Meet the hottest team in baseball
OK, maybe it’s not the best time to sing hosannas about the Oakland Athletics’ offense, not when they needed two broken-bat singles off Mariano Rivera on Thursday to beat the Yankees in 18 innings, 3-2.
Starting pitching is the reason I picked the A’s to win the AL West, and the primary reason the team has won 21 of its last 26 games entering its weekend series against the Seattle Mariners (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, MLB on FOX).
But what intrigues me most about the A’s — other than their 108-60 record over the last calendar year, as pointed out by Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron — is the subtle transformation of their offense from 2012 to ‘13.
Last season, when the A’s won the AL West, they mostly walked and hit homers — their .238 batting average ranked next-to-last in the AL, and they struck out more than any team in the league.
This season, their identity is different due to the acquisitions of two quality hitters, catcher John Jaso and shortstop Jed Lowrie, and emergence of a third, third baseman Josh Donaldson.
The A’s grind down opposing starters — they’re first in the league in walk rate and second in pitches per plate appearance. They’ve dropped from sixth in the AL to 12th in home-run rate, but improved from last to eighth in strikeout rate and from eighth to sixth in runs per game.
The impact of strikeouts on a team’s offense is hotly debated, but A’s general manager Billy Beane clearly felt that he needed to mix in some contact hitters among such high-strikeout types as Josh Reddick and Brandon Moss.
It’s working, as evidenced by the Athletics’ .603 winning percentage, second-best in the AL. It’s working, even though the team’s $60.7 million Opening Day payroll was the fourth lowest in the majors.
Oh, and by the way, the rotation ERA during the last 26 games is 2.52. And the A’s could get left-hander Brett Anderson back after the All-Star break and turn to red-hot Triple-A righty Sonny Gray should the need arise.
ONE FANTASTIC SCOUTING REPORT
Yankees rookie right-hander Preston Claiborne suffered his first career loss Thursday — Jaso hit a one-out single off him in the 18th, then scored after singles by Seth Smith and Nate Freiman off Rivera.
Still, Claiborne has made a brilliant ascent with the Yankees, who selected him as a senior out of Tulane in the 17th round of the 2010 draft, making him the 535th pick overall.
When I asked Yankees GM Brian Cashman who was most responsible for recommending Claiborne, he said that former major league infielder Andy Cannizaro, the team’s area scout in Louisiana, pushed hardest for the pitcher.
Cashman then pulled up Cannizaro’s report.
“This is the type of kid I would give the ball to in a sold-out Yankee Stadium under the bright lights and know he is going to pitch with confidence and not fold under the pressure,” Cannizaro wrote. “He is a bulldog with stuff. Absolutely gets after you on the mound.”
Not bad, huh?
In 21 innings, Claiborne has a 0.86 ERA, with 17 strikeouts and one walk.
BACK FROM THE CUTTING-ROOM FLOOR!
Here is the start of a column that I was planning on Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig when all hell broke loose on Tuesday night and I had to change topics.
I flew across the country to expose the myth, bring reality to the proceedings, represent all of the skeptics who already view Yasiel Puig as overhyped.
But when I asked members of both the Dodgers and Diamondbacks about Puig, every one of them told me, in no uncertain terms, that he indeed was for real.
“Five-tool player,” Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez says before I could even ask a question, grasping immediately that I did not want to discuss President Obama’s second term. “All the skills.”
Yeah, but Adrian, c’mon. No way this can last. No way Puig isn’t some La-La Land creation. No way he can be this good.
“He’s aggressive in the strike zone,” Gonzalez replies, simply. “Guys like that are hard to pitch to. He’s not just up there swinging at everything.”
Left-hander Clayton Kershaw agreed.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s really comparable to what (Mike) Trout did last year,” Kershaw said. “You see a lot of the same things. Body type. Power. Aggressiveness. Athleticism. Puig is probably a little more raw. But I think he’s going to figure it out pretty quickly.”
OK, over to the Diamondbacks’ clubhouse . . .
Eric Hinske, nearing his 36th birthday, is a veteran of 13 seasons and seven teams. He’s thinking about becoming a hitting coach after he retires, maybe even a manager. And he noticed something about Puig right away.
“His front foot is almost out of the box,” Hinske says. “His back foot is in the middle of the dirt. He almost strides outside of the chalk.”
Interesting. But what does that tell you?
“I don’t know what it tells me,” Hinske said. “He can’t wait long enough. He’s raring to go. He hits the first pitch every time he’s up there.”
Pretty close — Puig is seeing 2.92 pitches per plate appearance, well below the major league average of 3.84. His swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone is well above average, as is his swing rate on pitches inside the zone, according to PitchFx data on Fangraphs.com. His contact rate, though, also is above the norm.
Hinske, though, likes what he sees — “He’s real quiet, calm hands, a relaxed back elbow.” He speaks with admiration of Puig’s 6-foot-3, 245-pound frame — “He looks like a bowling ball. His arms are huge.” He turns to backup catcher Wil Nieves at the next locker and asks, “what do you think, Wil, is he legit?”
Nieves responds, “Oh yeah.”
The Diamondbacks’ starting catcher, Miguel Montero, issues a more expansive endorsement.
“I think he’s the real deal,” Montero says. “Obviously he’s having a good time right now. Obviously, everyone knows he’s not a .500 hitter. But I don’t think he’s a .200 hitter, either. He’s a great player with great tools. I really like that kid, to be honest. He’s a grinder. He’s got great potential.”
Montero says Puig’s bat speed will help him make adjustments, and that his foot speed will help prevent him from going into lengthy slumps.
And then Montero offers a classic summation.
“He’s got f—– talent. Holy s—.”
DIDI AND CO.
Remember last offseason when the Diamondbacks had a hole at shortstop? Suddenly, they’ve got three, all 23 or under.
Didi Gregorius, acquired from the Reds in a three-team trade, is helping the major league club not just with his defense, but also his offense.
Chris Owings, a supplemental first-round pick in 2009, is batting .346 with an .820 OPS in the hitter-friendly Triple-A Pacific Coast League.
And while Nick Ahmed, obtained in the Justin Upton deal, is batting only .174 with a .471 OPS at Double-A, he’s making a powerful impression with his glove.
General manager Kevin Towers, who saw Ahmed play during a recent visit to Mobile, said, “He made plays that gave me chills.”
If Ahmed develops offensively — and he did perform better at Single-A and Double-A — he will add to the Diamondbacks’ choices going forward.
Gregorius, though, is a keeper.
“In the field, he’s electric,” Diamondbacks reliever Brad Ziegler said. “He has so much energy when he’s playing shortstop. He makes plays they probably haven’t seen anybody make in Arizona, other than maybe Tony Womack.
“He has all kinds of range. A tremendous arm. A flair for the dramatic. As a pitcher, it’s amazing. Especially being a groundball pitcher, I’m like, ‘Please hit it to shortstop.’”
AND ON THE FLIP SIDE . . .
The Justin Upton trade looked horrible for the Diamondbacks in April, and still could turn out to be lopsided against them if Martin Prado doesn’t show offensive improvement.
Still, Upton is in the kind of funk that used to frustrate D-backs officials, batting .206 with a .608 OPS and just two home runs in his last 114 plate appearances. He also is batting just .175 with a .664 with runners in scoring position.
The Braves’ outfield, which entered the season with great expectations, ranks only 12th out of 15 in the National League with a .716 OPS. B.J. Upton, however, is coming around — he has an .822 OPS in 42 plate appearances in June, and nearly as many walks (eight) as strikeouts (10).