May 11, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Scott Kazmir (26) delivers a pitch against the Washington Nationals during the first inning at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Indians (19-22) vs. Oakland Athletics (25-16)


Indians Welcome Athletics, Best Team in AL, to Progressive Field

After a solid seven game stretch against the Minnesota Twins and Tampa Bay Rays, the Indians reverted back to their cellar dwelling ways to start this week of baseballing. A 15-4 drubbing of the Toronto Blue Jays was sandwiched in between two tough losses. The end result of losing two of three games pushed the Tribe back into the AL Central basement. It’s a place they have become all too familiar with in 2014.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, now the Indians get to spend the weekend entertaining the best team in the American League. That, of course, would be the Oakland Athletics. Owners of a 25-16 record and a three game lead on the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Athletics look poised to win the AL West for the third straight season. You can say what you want about Billy Beane and his “moneyball” tactics, but the fact of the matter is that this incarnation of the baseball building philosophy made famous by Michael Lewis is working.

And it’s working well.

The secret to the Athletics’ success isn’t really all that much of a secret. The name of the game has always been to score more runs and allow fewer of them than your opponent. If you can do both of those things well, you will have success more times than not. So far this season, Oakland is doing those two things better than almost anyone else in all of baseball.

Entering tonight’s game, the A’s can boast that they are the second highest scoring team in baseball with 205 runs scored. The 134 runs they have allowed are good enough to be the third fewest allowed in all of baseball. For those of you too lazy to do the math, that translates to a +71 run differential. That my friends is why the A’s find themselves in first place with the best record in the AL.

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May 5, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Scott Kazmir (26) throws to the Seattle Mariners in the first inning of their baseball game at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

Currently, the Athletics possess arguably the three best starters in the American League, at least in terms of their current statistical outputs. Between Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, and Jesse Chavez, (All of whom the Indians will face this weekend. Can we catch a break?) the A’s are nearly unhittable. Those three starters just do no surrender runs, at least not a month and a half into the season.

For Indians fans, the success of Scott Kazmir is bittersweet. The Indians provided him the opportunity to return to the big leagues in 2013 and he repaid them by turning in a modest, albeit up and down performance. After signing a two-year $22-million deal with the Athletics this winter, Kazmir is putting up numbers that match his career best marks. With a 5-1 record, 2.28 ERA, and microscopic 0.89 WHIP, he has been dominant. It was a gamble by Oakland, a gamble the Indians clearly couldn’t afford to make, but as of today Kazmir looks like one of the best signings of the winter.

However, as mentioned, Kazmir isn’t alone. 24-year-old Sonny Gray is experiencing just as much success as Kazmir in his first full big league season. At 4-1 with a 2.17 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. Gray looks poised for a very long and successful career. It’s quite the contrast from the Indians’ Danny Salazar, who was expected by many to be the breakout pitcher of 2014 but has struggled to find his way.

As for Jesse Chavez, the journeyman right hander’s success has seemingly come out of nowhere. Added to the rotation after losing several members of their starting staff to begin the season, Chavez has rewarded the Athletics by turning in a 3-1 record with a 2.44 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. He has been just as good, if not better than Kazmir and Gray. He’s even posted a full strikeout more per nine innings than the latter two. 8.88 k/9 for Chavez compared to 7.36 and 7.17 for Kazmir and Gray respectively.

Things aren’t all perfect for the A’s, though. Thanks to injuries, they have been forced to piece together the final two spots of their rotation. Dan Straily was thought to be a reliable option, but he was so bad that it forced the A’s to send him down to Triple-A. Tommy Milone has also struggled in seven starts, posting a 4.10 ERA and only 5.53 k/9. It’s gotten so bad that they are even experimenting with former Indians’ farm hand Drew Pomeranz. Pomeranz showed some success in relief and now Oakland is hoping they can parlay that success into a full-time starting gig.

Making up for the shortcomings of the final two starting spots has been the performance of the bullpen. With the exception of former closer Jim Johnson, the Oakland bullpen has been one of the most reliable in baseball. Sean Doolittle has been dominant, striking out 26 and walking none in 20 innings of work. Luke Gregerson has stepped up in place of the aforementioned Johnson in the closer’s role. And while Ryan Cook found his way onto the disabled list, the A’s expect him back soon to provided added relief in the late innings.

But while the pitching has been phenomenal, let’s not forget about the offense. The are the other part of this burgeoning juggernaut of a team. And, at the rate at which they are producing runs, the Athletics could be the most formidable offensive force in all of baseball.

Now imagine if they didn’t play 81 games inside if the cavern formerly known as Oakland Colosseum.

The reason for the offensive success of the Oakland Athletics is quite simple. While they have based their offensive philosophy around the basic principle of making fewer outs and a walk being just as good as a hit, it has also helped that many of their bargain signings are developing into potential superstars.

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Apr 19, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson (20) fires to first base for an out during the seventh inning against the Houston Astros at O.co Coliseum. Oakland won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Among the current roster, the Athletics have several players that stand out and would look great wearing an Indians uniform (Hey, I can dare to dream). Third baseman Josh Donaldson leads the team in hits, runs, and home runs and appears to be well on his way to repeating his career year from  2013. Brandon Moss, a former Boston cast off, leads the A’s in average and RBI and nearly leads in slugging. Catcher Derek Norris is off to a surprisingly strong start with a .352/.441/.557 slash line.

Also adding to the fun has been Jed Lowrie. Lowrie has established himself as one of the best all around hitting short stops in baseball. Behind Coco Crisp at the top of the lineup, he provides the Athletics with a versatile number two hitter. OBP John Jaso is up to his usual bag of tricks with an absolutely ridiculous .398 OBP.

The scariest part of these developments has been the disappearing act of two key players, Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick. In the case of Cespedes, it has been less a disappearing act and more the players around him turning it up a notch. After struggling a bit with his swing in 2013, he is off to a decent start in 2014 with a .257/.333/.500 slash line, 7 homers and 22 RBI.

Meanwhile, Reddick has struggled with injuries in 2013 and finally appears to be getting back on track. And while the numbers still aren’t quite there, .228/.291/.333, this is still a player two years removed from a 30+ home run season. The talent is there, he just needs the time to figure it out. That’s something he will be given thanks to his defensive dominance in right.

Can the Indians get their act together this weekend? Can they solve the riddle that has been the elite teams in baseball over the past two seasons? We’ll have to wait and see, but so far in 2014 all signs would seem to point to no. That’s not to say they might not surprise us. They did take two of three against the Athletics earlier this season, thanks to Jim Johnson, and they have played significantly better at home. Perhaps this is a series than can help them build some confidence moving forward. One can only hope.

Pitching Match-Ups:

Zach McAllister (3-3, 3.89 ERA/3.92SIERA) vs. Sonny Gray (4-1, 2.17/3.68)

Josh Tomlin (2-0, 2.13/4.29) vs. Scott Kazmir (5-1, 2.28/3.28)

Justin Masterson (2-2, 4.31/3.41) vs. Jesse Chavez (3-1, 2.44/3.10)

Tags: Brandon Moss Cleveland Indians Josh Donaldson Scott Kazmir