This week, we have bad news and good news here at Game of the Week. The bad news is that we were planning to do Sunday’s A’s/Rangers matchup, Dan Haren against Vicente Padilla. But when we went to program the DVR, we remembered we should have paid more attention during Professor Brown’s MLB Blackouts 101 earlier this semester-any game that goes up against ESPN’s Game of the Week is blacked out nationally. The good news is that we’ve taken to recording the game prior to our scheduled matchup, when possible, as part of our scouting report on the teams in question. So this week we’ll be looking at Saturday’s matchup, Joe Blanton and Adam Eaton, locking horns in the Ballpark At Arlington Now Known As Ameriquest Field (the BAANKAAF, for short).
The A’s and the Rangers have spent the last month going in different directions in the standings. On July 22nd, the Rangers trailed the A’s by a mere half-game in the AL West, with the Angels only two games behind the leader, and the Mariners five back in last place. On that date, the Rangers had better than even odds of making the postseason, 53.4%, according to the Playoff Odds Report. By the time they acquired left fielder Carlos Lee from the Brewers a week later, the Rangers were a game under .500, two and a half behind the A’s in second place, and their chances had fallen to 29.9%. Coming into Saturday’s matchup, the Rangers are in third place, and their playoff chances have dropped to negligible–right around 5%. Since a picture’s worth a thousand words, here’s how it all broke down:
What happened? Not a dramatic change in how the Rangers have played, but a major surge by the field. From July 22nd to today, the A’s have gone 23-9, and the Angels have gone 19-13, while the Rangers have muddled about .500, 15-17. But then again, that’s been the story of the Rangers’ season–oscillating within a pretty narrow band between five games under .500 and six over. That was good enough to stay in the race while the rest of the division was wallowing in the muck, but not good for much else.
With five weeks left in the season, let’s look at how the starters’ seasons are stacking up with what we predicted for them:
Oakland Texas EqA/VORP PECOTA EqA/VORP PECOTA Jason Kendall, C .260/9.1 .250/10.7 Gary Matthews, CF .285/33.2 .267/8.7 Mark Kotsay, CF .252/5.1 .269/18.6 Michael Young, SS .275/33.1 .287/45.6 Milton Bradley, RF .283/10.8 .289/23.8 Carlos Lee, LF .292/36.5 .284/28.7 Frank Thomas, DH .304/28.3 .295/12.5 Mark Teixeira, 1B .291/25.9 .313/44.3 Eric Chavez, 3B .272/6.3 .296/35.9 Hank Blalock, 3B .267/9.9 .292/37.3 Jay Payton, LF .258/6.5 .260/4.6 Mark DeRosa, RF .291/28.0 .248/-0.2 Nick Swisher, 1B .285/16.0 .286/15.1 Matt Stairs, DH .262/2.9 .284/10.4 Marcos Scutaro, SS .249/1.6 .254/9.7 Ian Kinsler, 2B .278/19.5 .271/20.1 Mark Ellis, 2B .243/-0.2 .280/25.8 Rod Barajas, C .246/1.2 .250/4.9
These two guys aren’t on their respective rosters, but we’ll probably want to talk about them anyway:
Bobby Crosby, SS .233/-4.8 .286/32.3 Brad Wilkerson, LF .251/-6.5 .289/24.9
The PECOTA numbers are the weighted-mean projections, from the player cards. The Rangers lineup features two of the biggest surprise performances of 2006-Gary Matthews making the leap from journeyman fourth outfielder to All-Star, and Mark DeRosa hitting well enough during Ian Kinsler‘s early-season absence that now that Kinsler is back to man the keystone, DeRosa’s being used as a corner outfielder. The fact that there is room for DeRosa in the outfield speaks of a disappointment as monumental as Matthews’ and DeRosa’s positive surprise performances: the ugly season of Brad Wilkerson, currently on the disabled list with a sore shoulder. Wilkerson was expected to show big improvement, going from one of the majors’ worst hitting environments to one of its best. Wilkerson’s power made the trip with him to Arlington-he has a .200 isolated power on the season, and has produced an extra base hit every ten at bats-but his batting average and walks didn’t make the trip with him to the American League.
