Do the A's postseason hopes rest on pitching staff?
Despite just two All-Stars, the first-place A's (56-39) have had a lot to celebrate this season. (AP)
NEW YORK -- As was obvious during Monday's media day for the All-Star game, the A's are without star power, so to speak.
Their initial selection, Bartolo Colon, was actually an injury replacement for Boston's Clay Buchholz. And when Colon became ineligible because he pitched Sunday, the A's got their second All-Star for just the second time since 2004.
So who is this team that dares to have the second-best record in the American League at 56-39, the third-best in the bigs, a team that has taken two of three both both of the teams with better marks in Boston and St. Louis?
It's the same group of nameless, faceless ham-and-eggers (ham-and-pie-ers?) who came out of nowhere last season to win the American League West and has carried that momentum to a two-game lead at the All-Star break.
"We got some confidence in the second half of last year going forward and we just kind of feel like, this is who we are, and that's a good thing," said A's manager Bob Melvin. "But it is a different season, we do have some different personnel here but I think, to an extent, we play in the same fashion."
Which means, winning. Consider: since July 1 of last season, the A's are playing at a .635 clip, 113-65, the best in the majors over that time frame, and they are 19-11 in one-run games this season.
They enter the All-Star break having won 12 of 17 and in sole possession of first place for the first time since 1990.
Doesn't the A's Moneyball Era success begin, and end, with their starting pitching? Look at it this way, as a staff, they lead the American League in ERA (3.62) and have surrendered the fewest walks (231). Bartolo Colon is an All-Star at the age of 40, even as many think it's tainted with his PED-related suspension of a year ago, and a trio of second-year guys in Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone and A.J. Griffin ascending. "We started out a little slow, especially with the rotation, and now, all of a sudden…we're in first place pitching-wise," Melvin said. "It's good to see we've rebounded that way." And they've done it all with no starts from purported ace Brett Anderson since April 29 as he recovers from a foot/ankle injury. Even their fifth starter has been a contributor as Dan Straily allowed just three hits and a run combined in his last two starts before being sent back to triple-A. So where does rookie phenom Sonny Gray, who has made one relief appearance, fit? Just one more reason to stay tuned.
Grant Balfour is the only closer in the big leagues with a clean sheet, having successfully saved all 25 of his opportunities while riding a franchise record streak of 43 straight, dating to last April. Of course, without some help along the line, the All-Star would not be in this situation. Setup men Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle have alternately looked dominant and, well, rattled. Lefty Jerry Blevins is in a rough stretch -- might the A's be in the market for another lefty specialist at the trade deadline? -- and Jesse Chavez was a revelation against the Yankees in that 18-inning marathon, as well as in his four-inning save against Kansas City on July 7. Pat Neshek and Dan Otero have been serviceable, as well.
If the rotation and the bullpen are getting A's, then surely the guys handling should get similar grades, yes? Sure. Derek Norris and John Jaso and even up-for-a-minute Stephen Vogt deserve praise for the manner in which they've called games and soothed egos. But the A's could use some more offense out of the position. Norris and Jaso have hit a combined seven homers and driven in a total of 40 runs while batting a cumulative .240. Norris has thrown out six of 30 would-be base stealers, while Jaso is just 2-27.
A year after making the transition from catcher to third baseman, Josh Donaldson has solidified himself at the position. "He's probably taken that to a level that I don't think anybody expected, to this point," Melvin said. "The numbers that he's put up, that's a very confident player that's played well, has a lot of athletic ability and he's finally getting to show it at the big league level for the first time on a consistent basis…he has nailed down the poison, no doubt about that." Jed Lowrie is the shortstop, and you wonder how he's going to react to such an increased work load. Rookie Grant Green will start at second against left-handers and what Brandon Moss and Nate Freiman lack in defensive skills, Moss makes up with power surges. Still, entering this past weekend, the A's had turned just 65 double plays, the fewest in the big leagues. "Our defense needs to get better," Melvin said. "At times, we're a little bit sporadic. We can look bad for a period of time and then we can look really good for a period of time."
With ridiculous arms in the corners courtesy of Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick and the speed and acrobatics of Coco Crisp in center field, the A's outfield should be a strength. And it is…even if the offense from the outfield leaves a little to be desired at the moment. "The offense has slowed down a little bit from earlier in the season yet we're finding different ways to win games…I do like the fact that we're getting contributions, a little bit more from everybody, and not just relying on the long ball." Reddick, who won a Gold Glove last season, was third among outfielders with 15 assists entering the weekend.
A's backups Freiman, Seth Smith and Chris Young do not raise eyebrows when they are in the starting lineup, and that's a good thing. Young, though, has been a curious nonreactor more often than not, considering his resume. The bench, while not necessarily a strength, is not a weakness, either. "It means that we're a little bit more diverse. And I still think our running game's going to come around…at least offensively, there are a lot of things we can do better in the second half than we did in the first half."
With the way Melvin mixes and matches lineups, you'd think he was back managing in the National League. It's been working. Rare is the move that goes wrong and how nice it must be for him to not haveto use the disabled list with aplomb, as in past seasons (jinx?). The reigning American League manager of the year may seem bland at times, but it only belies his inner Balfour-like intensity. General manager Billy Beane made the right move in hiring Melvin two years ago and really, they have both become winners for it.