So There IS Another Division: Athletics Series Preview

Toronto Blue Jays vs. Oakland Athletics

Friday, April 22nd – Sunday, April 24th

Preview written by Jenn Smith and Sean Addis.

The Blue Jays head home after completing a disappointing road trip through Boston and Baltimore, finishing with two one-run heartbreaking losses. The offence continues to struggle if your name isn’t Donaldson, Bautista, Encarnacion or the newly resurgent Michael Saunders. Saunders was put into the lead off spot in game three of the Red Sox series and has been very effective. In 21 at bats he has eight hits, five runs scored and three walks, maybe a change in the line up would be good for some other Jays hitters. The other change is that the Blue Jays are finally finished with their march through the AL East gauntlet, with the next five series coming against opponents from other divisions.

In contrast to the inconsistent Blue Jays, the Oakland Athletics, come into this series on fire. They have just complete a three game series sweep against the New York Yankees, have won five in a row, to go with a 6-0 record on the road this year. The Athletics pitching staff has been one of the best in the American League with a 2.76 ERA, and the bullpen has not allowed one of their 26 inherited runners to score this season. This series might be a challenge for a Jays team looking to break out of a season long slump.

Pitching Matchups:

Friday, April 22nd – First Pitch 7:07 PM ET

Aaron Sanchez vs. Sonny Gray

Though it has only been three starts, Aaron Sanchez has thus far proven why his rightful place is in the starting rotation. In 20.0 innings pitched, he has an impressive 1.35 ERA, 9.00 K/9 rate and 3.15 BB/9 rate. More significant is his well above league-average 59.2 percent ground ball rate, which is of particular importance against the hitters of the AL East, especially considering the Jays’ stellar infield defense. Sanchez has relied primarily on his 96 mph sinker, which generates more whiffs/swing than the average sinkers, while mixing in his 96 mph four-seam fastball and 78 mph curve. So when he is also throwing a good changeup, it’s borderline unfair. In his last outing, he held the Red Sox hitless until two outs in the fifth, eventually striking out seven and walking four while giving up just one run on two hits over seven solid innings.

Since his call-up to the majors in 2013, Sonny Gray has established himself as one of the best pitchers in the American League. Both his 93 mph fourseam fastball and sinker generate a high percentage of ground balls, but given the defense behind him (more on that later), this may actually benefit the Jays. He has a wicked slider and hard curve that he uses to generate strikeouts, while his changeup is used more to create weak contact. After being scratched from Opening Night with a bout of food poisoning, Gray is 2-1 with a 2.33 ERA, 7.91 K/9 and 3.72 K/9 over 19.1 innings. His most recent outing was a six-inning, 114-pitch battle that resulted in a 5-3 victory over the Royals. The only member of the Blue Jays’ lineup who has had success versus Gray is Jose Bautista, who is 5-for-10 lifetime against the right-hander.

Saturday, April 25th – First Pitch 1:07 PM ET

J.A. Happ vs. Chris Bassitt

J.A. Happ has carried over last season’s second half resurgence into the early days of the 2016 season. He is coming off his best outing of the season against the Red Sox, where he pitched seven four-hit innings and allowed just one run. He has averaged over six innings a game in his first three starts, which has been the bigger story. Even in his best career run last season with the Pirates, he averaged only 5.2 innings per start. If he can continue to go deep (ish) into games, he will have tremendous value. Since 2013, Happ has pitched five times against the Athletics with a 2.02 ERA over 31.1 innings, so he will be hoping to continue that dominance in game two of the series.

Right-handed pitcher Chris Bassitt was one of the four players acquired when the A’s shipped Jeff Samardzija to the White Sox prior to last season. He has impressed with a 2.79 ERA in three starts, and is coming off back to back seven inning quality performances against the Royals and the Mariners. He throws a lot of sliders and curveballs, and by Mike Sonne’s metric, has some of the best “stuff” in the game. He has only faced three Blue Jays, we will see whether that will be an advantage for Bassitt or the Blue Jays hitters on Saturday afternoon.

