Inside Pitch: A’s show life to offer second half hope

The first three Oakland Athletics games of the second half delivered a preview of what the final 73 could hold — and what the first 89 did not.

The season’s fifteenth week brought the unofficial end of the first half — in which the A’s went 38-51 — and the beginning of the second. Oakland started their post-All-Star break schedule with a near-sweep of the postseason contending Toronto Blue Jays (52-42).

Receiving massive contributions from home run leader Khris Davis, along with the team’s most recent in a long list of rookie call-ups Ryon Healy, the A’s (40-52) came one hit from the sweep. In each of the three games, the home team showed fight that they lacked throughout the first three months, coming from behind to tie all three games, and eventually win two.

Consistent with the happenings in the first half, the bullpen offered stellar relief work early in the series. The pen allowed one run in 8-2/3 innings of work in the first two games, before crumbling under the pressure of over-use. Moving forward, the A’s will walk the fine line between fire sale and maintaining near-future success.

Fastball: Battling through the injury bug

Coming into the series, the Green and Gold had used the disabled list 20 times — netting a total of 837 games missed due to injury. Of the 11 players currently on the DL, five were a part of the Opening Day 25-man roster.

Despite a massive number of walking wounded, the A’s have remained competitive, largely fueled by production offered by players who have made their major league debuts in 2016. Thus far this season, such pitchers have combined to provide 23 starts, 28 relief appearances and six wins.

In Friday’s 8-7 win, Oakland celebrated its first debut from an everyday position player. Although Healy suffered an 0-for-4 with the bat, his defense played a key role in the win. His bat spoke loudly in Saturday’s 5-4 win, however, as he hammered a go-ahead three-run homer for his first career hit.

Unless they are able to scratch together an extended winning streak, Healy will not be the last player to make a big league debut this year.

Changeup: Semien and Davis proving to be a powerful pair

Although they were left out of the All-Star festivities, both Davis (.256/.292/.505) and Marcus Semien (.237/.305/.475) were among the most productive hitter in the first half.

Neither have offered an especially impressive batting average, but Davis (22) currently finds himself tied for Major League Baseball’s No. 9 spot in home runs while Semien, who slugged No. 20 in Sunday’s 5-3 loss, leads all American League shortstops.

Semien, 25, also brings much improved defense — having been saddled with just 10 errors one season after committing 35. Davis, 28, is the team leader in RBIs (60), while being among the league’s top 25.

Curveball: Hill a surprising ace

Coming into the season Rich Hill (9-3, 2.25 ERA) was the only clear question in the rotation, having pitched just 110 innings since 2009. When on the bump, though, he has been anything but a question, offering ace-like services since being forced into an unprepared start on opening night.

The only hampering on an otherwise All-Star-worthy first half was a groin injury that sidelined the veteran lefty from May 29 until July 2. The injury bug once again took a bite out of Hill — a chunk from the middle finger on his left hand, to be exact.

After being pushed back from his scheduled start on Friday night, due to a blister, Hill was removed from Sunday’s games after just five pitches when the blister popped.

Scouts from at least six teams were in attendance for the game, looking at the lefty as a potential trade candidate. The injury will have limited effect on his trade value, though, as it carries little to no long-term ramifications.

Sinker: No BB equals low OBP

The “Swingin’ A’s” could not refrain in the first half, drawing a mere 222 walks (second-fewest in the AL). Even after drawing eight free passes and banging out 26 hits in the Toronto series, the team on-base percentage (.305) has remained in the AL cellar.

Billy Burns (.234/.270/.303) was the key culprit, coaxing just 10 walks in 292 plate appearances — working five in 163 plate appearances as the lead-off hitter. The shortage of free bases played a role in Burns, who finished fifth in the 2015 AL Rookie of the Year voting, returning from the Midsummer break as a member of the Triple-A Nashville Sounds.

Slider: A cloudy season for Gray

Ace Sonny Gray (4-8, 5.12 ERA) entered the season after back-to-back 14-win seasons, with a 3.08 ERA in 2014 serving as his career single-season high. On Saturday, the 26 year-old enjoyed his first victory since winning in Toronto on April 22, after losing seven consecutive starts.

With 13 wild pitches, Gray has five more than any other big league pitcher. He is also among the AL’s worst in ERA (ninth-highest) and WHIP (1.48, tenth-highest) and .

His struggles have perplexed both player and coach.  With a handful of starts left before the August 1 trade deadline, Gray has rendered himself nearly untradeable with his value plummeting. So, looking for positives, his down season may have earned him the opportunity to stay with the team that drafted him in 2011.

Pitch out: Astros, Rays and trades

Next up for the Oakland are the Houston Astros (50-42), against they are 4-6, and the Tampa Bay Rays (35-56), against whom they are 2-1.

More attention-worthy than the opponents, however, will be the names on the home roster each day. As they continue to field calls regarding players such as Hill, Gray and Josh Reddick (.297/.378/.441), the A’s roster could evolve greatly over the coming weeks.

With every farewell comes an introduction, though, as top prospects like Raul Alcantara and Matt Chapman wait eagerly for their fast-approaching chance at the show.


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.