Pushing for a postseason berth, the Oakland A's are faced with a huge test. They must survive a grueling three-city, 10-game road trip against some of the tougher teams the American League has to offer. Combined the A's opponents on this roadtrip (Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees and Texas Rangers) have a .613 win percentage at home.
It starts in Detroit, where the A’s have yet to play this year. They will face a talented Tigers club that many pegged as a favorite to reach the World Series. The Tigers haven’t quite lived up to expectations, so far, and find themselves 5.5 games out of the Wild Card hunt.
With star players such as Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Prince Fielder, it’s hard to believe the Tigers remain three games behind the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central. The Tigers' offense is a force – sixth in baseball in average, third in on-base percentage and seventh in OPS – but the Tigers are also just 17th in WAR, one spot ahead of the A’s.
That’s largely due to defense, where sabermetrics have Detroit as one of the worst in baseball. Cabrera's and Fielder’s defensive liabilities factor in heavily, with Cabrera’s range costing his team a calculated 14 runs this season.
But Cabrera has shown good hands and a strong arm on balls he can get to. A case can be made on both sides of the argument as to whether Cabrera should have been put at third base when Fielder was acquired in the offseason. But even with his poor defensive metrics, Cabrera is good enough with the bat to qualify for an MVP-type WAR of 6.3, which says more about his offensive game than people realize.
Cabrera has an outstanding .330/.395/.599 slash line and 38 home runs, which ties his career-high. Oddly enough, he has hit 24 home runs at home in the very spacious Comerica Park, with an OPS of 1109 compared to ‘just’ an 895 clip on the road.
Cabrera also does his best work when it matters most. With runners in scoring position, Cabrera is hitting .360 and has accounted for 79 of his 123 RBIs. It’s also clear that his approach is drastically different with runners on base. He’s far more inclined to shorten up to get the run(s) home. In fact, 23 of his homers have come with no runners on base, while just seven have come with runners in scoring position. He’s averaging a home run every 23 at-bats with RISP and one every 12 at-bats with the bases empty.
The A's head into the series winners of eight of their last 10 since being swept at home by the Los Angeles Angels. The A's have won 12 of 14 on the road. The Tigers are a much better team at home than on the road, owning a 43-28 at Comerica compared to 34-41 mark elsewhere.
A's outfielder Josh Reddick’s streaky season has continued. He began September in a 3-for-39 slump that lowered his on-base percentage by 13 points and he failed to register an extra-base hit during that stretch. But he has regained his form in the last five games, and he’s hit .333 with a pair of doubles and a home run.
Fellow A's outfielder Yoenis Cespedes has also been hot of late, with three homers and a 1486 OPS in his last six contests. Prior to his home run on September 11, the native of Cuba went 21 games without one. He remains arguably the team’s most important position player, as the A’s are 72-41 in games he has played.
Coco Crisp is set to return after missing the final game of the A's series versus Baltimore with what was diagnosed as pink eye. Crisp is batting only .236 with a 744 OPS in September after posting an 828 OPS in August. However, he is still carrying an 836 OPS since the All-Star break.
A's manager Bob Melvin will send A.J. Griffin (6-0, 1.94 ERA) to the hill in Tuesday’s first game. He’ll take on the hard-throwing Max Scherzer (16-6, 3.77 ERA). The 24-year-old Griffin has been outstanding in his rookie campaign. His eight-inning outing in his last start was the longest of his short career. In that start, he scattered six hits and struck out six Angels to help his club get the pivotal win.
What Griffin has done this year is remarkable considering the circumstances. Griffin was highly regarded within the A's organization, but he wasn't on most top prospects lists issued by national publications (Griffin entered the season as the A's 18th-best prospect according to OaklandClubhouse). He doesn’t possess an explosive fastball, although he does own a minor league K/9 rate of 8.72 and a K/BB rate of better than 6/1. Most pitchers see some decline in their numbers when they get to the major leagues, but Griffin has posted remarkably similar numbers in the major and minor leagues. His major league K/9 rate is 7.34 and he has actually walked fewer per nine innings (1.52) than he did in the minors. Griffin has relied on his deception and control to go undefeated in his 11 major league starts, while having a WHIP below one (0.91).
Scherzer is an enigma. Scouts have always been enthralled with his explosive stuff but he has had an up-and-down major league career because of his inability to harness that stuff. But lately, he has been the pitcher Detroit was hoping for when they traded for him back in 2009.
In seven starts since August 5, the right-hander has lowered his ERA from 4.65 to 3.77 by allowing just seven earned runs in his last 49 innings (1.29 ERA). Hitters are batting at a .194 clip and he has been inducing ground balls at a rate of 69 percent.
Scherzer’s late-season surge has made 2012 the best of his career so far and he’s been able to do it with just three pitches – a very hard fastball, slider and change-up. His slider is his go-to off-speed pitch while his change-up is still considered a work in progress.
Wednesday's game should be outstanding for those who like to watch pitching. Cy Young candidate Justin Verlander (14-8, 2.82 ERA) will take on Brett Anderson (4-1, 1.93 ERA). Verlander continues to prove he’s one of the best pitchers of his generation and he has already eclipsed the 200-inning mark – a feat he has reached for six-straight seasons.
But the righty has been up-and-down in his last four starts. On August 28, he gave up eight earned runs to the Royals and then shut down the White Sox through eight innings in his next outing. After that, he yielded six runs to the Angels, then shutout the Indians in seven innings his next start. Given the pattern, the A’s should see a poor outing from Verlander.
The A's won’t be counting on it, however, as Verlander has a 2.56 career ERA versus Oakland.
In his last start, Anderson hit his first speed bump since he return to the majors from Tommy John surgery. He allowed the Angels to score five times, which was the first game in which the southpaw has allowed multiple runs this year. All five of those runs came in Anderson's final inning, however, and three crossed the plate after he exited the game.
An interesting trend has been Anderson’s ground-ball to fly-ball ratio, which has decreased in each of his starts. There might not be much to the increase in overall fly balls other than pure coincidence, but it should be noted given his health status.
Thursday’s final game will have Tom Milone (13-10, 3.81 ERA) take on Anibal Sanchez (3-5, 4.19 ERA).
Milone’s latest victory against Baltimore over the weekend gave him his fourth win in five starts. The lefty allowed two earned runs, one of which came when Manny Machado advanced from first to third on a pair of sacrifice flies and scored on an error. The other run came on Chris Davis’ fifth-inning home run.
Sanchez hasn’t quite been what the Tigers hoped he would be in his nine starts since being acquired from Miami. He has allowed 65 hits in 53.2 innings after giving up hits at a far better clip in the National League. Sanchez has good stuff and a full, four-pitch repertoire, but hasn’t been able to stay out of the big part of the strike zone in his short time with Detroit so far.