Meanwhile, the Athletics have stories like Wilkerson’s up and down the lineup, and precious few positive surprises to offset the losses. The biggest disappointment in Oakland–heck, possibly in the entire American League–is not in today’s lineup, shortstop Bobby Crosby. Crosby’s injured, and has been injured a number of times this year. When he’s been able to play in 2006, he’s been horrible: low batting average, dip in isolated power, dramatic fall-off on defense (rate of 110 last year, this year it’s 88, barely above replacement level). After two injury-plagued campaigns, one has to wonder if Crosby can take the wear-and-tear of the middle infield. On the other hand, if moved, would Crosby’s bat justify a spot in the outfield, or at one of the corners?
Only slightly less disappointing than Crosby is the performance of Eric Chavez. Chavez was the star player from the A’s halcyon days that the front office decided to keep-he’s here while Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, and Ramon Hernandez are plying their trade elsewhere. As a star player in his prime, Chavez was meant to carry the team, but this season is his worst since 1999, and for the second straight year Chavez’s hitting has regressed. Unlike Crosby, his loss of value hasn’t been total, and his defense is still elite. Nonetheless, it hurts. Only slightly less painful has been the fall-off of second baseman Mark Ellis, whose performance with the bat has dipped all the way to replacement level.
Arguably, the most significant overachiever for the Athletics at the plate has been Frank Thomas, the longtime White Sox slugger Oakland picked up on a make-good contract this offseason. The surprise with Thomas has not been his effectiveness, but his playing time. Thomas’s 421 plate appearances are almost double those projected in his weighted mean forecast, and significantly more than his 90th percentile PECOTA projection. After the foot and ankle injuries that have ravaged the Big Hurt’s last two seasons, it’s been good to see Thomas in lineup, regardless of his limitations.
With introductions out of the way, let’s talk about the game:
- After a quiet first inning, in the top of the second things get a little annoying. Sideline guy Jim Knox is interviewing fans during the inning–asking a about their crude homemade sign (notable only because it identifies the Fox Sports Network), doing promos for future ticket sales, talking to a family whose two kids are each wearing the gear of the Rangers and A’s, respectively. Meanwhile, Frank Thomas is batting. Who’d want to see a future Hall of Famer bat when we can instead hear Knox’s inane banter? To be fair, they’re doing sort of a split screen so that we don’t miss too many pitches, but why don’t you do this during Mark Ellis’s at bat, or, even better, between innings?
Eaton works while Knox chats, mixing a mid-to-high 80s fastball thatlooks straight as a rail with a good changeup and a less-exciting curve. It’s strange seeing Thomas in Oakland green. Seven pitches into the at-bat, Thomas singles through the left side. On his first pitch from Eaton, Chavez doubles into the left-center gap. After falling behind 0-1, Jay Payton grounds one to short, scoring Thomas and getting Chavez to third with only one out. Eaton then gets ahead of Nick Swisher, 1-2. Swisher’s stance looks a lot like Chavez’s. Eventually, Eaton gets Swisher to fish on a changeup low and away. After a Marco Scutaro walk, Mark Ellis ends the inning.
- In the bottom of the second, first baseman Mark Teixeira lines a shot off of his opposite number. Swisher recovers quickly, corrals the ball that bounced away from him, and makes a nice shuffle pass to Blanton, but Teixeira shows better than average speed in beating it out. Blanton throws high three-quarters with a compact motion; his best pitch a slow curve, a straight 12-6 drop. Like Eaton, Blanton’s fastball is only registering in the mid-80s. That doesn’t stop Blanton from coming after the hitters with the heat, such as it is. After the leadoff hit, Blanton strikes out Hank Blalock, DeRosa, and Matt Stairs, in order.
