Written by Andrew Munn, Matt Gwin, and Cole Nefsky
The Trade Watch
Entering Monday’s series, the Blue Jays and Athletics find themselves in comparable but distinct situations. The Athletics sit 44-54, 6.5 games back of the second wild card spot, and a whopping 21 games back of the silly-good Astros in the AL West. Returning home to Toronto after a miserable 3-7 road trip, the Blue Jays have slumped into the same 44-54 record, 6.5 games back of the wild card and 10 games behind the first-place Red Sox.
Going into Sunday’s games, both teams had a negligible 2.4% chance of making the postseason per Baseball Prospectus. However, the teams are taking differing approaches to the upcoming trade deadline on July 31. The Blue Jays, while most likely recognizing that 2017 will not be their year, are still attempting to contend next season, looking at moves that will improve the club in the short term. On the other hand, the Athletics have signalled that they are pure sellers at this year’s deadline. They have already made a noteworthy deal, trading Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson to the Nationals in exchange for Blake Treinen and prospects Jesus Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse. Amid attempting to build a new stadium, it appears as if Billy Beane and the Athletics are willing to commit to a full-fledged rebuild, something that they have tried to avoid for several years.
This could be a long process for Oakland, as they currently don’t own a ton of assets that teams have been looking to acquire. Yonder Alonso has had a breakout 2017 season, and could be of value to some contenders at first base down the stretch. Despite this, reports have indicated that only the Yankees have had interest at this point, and that their offers have been underwhelming enough that the A’s have looked at extending Alonso instead. It has also been reported that shortstop Jed Lowrie, while available, has not been checked on by any teams. Even though some of their biggest trade assets haven’t been generating interest from buyers to this point, the Athletics still find themselves at the center of trade deadline buzz, largely associated with the ace of their rotation.
Sonny Gray is no stranger to hearing his name discussed around the trade deadline, and he once again finds himself the big-name starter that many teams are trying to land. After struggling last season, Gray has put together a bounce-back 2017 campaign, hurling 91 innings with a 3.66 ERA, 85 strikeouts, and 25 walks. He has averaged 6 innings per start, and has seemingly been able suppress the long balls that plagued him in 2016, giving up only eight so far this season. Much like a couple of seasons ago, when Scott Kazmir was scratched on the day of his start against the Blue Jays because he had been traded to the Astros, a lot of eyes could be on Tuesday’s night game as Gray is scheduled to start at the Rogers Centre.
A Tale of Two First Basemen
In 2017, both the Blue Jays and the Athletics have seen breakout seasons from their primary first basemen. Of course, we know about Justin Smoak. He currently holds a .323 tAV, making him the 16th best hitter in baseball. Though you may not know as much about the Athletics’ Yonder Alonso. He currently holds a .307 tAV, making him the 32nd best hitter in baseball. Prior to 2017, neither player had ever hit more than 20 home runs and both have already surpassed that mark with a significant portion of the season still to go. While their level of hitting success is similar, the way in which they’ve achieved success is markedly different.
In another post at BP Toronto today, I looked at how Justin Smoak has excelled this season and a lot comes down to making more contact. At 8.9% his year to year increase in contact rate is the highest such increase in the history of the statistic. Beyond that, little has changed. He’s not hitting more fly balls, his launch angle remains unchanged, and he’s not hitting the ball any harder. The contact rate increase may be real, but all of the other skills were already in place. Prior to 2017, he’d already been hitting fly balls high and hard, just not often.
In contrast, prior to 2017, Yonder Alonso already had the contact skills in place, having posted a career mark of 83.2%. The power most often associated with first basemen, however, had never been Alonso’s strong suit. Up until this year, his career high was 9 for home runs and 38.5% for flyball rate. He’d still been an above average hitter at times, but it was in spite of his power, not because of it. At first base, Yonder Alonso was the baseball equivalent of a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Then 2017 happened.
Yonder Alonso now ranks 22nd in baseball in home runs and 13th in baseball in flyball rate. He’s gone from barreling just 3.2% of his batted balls—a league low among first basemen—to barreling a respectable 7.4% of batted balls. Yet, in contrast to Justin Smoak, Alonso has done all of this at the expense of his contact rate. His 2017 O-Contact% is 6.2% below his career average, his Z-Contact% is 5.2% below, and his overall Contact% is a whopping 7.2% below. He’s making contact with almost a tenth less pitches, but making the ones he does hit count.
In other words, not only is hitting extremely hard, but there’s also more than one way to be a great hitter. Each position player has their own set of skills and has to capitalize on them appropriately in order to succeed. Each first base man in this series has definitely capitalized, but in completely different ways.
The A’s Secret Bullpen Weapon Has Gone Awry
Ryan Dull burst onto the scene last year, carving up the strike zone, and a place in each one of our very hearts. The rather short pitcher throws a pretty mediocre fastball, with velocity and movement in the squarely average range, with a sincerely quirky delivery. He’s a fun pitcher to watch because nothing he does feels like it is anything quite extraordinary, but by sheer will, he seems to make it work.
This season, he suffered a knee injury early on after a fairly slow start, but he’s put that behind him with two rehab appearances that would inspire confidence in any 5’9”, soft throwing pitcher. He struck out exactly one batter in each of the two innings he’s pitched. In one of those outings, the first which was in rookie ball, Dull got the strikeout along with a ground out and a fly ball out. In the other, which took place playing for the Nashville Sounds, he got a strikeout, another fly ball and then a line out. This 50% line drive rate should not be expected to continue when he makes his debut. A two ball in play sample at AAA is not quite predictive of future, or intraseasonal big league success. That being said, he might be back in time for the Jays, so you need to know your Dull history.
Drafted in the 32nd round by the A’s, out of college, Dull climbed the ranks of the minor league Athletics’ bullpen system showing a particular talent for striking out opposing hitters and being able to limit the walks. If Dull likes it there in the Golden State, he picked a particularly convenient time to get injured, as it is entirely conceivable that he would have been included in the A’s and Nationals GIVE ME EVERYTHING IN YOUR PEN trade. Ryan has not once been described as boring by his teammates. He is essentially the opposite of his slightly unfortunate last name on the television. If I wish him well, Francisco Lindor, in the previous series preview, has proven to me that Dull will hit a walk-off homerun in the 10th inning of a game against the A’s, a novel feat for an AL relief pitcher. But that just seems to be the way that this season is headed.
If you want to play a game when watching, if Dull gets a whiff using his straight, uninteresting fastball, mumble something about the quality of the season. If he gets a whiff using his slider, which looks sort of flat and slow, throw a pillow at the TV. If he gets a whiff using his changeup, a pitch that is actually very good but is thrown less than 10% of the time, sigh loudly.
Lead Photo: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports