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10 Biggest Takeaways from the First Month of the Oakland Athletics' Season

Nick HouserCorrespondent IIMay 7, 2014

10 Biggest Takeaways from the First Month of the Oakland Athletics' Season

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    April saw a lot of high-fiving.
    April saw a lot of high-fiving.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    It's been an interesting first month of baseball for the Oakland Athletics. Fans and beat writers have learned about the state of pitching, the seriousness of the offense and more in that span.

    And if April is any indication, not making the playoffs would be a bizarre occurrence.

    Certain individual pitchers are thriving, while others aren't getting it done. One unit as a whole isn't clicking just yet. Starters may need to sit, and platoon guys may warrant more time. But so far, the A's have thrived on their way to the second-best record in the American League.

    Here's a look at what we've learned so far.

Sonny Gray Can Be the Ace

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    Gray stifled the Texas Rangers, shutting them out completely.
    Gray stifled the Texas Rangers, shutting them out completely.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Not many knew exactly where Sonny Gray would be in the rotation heading into 2014. As the newest member to Major League Baseball, it wouldn't have been shocking to see him in the fifth spot. But his stuff is so good that earning Opening Day honors wouldn't have been out of the question, either, even before Jarrod Parker's season-ending injury.

    Although early on, Gray was most likely going to pitch either second or third.

    Then Parker was lost for the season, and Gray moved in as the interim ace. He hasn't disappointed yet.

    In seven starts of a very young season, Gray is 4-1 with a 1.91 ERA. Oh, and he's also pitched a complete-game, three-hit shutout. No big deal.

    Gray has filled the void at the top seamlessly.

    In fact, he has been more than just Oakland's best pitcher. Gray earned American League Pitcher of the Month honors.

Scott Kazmir's 2013 Was Not a Fluke

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    Kazmir has been as dynamite as Gray.
    Kazmir has been as dynamite as Gray.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Scott Kazmir joined the Oakland A's as this year's veteran reclamation project. He started to rebound in 2013 by finishing with a 4.04 ERA and 10 wins, so the hope was that 2013 was less of a fluke and more of a resurrection.

    No one expected Kazmir to pitch like a 2013-version Bartolo Colon, but so far he's on or near that level.

    Like Gray, Kazmir has seven games under his belt. And just like Gray again, he's also 4-1. Kazmir possesses a 2.64 ERA, has a strikeout rate of the same 7.7 Gray holds and with less walks than Gray. Not only is Kazmir matching Gray now, but he's also on pace to finish with Colon-like numbers.

    All for a guy who A's assistant GM David Forst said was "toxic" for a couple of years (via Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports).

Jesse Chavez Is for Real

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    Chavez wasn't going anywhere, even if A.J. Griffin returned.
    Chavez wasn't going anywhere, even if A.J. Griffin returned.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Here's the Jesse Chavez timeline.

    He was the long reliever in 2013. In spring training of 2014, he stretched out as a starter hoping to make the 25-man roster. When Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin went down, he nabbed a spot under the likely premise of "whoever does the worst gets bumped when Griffin returns."

    So far, Chavez has made it clear: He's not losing his spot any time soon.

    After seven starts, he's 2-1 with a 2.47 ERA. He doesn't have as many wins as Scott Kazmir, but he has a slightly better ERA so far. Furthermore, Chavez leads the team in strikeouts with 44.

    It's nice knowing your third starter—a guy who typically bounced back and forth between Triple-A and the bullpen—puts you in a fantastic position for a win. But what changed in Chavez, now 30 years old? Here's Chavez explaining the transition himself, in quotes captured by John Hickey of San Jose Mercury News:

    But now I'm a completely different pitcher than I was two years ago. My arsenal has changed. My cutter has taken over, and I'm throwing more strikes. From the time I came here in 2012, I've focused on keeping the ball down. As a kid, I could throw 95, 96 mph. Now I'm happy if I throw 92 as long as I can keep it down and hit the corners.

    Manager Bob Melvin added, "the cutter has filled out his repertoire."

The A's Must Do Something About the Back of the Rotation

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    Dan Straily, right, is averaging three runs allowed in about five innings per start.
    Dan Straily, right, is averaging three runs allowed in about five innings per start.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    The front three are 10-2. But the back end of the rotation is 1-5. Dan Straily is struggling, and Tommy Milone is even worse.