- In the top of the third, the A’s are at it again. Jason Kendall, with a mustache and beard, and his cap pulled low on his forehead, looks like a police informer from a 70s drug movie. He works the count full, then lines a single up the gut. Eaton then walks Mark Kotsay on five pitches. Going 3-1 on Milton Bradley, it’s obvious that Eaton is overthrowing the fastball, and not missing by a little. Eaton walks Bradley, which brings up Thomas. Frank Thomas, not the guy you want to face when the control isn’t working. After Eaton goes 1-0 on Thomas, the trainer comes out and they’re looking at Eaton’s pitching hand. Whatever they’re worried about, it isn’t bad enough to take him out. On a 2-1 pitch, Thomas lays into one, a high fly to left, but the ball doesn’t quite carry, with Lee fielding it just in front of the warning track. Sac fly, Oakland leads 2-0, but it definitely could have been worse. Chavez also flies deep, this time to center, but all that does is advance Kotsay to third. Jay Payton flails at a high fastball, which is lined directly to Kinsler. Inning over.
- In Oakland’s half of the fourth, Swisher rips the first pitch he sees, on a line into the rightfield corner and gone for a home run–A’s lead 3-0. Swisher does the Barry Bonds two-handed point-to-the-heavens upon crossing the plate. Scutaro walks–again–on a full-count, which means that once again, it’s time for the annoying sideline guy to conduct an interview during the inning. He’s talking to the p.a. announcer, Chuck Morgan, about his 1,900th consecutive game announcing… and I’m left to wonder why. Why have some annoying jackass talk during the inning, and relegate the action to a picture within a picture! Why! It’s not like I begrudge Morgan the recognition, or the silly string attack he gets from the Rangers’ mascot (OK, maybe I do, a little bit) but there’s a game going on here!
The Chuck Morgan-fest ends just as Mark Ellis doubles into the leftfield corner, putting men on second and third with no outs. Serpico–I mean, Kendall–singles the opposite way, scoring Scutaro and sending Eaton to the showers. Joaquin Benoit replaces Eaton with runners on the corners, no outs, and top of the A’s lineup having a great chance to crack this thing wide open. Benoit strikes out Kotsay, then gets Bradley to ground to Teixeira, who freezes Ellis exactly halfway down the third base line, and runs the baserunner down all the way from across the field without making a throw. Teixeira won the Gold Glove at first last season, and it’s plays like that which make him a favorite to repeat. Thomas battles against Benoit, drawing an eight-pitch walk. With the bases loaded, Benoit strikes out Chavez looking on an 87 MPH fastball off the outside corner.
- In the home half of the sixth with one out, Michael Young doubles high over Kotsay’s head in center. That’s Young’s league-leading 45th double. Carlos Lee follows with a grounder up the middle, on a 2-2 count. Scutaro slides on his knees for the stop, but the ball bounces off his knee and into right field. Young scores, Lee hustles to second, and somehow, the hometown scorer figures that’s a double. I guess the idea is that if the fielder didn’t touch the ball with his glove, it can’t be an error. After Teixeira flies out for the second out, Blalock reaches, beating out a grounder to short, a “single.” In reality, it’s Scutaro’s second error of the inning, a double clutch that allowed the runner make it to first safely. The threat ends when Ellis fields a grounder by DeRosa, and takes matters out of the scorer’s hands by throwing the batter out at first. The Rangers have cut the lead to 4-1.
- In the top of the seventh, the Big Hurt fouls a ball off his ankle, and you just know Billy Beane has to be throwing furniture around the office wherever he’s listening to the game. After wincing and hobbling for a bit while waiting for the pain to subside, Thomas steps back into the batter’s box, and keeps fouling the ball off and working the count. Even though Thomas ultimately pops out to third, in four plate appearances, he’s made Rangers pitchers throw 29 pitches. Nonetheless, the A’s go down in order against Benoit.
