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Series Preview #17: D-backs @ Athletics

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“We love a good challenge, and there’s no doubt about it, we’re challenging ourselves right now,” bravely said Torey Lovullo.  Are the Diamondbacks up to the challenge of beating the battling Athletics? The answer is yes; read on to find out why.

“We got guys who battle.”  — Jed Lowrie
“We got guys who battle.” — Jed Lowrie
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

What’s the Athletics’ Story?

The Athletics started this season with payroll 46% lower than the Diamondbacks payroll. The Athletics payroll was lowest in the Majors and the franchise’s lowest since 2013.

Their Division includes three teams who are playing very well - Astros, Mariners, and the Angels. The pessimistic view is they are in fourth place in the AL West. Their odds of winning the Division are very small.

The optimistic view is their odds of a wild card berth are 19% (source fivethirtyeight.com). They are currently above 500. If they can finish the season above 500, it would mark a successful season for the Athletics.

Athletics Players to watch.

In May, they promoted their center fielder of the future, Dustin Fowler. In the future, he may be great. In the present, he is so-so.

  • ”Overall Fowler’s [offensive] numbers are only mediocre so far through 34 plate appearances, but there are some encouraging aspects to his batting line…. .207/.294/.414, 90 wRC+, 11.8% BB, 11.8% Ks, .200 BABIP.” Alex Hall, Athletics Nation
  • “On the defensive side of the ball, Fowler didn’t look perfect but he was certainly promising.” Alex Hall, Athletics Nation

Their infield ranks high in wins above average because contributions by Matt Chapman (3B), Jed Lowrie (2B), and Marcus Semien (SS).

How do Diamondbacks compare to Athletics?

Let’s look at defense, outfield, rotation, and bullpen.

Defense. The D-backs are either the best in the Majors, or close to it. The Athletics are somewhere between average and the worst. Let’s look at two measures of defense: Ultimate Zone Rating(UZR) and unearned runs allowed.

  • The D-backs rank first in the Majors in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) (17.3) compared to Athletics rank 11th with a UZR of 3.4 (Source Fangraphs through May 20).
  • The D-backs rank tied for third to sixth in defense with 9 unearned runs allowed. The Athletics rank tied for 27th/28th in defense with 23 unearned runs allowed (source: Baseball Reference through 22 May). Update: Although the D-backs’ rank fell to seventh with 2 additional unearned runs on 23 May, the comparison is the same.

Outfield. Although I rank the outfields as about equal offensively, Peralta is the better hitter and Dyson’s speed is unmatched. And at the wall Dyson took away a three run homer earlier this week.

  • Athletics’ outfielders are Dustin Fowler (OPS+ of 73) whose first plate appearance in the Majors was 9 May, Matt Joyce (OPS+ of 99), and Stephen Piscotti (OPS+ of 79).
  • With Pollock and Souza on the DL, the D-Back outfielders are David Peralta (OPS+ of 108), Jarrod Dyson (OPS+ of 59), and Chris Ownings (OPS+ of 45).

Rotation. Two Athletics starting pitchers are injured (Brett Andersen and Andrew Triggs). They will decide who pitches in the series with the Mariners immediately prior to playing the Diamondbacks. Therefore, who will start against the D-backs may change.

Like the Athletics, the D-backs had injuries in their rotation (Walker and Ray). Fortunately, Robbie Ray and Shelby Miller may return soon, and two exceptionally talented pitchers (Taylor Clarke and Jon Duplantier) will be ready for the Majors in 2018/2019. Nevertheless, the current D-back rotation is above average in the Majors, which is better than the Athletics rotation.

Bullpen. Opponents OPS against the Diamondbacks bullpen (.572 on 16 May) ranked lowest/best in the Majors (source Ken Rosenthal). That compares well to the Athletics which ranked 27th/28th in OPS. Brad Boxberger has 12 saves in 13 opportunities, while Blake Treinin has 10 saves in 12 opportunities.

The Athletics have weaknesses in defense and pitching, which should ignite the semi-dormant Diamondback offense. I boldly predict the D-backs will win the series!

Who will pitch in this series?

Friday. Sean Manaea (153 ERA+, 6.9 SO/9, 1.5 BB/9) vs Patrick Corbin (162 ERA+, 11.7 SO/9, 2.6 BB/9)

Sean Manaea’s ERA was 1.03 in March/April. On April 21 he pitched a no-hitter against the Red Sox. Then May happened with an 5.96 ERA. One clue is after allowing one double in March/April, he has allowed 7 so far in May.

FanGraphs provided a chart showing the range of velocities for each game Patrick Corbin pitched. On 19 May, his top velocity (less than 92 mph) was the lower than any game from 2016, 2017, or 2018.