    The A's can't afford to jump into a crapshoot every fourth and fifth game. They may be able to get into playoffs doing so, but advancing will be incredibly difficult with the rotation as is.

    Now whether a change means internal or external, that's a good question.

    Internally, they have Josh Lindblom and Drew Pomeranz. Pomeranz has a 1.98 ERA in 13.2 innings so far. Lindblom started one game, earning a no decision and leaving with a 3.86 ERA. That's not too terrible; it's better than Straily (5.01) and Milone (5.86).

    A third option may be Arnold Leon.

    Both Pomeranz and Leon are currently with the A's, and one or both men could start in Game 2 of a May 7 doubleheader.

    According to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, Leon is hoping to make the best of his experience. "I’m finally here, but I know it’s just one game. And I’m motivated to get here for good. This is not the final step, it will continue," Leon said.

Being the Best Bullpen on Paper Means Squat

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    Oddly enough, Doolittle has struggled the most so far.
    Oddly enough, Doolittle has struggled the most so far.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    When you see a bullpen of Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson, Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Dan Otero, you salivate. On paper, that has to be one of the best bullpens in Major League Baseball.

    Reality is a different story—at least early on.

    As the closer, Johnson struggled mightily, at times. In his first two appearances in green and gold, he took a loss and blew a save. He even lost closing duties (if you want to call it that). Then on May 6, with the A's down 4-3, Johnson walked two, made a throwing error and allowed three runs. It hasn't all been bad, but it's to the point where A's fans likely hold their breath when Johnson enters a game.

    Gregerson has had a few issues too, but on the whole, not nearly as bad.

    In his second appearance, he too blew the save. He has three total blown saves in six chances. His ERA is still a terrific 2.55, however.

    Doolittle has become a fan-favorite with A's fans. It would appear as if he may be the team's long-term closer someday. It won't be soon though. Doolittle hasn't been himself so far this season. He's blown one save, has two losses and owns an ERA of 4.60—down from 5.02 after striking out four straight on May 6. Perhaps it was just an off month and he's getting back into form.

    Surprisingly, it's been Fernando Abad who has been the best reliever.

    In 13.1 innings, he has allowed just two hits and three walks, compared to 15 strikeouts. Via Susan Slusser, manager Bob Melvin called Abad "fearless" but said the reliever will likely remain the lefty specialist needed in tight situations, rather than close.

    While they've hit some bumps—and haven't quite been the very best in the game—the A's bullpen still owns the fourth-best ERA in Major League Baseball.

    The lesson? Even if you're the best on paper, you still have to go out and perform. And there's plenty of time to keep shooting up the list to finish the season as literally (not figuratively) the best bullpen in the game.

Derek Norris May Be Ready to Take over Full-Time Starting Duties

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    Things seem to be clicking for the bearded one.
    Things seem to be clicking for the bearded one.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Derek Norris has played in 25 games to John Jaso's 26. In that span, Norris is hitting .364 to Jaso's .254. Norris has 12 RBI, 11 walks and 10 strikeouts. Jaso has four RBI, 11 walks and 22 strikeouts.

    Maybe it's time to award Norris full-time starting duties.

    The knock on Norris is that he doesn't hit lefties as well as righties. Looking at his career splits supports this notion. Against right-handers, he hits .199 while against southpaws, his average is .287.

    This year has been much different though.

    Norris has 31 at-bats against RHPs and 35 against LHPs. And wouldn't you know it, he's hitting .387 and .343 respectively.

    John Hickey of the San Jose Mercury News also questions whether Norris deserves more reps, answering, "If it's not now, it never will be." Since asking, Norris batted .400 in the five games following.

What's Wrong with Yoenis?

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    He can strike out all he wants, as long as he doesn't injure himself in the process.
    He can strike out all he wants, as long as he doesn't injure himself in the process.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The question seems to pop up too often. It's either, "Why isn't he hitting?" or "What's wrong with him now?"

    First, what's wrong with Yoenis Cespedes in terms of production?

    No, .257 isn't awful. No, five home runs aren't either. His 19 RBI are solid, and he's walking more and striking out less than normal, so it seems. But he was up and down—mostly down—until about 16 games into the season. Even now, he seems to be somewhat leveled off. For now at least.

    Again, it's not bad production.

    It's just confusing to see the guy who absolutely mashed balls at the 2013 Home Run Derby not do so more regularly in the regular season. (No, no conspiracy theories here.)

