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A's were baseball's best team in April

I hope the women and children in Texas didn’t witness the sweep the A's put on the Rangers because I think the A’s just committed three counts of felony sports-slaughter. After beating Yu Darvish 4-0 on Monday and the red-hot Martin Perez 9-3 on Tuesday, they bashed Robbie Ross in a 12-1 victory on Wednesday. The A’s close out April with an 18-10 record, including 12-4 on the road, and while they don’t have baseball’s best record, they are baseball’s best team after one month.

Here are 10 reasons they were the best in April … and should continue to roll along:

1. Run differential: The Milwaukee Brewers (20-8) and Atlanta Braves (17-9) have better win-loss records, but the A’s have a huge edge in run differential: plus-59 compared to plus-19 for the Brewers and plus-16 for the Braves. Sure, you don’t want to overemphasize run differential in April since one or two blowout wins or losses can skew the totals, but plus-59 is total domination and a better indicator of team strength than going 20-8 because you went 6-2 in one-run games and 4-1 in extra innings. Sorry, Brewers fans.

2. This lineup is deep: The Chicago White Sox, riding the big bat of Jose Abreu and some other improbable hot starts (Tyler Flowers hitting .354, Dayan Viciedo .348, Alexei Ramirez .351) have scored a few more runs, and the Los Angeles Angels have scored one more run in one less game played, but no team matches the depth of the Oakland lineup from one through nine. Coco Crisp (.393 OBP) and Jed Lowrie (.423) set the table at the top with Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Yoenis Cespedes anchoring the middle of the order. They have two catchers who can hit in Derek Norris and John Jaso, Craig Gentry is one of the best fourth outfielders in baseball and Alberto Callaspo and Nick Punto are versatile switch-hitters off the bench. In fact, Crisp and Lowrie also switch-hit, making it difficult to match up with the A’s in the late innings. That kind of flexibility allowed the A’s to bat with the platoon advantage 70 percent of the time last season, the second highest in the majors.

3. Jesse Chavez is no fluke: When Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin (who just announced he’d undergo Tommy John surgery as well) both went down in spring training, it opened up a rotation slot for Chavez. He’s 2-0 with a 1.89 ERA in six starts and was silly good in Wednesday’s win, allowing one hit and one walk in seven innings. He’s a four-pitch guy, or five pitches if you want to include both his four-seam fastball and two-seam fastball, adding a cutter that he throws a lot, a changeup and a curveball.

What makes Chavez so tough is that he uses the different pitches to basically pitch to all four quadrants of the strike zone. Both fastballs tend to be up in the zone, primarily used inside to both righties and lefties; he uses his cutter on the outside part of the plate (meaning he has the ability to spot it to both sides, depending on whether it’s a lefty or righty batting; the changeup, mostly thrown to left-handed batters, is low and away; the curveball usually drops in at the knees across the plate.

Where did he come from? The journeyman righty spent time with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Braves, Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays before the A’s purchased him from Toronto in August of 2012. He had a 3.92 ERA in relief last season with Oakland. When he first reached the majors, Chavez was primarily a fastball/slider guy. He’s since dumped the slider and added the cutter while throwing his four-seamer less and his changeup and curve more often. It’s working. He throws strikes, he knows how to pitch and if, he can handle 30 starts without breaking down, he’ll be good all season.

4. Josh Donaldson is no fluke, either: He finished April with a .279/.338/.533 line, seven home runs and 23 RBIs. Just like 2013, he’ll be one of the best players in the American League.

5. Sonny Gray just might be an ace: I’ll admit I was skeptical heading into 2014 despite his dynamite showing at the end of 2013 and in the postseason. A short right-hander who is basically a two-pitch pitcher? I took a “prove it to me again” attitude. He’s proving it, alright, with a 4-1, 1.76 start, including that three-hit shutout against Darvish on Monday. Look, let’s not get carried away here: He’s only 16 starts into his career, and he needs to show he can handle 200 innings in the major leagues and pitch consistently every fifth day. But he is slowly working in a few changeups and sliders to go with his power heater and hammer curveball, and he’s got that “look” out there, not that I can define what that means.

6. Crisp has aged into an underrated star: Another Billy Beane special. Crisp does a little of everything: good range in center (although the metrics rate him off to a slow start with minus-7 Defensive Runs Saved), excellent percentage base stealer, doesn’t strike out much and he even added power last season with 22 home runs (and hit his third of 2014 on Wednesday). At 34, he’s playing the best baseball of his career.

7. An improved Yoenis Cespedes: The feeling last season was that Cespedes got a little too homer-happy, selling out for the long ball. He hit 26 of them, but his walk rate dropped and his strikeouts increased, leading to a .240 average and sub-.300 OBP. He has 16 strikeouts and 12 walks so far, a much improved ratio over last season’s 137/37 mark. A more disciplined Cespedes is a more scary Cespedes.

8. I’m not worried about the bullpen: The A’s have lost three games they led heading into the ninth, one reason they’re 18-10 instead of 21-7 or 20-8. They have some power arms down there, however, and things will get sorted out. Sean Doolittle, for example, is 0-2 with a 5.68 ERA, but he’s also fanned 15 with no walks; he’ll be fine. Luke Gregerson is good, Jim Johnson has pitched better after a couple early bad outings, Ryan Cook is back, Fernando Abad has pitched very well and Dan Otero is a tricky right-hander. The pen is fine.

9. Manager Bob Melvin: One of the best in the business. The calm serenity of a redwood tree. Or something like that.

10. Green Collar Baseball: That’s the A’s official slogan of sorts. The team’s website includes it, and the clubhouse in spring training had a sign up to remind players of it, not that they need reminding. As Donaldson told me in spring training about what it means, "It’s about grinding every at-bat. That you’re never out of a game." It’s not necessarily playing with a chip on your shoulder just because you’re on the small-market A’s but showcasing your ability every day, no matter your salary, your service time, the number of fans in the park or your place in the standings. "I think you’re going have guys in this locker room who are going to be $20 million ballplayers," Donaldson said in March. "They may not be making $20 million right now, but there’s definitely potential for guys to make that money. There’s a bunch of guys here with less than three years of service, so we have guys still trying to make their mark. That’s the great thing about baseball: You get a chance every time you step on the field to prove yourself."