Sunday, April 24th – First Pitch 1:07 PM ET

Marcus Stroman vs. Eric Surkamp
In his 28.1 innings pitched over the course of three starts, Marcus Stroman has looked both brilliant and somewhat shaky. Either way, he has gotten the job done, sporting a 3-0 record thanks to a little help from his friends – namely, some timely hitting from Jays’ hitters. His 4.13 ERA and 4.76 K/9 rate suggest that his starts have not entirely been smooth sailing, but his highly impressive 61.8 percent ground ball rate (league average is around 44) has helped bail him out of some tough spots. Stroman credits his newly-developed power sinker – which he throws at 92 mph to generate an extreme number of ground balls – as key to his success. His slider (85 mph) and change up (84 mph) also generate a high percentage of ground balls. Expect the Stro Show to be on full display against this Athletics’ lineup, most of whom have yet to face the Jays’ anointed ace.

Eric Surkamp has experienced a tumultuous start this his major league career. After two seasons with the San Francisco Giants, he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012 and has since been a member of four different teams. Surkamp relies primarily on his fourseam fastball, which is thrown with below-average velocity and generates its fair share of fly balls. He also mixes in a cutter and a change. In his three starts this season, Surkamp is 0-for-1 with a 3.68 ERA over just 14.2 innings. On the bubble with regards to his place in the rotation, Surkamp pitched well enough in his last outing against the Yankees to help his team secure the win, though he earned a no-decision for the affair. His inability to miss bats, the flyballs and his throwing hand all add up to a potentially very favourable matchup for the hometown boys in blue.

Additions and Subtractions

Relief pitcher Jesse Chavez has been out of action of late due to back pain, and the team hopes he can take the ball this weekend against his former team. This loss greatly impacted the bullpen usage by manager John Gibbons and could have factored in a couple of the losses against Baltimore. It is worth monitoring when and if Chavez will be used this series. If the injury is prolonged or persistent, it could result in a trip to the disabled list.

Former Blue Jay third baseman Danny Valencia was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a left hamstring strain suffered on Wednesday’s game against the Yankees. He was hitting .294/.345/.353 in 55 plate appearances. It is expected that Oakland will call up utility player Tyler Ladendorf, who can play all infield and outfield positions, from Triple-A Nashville. In the absence of Valencia it is expected that Chris Coghlan will see most of the action at third base.

Keep an Eye On

The Jays’ (Lack of) Offense

Seventeen games is certainly early in the season, but the all-world offense of 2015 has yet to materialize. Through the first seventeen games last season, the Jays had scored a total of 84 runs and had put up more than five runs in nine of those games, while striking out a total of 120 times. Over the same period this season, the Jays have managed just 65 runs while racking up a whopping 161 strike outs, and have scored more than five runs just twice. The team is batting a collective .232/.315/.375 and, outside the first four in the lineup, have looked quite lost at the plate. It is a worrying trend given that this team is built on offense. Despite this, the Jays have nearly an identical record as they did at this time last year – they are 8-9 as opposed to 9-8. Credit the Jays’ starting pitching – which has thus far been better than predicted – for picking up the slumping offense.

The Athletics’ Defense

Once built with a defense-first mentality, the Athletics are fielding a team of below-average defenders at every position except for Josh Reddick and Yonder Alonso. Coco Crisp was once an elite defender as well, but injury and age seem to have taken their toll, and he is now something of a liability. This bodes well for the Jays’ struggling offense, who, if they can just put the ball in play, may be able to take advantage of the A’s trouble catching the ball and break out of their slump.

The Blue Jays Bullpen

With the aforementioned questionable availability of Jesse Chavez, the Blue Jays are somehow looking at a tired, depleted bullpen despite their starters leading the American League in innings pitched. In the finale against the Orioles, Pat Venditte was asked to throw two innings, despite none of Brett Cecil, Drew Storen, or Roberto Osuna having thrown on back to back days. This suggests that some of these arms may be feeling a little overworked by all the close games early in the season.

Probable Lineup

Oakland Athletics

Toronto Blue Jays

Billy Burns (CF) Michael Saunders (LF)
Coco Crisp (LF) Josh Donaldson (3B)
Josh Reddick (RF) Jose Bautista (RF)
Jed Lowrie (2B) Edwin Encarnacion (DH)
Stephen Vogt (C) Troy Tulowitzki (SS)
Chris Coghlan (3B) Russell Martin (C)
Khris Davis (DH) Justin Smoak (1B)
Yonder Alonso (1B) Kevin Pillar (CF)
Marcus Semien (SS) Ryan Goins (2B)

via Roster Resource

Final Thoughts

The Blue Jays will be looking for a series win against an opponent that, while playing well, is inferior on paper in all aspects of the game. If even one or two of the slumping Blue Jays can snap out of it, and the relievers are all healthy and able to take the mound, there is a good chance the Jays can pull this one off.

Lead Photo: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

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