Jeff Wiser wrote there are two approaches to success: great stuff (velocity) and great command (pitch location) in this article. At lower velocities, whether Corbin has good command becomes more important.

Keegan Thompson wrote, “...the team has been forgoing his scheduled bullpen sessions on off days to give him extra rest.” That action tells me this issue may linger.

This match-up is advantage D-backs.

Saturday. Daniel Mengden (126 ERA+, 6.0 SO/9, 0.9 BB/9) vs Clay Buchholz (250 ERA+, 3.6 SO/9, 1.8 BB/9)

Daniel Mengden’s ERA was 4.68 in March/April and 1.46 in May. How did he improve that much? I don’t know. In any case, in his last start, “Mengden popped his shoulder out and back into its socket as he was covering the bag in the seventh inning. He stated it isn’t out of the ordinary but he didn’t have to have it popped back in this time.” source: Ellis Canady, RotoBaller.

It had been over a year since Clay Buchholz had started a game in the Majors. This season’s game went very well (1 earned run in 5 innings). Was it luck or was it real? As Jim McLennan pointed out he was pitching to contact (“he had only six swinging strikes”), and he was helped by low BABIP (“1 for 14 balls in play”). So maybe it was luck. On the other hand, Jim wrote he “was mixing up his pitches well, and generally avoiding much in the way of hard contact.” So maybe it was real.

This match-up is a toss up - both pitchers could be either awesome or awful.

Sunday. Trevor Cahill (151 ERA+, 8.8 SO/9, 2.3 BB/9) vs Zack Greinke (114 ERA+, 9.9 SO/9, 1.0 BB/9)

Former Diamondback Trevor Cahill was recently on the 10 day DL because of an elbow impingement. An MRI was “clean” and so without any known treatment he returned to action on 16 May. His pitch count was 88 on May 16 and 102 on May 22. 102 was his highest pitch count in more than a year. His ERA in May is 2.37, but is it sustainable?

Zack Greinke leads the NL in strike-outs to walk ratio (9.57). His ERA for May is 2.55 despite one disappointing game - allowing 3 homers against the Brewers on 21 May. This match-up is slight advantage D-backs.

Leon Province, Nicaragua
Leon Province, Nicaragua
Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images For Save the Children

Player in the spotlight

Baseball is the national game of Nicaragua. The Nicaragua Professional Baseball League has four teams. The current champion is Tigres del Chinandega.

Nicaragua is an economically poor country with very uneven income distribution. In much of the country, baseball equipment is unavailable. Improvising happens.

In the off-season, the player in the spotlight ran three baseball clinics for kids in Nicaragua. He said, “But even on these back fields, you see the talent and the love of the game. I got out there and I pitched to them. Literally just a dirt field with a little grass here and there, …”

He said, “That’s something that’s important to us, having a worldly view, because it gives you perspective. I think it’s important to travel internationally and have these experiences and share them with others.” It is likely he will continue these clinics after he retires from baseball.

The Majors is an elite group. In the Majors, this player in the spotlight has never been an All-Star, never won a gold glove, and never won a silver slugger. Not every player in the Majors can be the best, even for one season. Nevertheless, this type of player is valuable because he can power a team to the post-season.

This season could be his best. His pace of homers and RBIs could result in career highs for both. His range factor at second base (4.78) is 4th in the AL. Double plays turned (25) is 5th in the AL, and assists (116) is 1st in the AL.

I was amazed at how much he contributes to his team. That contribution makes him awesome and in the spotlight! He has played in the Majors for 11 seasons. His name is Jed Lowrie. He plays second base for the Athletics.

He has similarities to three D-back players.

He hits doubles – he ranked second in the AL in 2013 and 2017. This is similar to All-Star Luis Gonzalez, who had 5 seasons with doubles in the top 10 of the NL. Although Lowrie’s 234 career doubles are less than Gonzalez’s 596 career doubles, they both excel in doubles.

His hobby is photography – similar to All-Star Randy Johnson. And because shark week is his favorite of the year, perhaps he will photograph sharks after he retires from baseball (when he is not running baseball clinics).

He has often been injured – similar to All-Star AJ Pollock. Lowrie’s injuries include:

  • 2009 ulnar styloid excision and arthroscopic ligament repair on his left wrist and ulnar neuritis in his left wrist limited him to 32 games
  • 2010 mononucleosis limited him to 55 games
  • 2014 broke his right index finger, he played in 136 games
  • 2015 numerous injuries limited him to 69 games
  • 2016 toe surgery ended his season after 87 games

If Jed Lowrie can avoid injury, like he did last season, this season will be impressive. He is having a career season and Jed Lowrie is the player in the spotlight.