- With two outs in the bottom of the frame, Rod Barajas hits the first pitch, a 93 MPH two-seam fastball, the opposite way for a double off the rightfield fence that’s just out of Bradley’s reach. Matthews follows with an eight-pitch walk, and Blanton’s mechanics have visibly deteriorated during Matthews’s at-bat–you can see him having a hard time keeping his balance on the follow-through.
With Blanton at 112 pitches, manager Ken Macha’s seen enough. The new pitcher is Kiko Calero, who’s been very effective this season–3.26 ERA, 57 strikeouts in 49.2 innings. Calero gets ahead of Young 0-2, but then starts nibbling, trying to get Young to chase. Young doesn’t, and Calero walks him to face Carlos Lee. On a 1-1 pitch, Calero hangs a breaking ball over the inside part of the plate, and Lee ropes it to right for a single. Two runs score, and it’s now a 4-3 game. Out goes Calero, and in comes Joe Kennedy.
Kennedy’s been excellent this season, when he’s been healthy–he missed about three months this season with soreness in his pitching shoulder. It’s not surprising. Kennedy comes from a low three-quarters angle, throwing noticeably across his body. The delivery may be effective, but it doesn’t look mechanically sound. With runners on first and second, Texeira turns around to bat righthanded against the lefty. On a 2-2 count, Teixeira hits the ball hard, but to the deepest part of the ballpark. Kotsay gathers the ball in, and the Rangers exit the inning still trailing by one run.
- In the top of the eighth, the bottom of the lineup is due for the Athletics against righthanded sidearmer Wes Littleton. Littleton’s a bit reminiscent of Dale Mohorcic, or, for you young ‘uns out there, a slightly less twitchy version of Ben Weber. After Blanton buzzed the tower on Ian Kinsler in the seventh, Littleton whips an 89 MPH fastball high and tight to Swisher, sending him to the dirt. On a full count, Swisher pops out to Young. Scutaro fights off a Littleton offering for an opposite-field single, his second hit of the game, and his fourth time on base. On an 0-2 count, Ellis grounds another ball the opposite way, sneaking through the hole created by holding the runner for a single. Another righthanded batter, Jason Kendall, comes up for the A’s and delivers a sinking line drive just past the shortstop, another single, loading the bases. So Littleton, a righty-on-righty specialist, has failed to retire any of the right-handed batters this inning, and now faces Kotsay with the bases loaded and one out.
Littleton courts disaster, going 3-1 on Kotsay, who then belts a ball to right that DeRosa catches up to at the wall, very close to being a bases-clearing double or worse. Still, Scutaro scores on the sacrifice fly, and the A’s lead is notched up to 5-3. Littleton then walks Bradley on four pitches, almost throwing the ball away at least twice. All this, to face Frank Thomas. Thomas takes a huge hack at a 3-1 pitch, but once again, the ball does not carry to left, and Matthews makes the catch in left-center to end the threat.
- The rest of the way, the relievers carry the game. Kennedy stays on for another inning, retiring the Rangers in order in the bottom of the eighth. Lefty Ron Mahay, Kennedy’s counterpart on the Texas roster, returns the favor, allowing a hit to Jay Payton in the top of the ninth, but then erasing the outfielder on a pickoff. It says a lot about the quality of these team’s benches (or lack thereof) that neither team pinch-hits for their lefty batters against the other team’s lefthanded relievers. In the bottom of the ninth, the A’s bring in closer understudy Justin Duchsherer to face the 8-9-1 hitters in the lineup, whom Duchsherer retires in a matter-of-fact fashion for the save.
That’s it for this week’s edition of Game of the Week. The plan at this time would bring Game of the Week to St. Louis, where the Cardinals will face the Pittsburgh Pirates this weekend. However, I’m always open to suggestions. With major league rosters expanding this weekend, is there any team or player that you particularly want to see covered on Game of the Week? Feel free to let me know if you do.