The greatest goal for improvement is growing strength from weakness. The Oakland Athletics did the opposite.
Oakland was paced by a powerful bullpen performance to a series victory beginning a rebound week. That same group was their greatest weakness to end it.
The good news: a much healthier starting staff appears to have found its groove. Omitting Jharel Cotton (3-4, 5.68 ERA), who was optioned to Triple-A Nashville on May 11, starters gave the A’s (16-21) 32-2/3 innings of 10-run ball (2.93 ERA) including four quality starts in five outings. The bad: relievers coughed up 10 runs in its final 4-2/3 frames of the week after starting it with 11 scoreless.
Beyond the obvious, the struggles of Oakland’s relief corps highlighted a weakness in the offense’s clutch at-bats — 6-for-38 (.158) with runners in scoring position. But a team-wide inability to cash in on run-scoring situations put an ability to create runs outside of those situation on a pedestal in its two wins in six tries.
Fastball: Powerball numbers
Oakland bats clubbed an American-League leading 13 home runs in the week (T-1, MLB), with long balls accounting for 14 runs.
The A’s currently boast the AL’s fourth-most homers on the season (50). Add the Junior Circuit’s second-most doubles (61) and you get 114 extra-base hits (T-4) from a team that compiled the league fewest (460) one year ago.
Reigning AL Player of the Week Yonder Alonso led the way, mashing three homers for a career-best 12 this season — in Mid-May, by the way. Trevor Plouffe (6), Matt Joyce (4) and Jed Lowrie (4) added two apiece, and Adam Rosales (3) and Chad Pinder (2) each chipped in one.
The distribution is key to making this offense a more well-rounded threat. Despite Khris Davis‘ 42 in 2016, the A’s finished with the fourth-fewest (169). No matter how good a dimension, postseason play is not a possibility for a one-dimensional offensive attack.
Changeup: Plouffe goes the dynamite
Since finishing April with a .207/.275/.366 slash and nearly twice as many strikeouts (30) as hits (17), first-year Oakland third baseman Plouffe has found his groove back on the west coast. Through 11 games in May, the 30-year-old So-Cal native is slashing an impressive .294/.351/.529. with two of his six homers and three of his 12 RBIs.
In a week of largely deficient offensive production, Plouffe led his new club in hits (7), total bases (15), runs (4), on-base percentage (.450) and slugging percentage (.833).
With manager Bob Melvin constantly needing to shuffle his lineup in search of consistent offense, having confidence in Plouffe to go along with Alonso, Davis, Lowrie and Ryon Healy as middle-of-the-order options will make the skipper’s job a bit more comfortable moving forward.
Curveball: Losing lotto card
While big flies produced 14 runs, little flies found little if not nothing — A’s non-homer runs came in at three. Losing four of six, those powerball numbers obviously didn’t come in for the “Free-Swingin’ A’s.”
Completely disregarding the fact that 17 runs in six games (2.83 per game) is nowhere near enough, three run-scoring hits is bordering laughable. A .158 average with runners in scoring position crosses that border.
Being solely dependent upon the long ball is not a recipe for success, but disaster.
Thus far this season, Oakland is batting a respectable .263 (No. 7, AL) with runners in scoring position. That number, though, is obscured by the ongoing career year from Alonso, who has accrued 13 hits (T-3, AL), a .464 average and 15 RBIs in such situations. Lowrie (.095), Davis (.107), Stephen Vogt (.167) and Plouffe (.192) each have improvements to be made.
Sinker: Not much of a relief
Santiago Casilla, Ryan Dull and Ryan Madson were each saddle with a loss — Liam Hendriks, a blown save — en route to a heart-wrenching three-game sweep at the hands of the Rangers (19-20) in Texas. In each game, the starter lasted at least six innings before handing the ‘pen a lead. In each game, the only relief supplied was the starter being relieved of a win.
This was supposed to be a strength of this team — a bullpen group chock-full of established arms.
Sure, the group has been asked to eat 121-2/3 innings in the team’s first 37 games (3-1/3 per game), but a three-peat of horrid outings is not something that can be expected. Particularly given the Toronto Blue Jays’ bullpen, which leads the AL with 140-2/3 innings pitched, having allowed three fewer runs than Oakland’s.
The A’s must bring down the AL’s fourth-worst bullpen ERA (4.73)
Slider: Khrush-less Khris
A notoriously slow starter, April is among the worst months of Davis’ career. Coming into the 2017 season, Khris had hit just seven homers in the season’s opening month — his fewest of any month. So when he finished this April with 10, it was easy to project improvement off his career-best 42 of a year ago.
This May — a month in which he had hit 21 of his 102 homers coming into the year — has been a nightmare for the Oakland slugger. He has collected just six hits in 46 at-bats (.130) average without a homer, and has struck out 17 times.
The rough stretch came to a head in a week in which his team was riding a power surge. Davis finished the week 1-for-16 (.063) with a team-high five strikeouts and a team-low .118 on-base percentage.
Positive? His lone hit was one of his club’s six coming with runners in scoring position giving him an RBI.
Pitch-out: Recapture momentum
The A’s continue their search for a .500 record when they play three in Seattle before returning home for four against the Red Sox (19-18).
Against the Mariners (17-21), Oakland has gone 3-1 this season with all four contests coming at the Coliseum. The M’s have lost four in a row on the heels of a four-game win streak. Their inconsistent play slightly mirrors that of the A’s.
Boston has gone 4-6 in their last 10 games, searching for their own flow. One member of that team not in search of flow, however, is five-time All-Star starter Chris Sale (4-2, 2.15 ERA), who has struck out at least 10 batters in seven consecutive games. On Thursday, he will look to match the MLB record shared by Pedro Martinez and the 2015 version of himself. Oakland hitters have struck out 315 times (fifth-most, AL).
The A’s are 11-8 at home, which gives them immense levels of hope against a tough Boston bunch. Before that matchup, though, Oakland and its bullpen has to find a way to turn around its 5-13 road record in the Emerald City, where they have won their last two.