t really unravel due to mistakes on the bases. If the A’s tighten it up in these areas, they’ll come out on the winning end of more close games. They’re currently 4-4 in one-run games.
Biggest reason for concern: It’s no secret how important outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Coco Crisp are to the A’s success. Both have already nursed injuries that kept them out for multiple games. Crisp has played in just 22 of 28 games as he’s been sidelined by wrist and hamstring injuries, and Cespedes missed four starts recently with a strained left hamstring.
Crisp is an important rally-starter with his ability get on base, and Cespedes’ run production is needed in the heart of the order. So figure that much of the A’s success as the season progresses will be tied to how healthy these two players remain.