    Maybe you're not concerned with production.

    Maybe you take the question of what's wrong in terms of injuries. He sure does seem to pull up gingerly more than the average player. And this time it appears to be a hamstring, which is definitely not good. Hopefully it doesn't affect him long-term, but I for one cringe a little every single time I see him sprint hard or dive for a ball.

Josh Reddick's 2013 Production May Be the More Likely Reality

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    Reddick is a fantastic outfielder, but he just isn't hitting very well.
    Reddick is a fantastic outfielder, but he just isn't hitting very well.Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Let's take a look at Josh Reddick's 2012 and 2013 stats.

    2012: .242 BA/.768 OPS/32 HR/85 RBI/5.0 WAR
    2013: .226 BA/.686 OPS/12 HR/56 RBI/2.2 WAR

    To be fair, it has to be pointed out that in 2012 he missed six games while in 2013 he missed 48.

    But now he's healed. So there shouldn't be any excuses (not that he's personally using one because he isn't). But check out his line so far.

    2014: .215 BA/.585 OPS/1 HR/9 RBI/0.3 WAR

    Granted, the season is young, so he won't finish with these low numbers. But he's on pace to hit six home runs and 50 RBI. He'd finish with a WAR of about 1.6, too. All three numbers are worse off than his 2013 numbers, and they're assuming he plays in 160 games. (He's missed two due to injury already.)

    The point is, if we're judging based on one month, his production looks to be more like the down year of 2013 than the up year of 2012.

The A's Love to Make It Interesting Late

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    These are fun... after the panic settles down.
    These are fun... after the panic settles down.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The A's already have two walk-off wins this season. They also lost by way of the walk-off.

    But the eighth and ninth inning get real interesting during most A's games.

    For instance, they've scored 21 runs in the ninth inning, which is third-most behind 29 in the third and 27 in the first. They've allowed 17 runs in the ninth, too. While that's the fourth-most of any inning, ideally you'd like to allow the fewest runs in the final inning of a game.

    Let's go game-by-game.

    The first game of the season was tied 0-0 heading into the ninth. They lost. The third game of the season, Jim Johnson blew a save in the ninth. The fourth game went into extra innings (late-inning drama when the A's tied it in the bottom of the eighth).

    Against Felix Hernandez and crew, the A's were held scoreless, until the ninth.

    The Twins then sent the game into extras by tying up the game in the bottom of the ninth on April 9. Coincidence?

    Nearly shut out by the Mariners a few days later, the A's scored four in the eighth to get fans excited for a comeback. It didn't happen. On April 13, the A's won 3-0, scoring all three runs in the last two frames.

    In a series against the Angels, the games broke down like this: A's score two in the ninth and lose by one; Angels tie it in the bottom of the ninth, but the A's win; and then the Angels tie it in the bottom of the ninth yet again, but the A's lose the third game.

    Losing to the Astros in their first game against each other, the A's score three in the bottom of the ninth to win. 

    The Rangers then break up a tie and defeat Oakland in the eighth inning of their first game. The next game, they score two in the top of the ninth to beat Oakland again.

    I'm sure you get the point. Six other games featured similar drama (a comeback, a near comeback, or a let down). That's 19 of 33 games.

    And that's a lot of anxiety for an A's fan.

April Was Kind to the Oakland A's

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    It looks like an awesome bromance, but it's just another A's walk-off.
    It looks like an awesome bromance, but it's just another A's walk-off.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    On paper (there it is again), the A's were supposed to coast through April. After all, they can hang with the Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers. And they got six against the Houston Astros, seven against the Seattle Mariners and a three-game set against the Minnesota Twins.

    But April tested the A's a bit.

    They dropped the first series to Cleveland. Then those pesky Mariners continued to be a thorn in Oakland's side. They also got swept by the Rangers.

    Still, the A's went 18-9 in April. Sweeping the Rangers in the second series as well as the Astros and Twins (both in three games) certainly helped. Going 2-of-3 in other AL West series goes a long way as well.

    So they've seen the competition. They've dealt with injuries. They battled bullpen woes. And they're seeing struggles at the back of the rotation. They've had to come from behind six times. They've blown leads five times.

    April has provided a bit of everything.

    Hopefully, though, it's all been a test, and persevering early is a sign of what's to come.

     

    Stats provided by MLB.com and Baseball-reference.com. Find me on Twitter, and let's talk A's baseball.

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