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Series Preview: Mariners (79-66) vs. Athletics (81-65)

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The biggest series of the season starts tonight as the Mariners host the Athletics in a battle for the AL Wild Card.

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Ezra Shaw

At a Glance:

Date

First Pitch

Away Team

Probable Pitcher

Home Team

Probable Pitcher

Friday, September 12

7:10pm

Athletics

RHP Jason Hammel

Mariners

LHP James Paxton

Saturday, September 13

6:10pm

Athletics

RHP Sonny Gray

Mariners

RHP Felix Hernandez

Sunday, September 14

1:10pm

Athletics

LHP Jon Lester

Mariners

RHP Chris Young

Mariners

Athletics

Edge

Batting (wRC+)

92 (12th) | 92

103 (6th) | 105

ATHLETICS

Fielding (FanGraphs Defense)

17.6 (6th) | 19.4

20.7 (5th) | 14.4

ATHLETICS

Starting Pitching (FIP-)

101 (7th) | 102

105 (11th) | 105

MARINERS

Bullpen (FIP-)

82 (1st) | 83

94 (6th) | 93

MARINERS

The last time these two teams faced off, the Athletics were four and a half games ahead of the Mariners and leading the Wild Card race by a pretty wide margin. Well, two wins in the seven games since facing the Mariners last week have dropped them to just a game ahead of the Tigers and a game and a half ahead of the Mariners. There's a realistic possibility that the Athletics won't be holding a playoff spot after this weekend. For the Mariners, this series will be the most important series that Safeco has seen in years.

In an odd turn of fate, all six starters are the same as the three-game series played just a week ago. The matchups are a bit different but aren't any less compelling. I was surprised to see the huge jump in the Athletics fielding rating since we last saw them. They didn't add any elite fielders since then, they've just gotten consistent defensive play from Sam Fuld and Josh Donaldon and their other regular starters.

The Athletics:

August was the first month since May of 2012 in which the Athletics had a losing record. They're well on their way to a second consecutive month with a losing record. The Athletics are in complete free fall. If you take a look at their batting leaderboard over the last 30 days, the only player who is contributing any significant positive value is Josh Donaldson. Brandon Moss hasn't hit a home run since July 24. Derek Norris has forgotten how to hit. As a team, they've hit seventeen percent worse than average in August and September. And things do not seem to be getting better.

To be fair, the Athletics aren't getting blown out:

Here's how the Athletics have lost these last seven:

  1. Sept 2: Athletics 5, Mariners 6 - Attempted comeback in eighth and ninth falls one run short.
  2. Sept 3: Athletics 1, Mariners 2 - Felix dominates.
  3. Sept 5: Athletics 3, Astros 4 - Astros' bullpen shuts down Athletics.
  4. Sept 7: Athletics 3, Astros 4 - Athletics' bullpen implodes, gives up five walks in top of the ninth.
  5. Sept 8: Athletics 4, White Sox 5 - Athletics' bullpen falls apart again, Tyler Flowers hits game-tying and game-winning home runs.
  6. Sept 10: Athletics 1, White Sox 2 - An error, a wild pitch, and a two-run single in the eighth sink the A's bullpen.
  7. Sept 11: Athletics 0, White Sox 1 - Chris Sale dominates.
That kind of streak has to be extremely frustrating. When your offense is having all kinds of trouble scoring runs and your bullpen is all out of whack, it's not really a surprise though.

Key Players

RF Josh Reddick - The second highest WAR for an Oakland position player in the last 30 days belongs to Josh Reddick and it's not even close to Donaldson's mark. Reddick lost most of the first half of the season to injury and ineffectiveness. Now healthy, he's resumed his spot in right field and is contributing on the field and at the plate. He's always been fly ball hitter but it's gotten even more extreme this year, half of his batted balls are hit in the air. This batted ball profile lines up with his breakout 2012 campaign when he hit 32 home runs.

1B Stephen Vogt - A long time farm hand in the Rays organization, Stephen Vogt finally broke into the majors last year with the A's down the stretch into the playoffs. This year, he's become a valuable utility player who's been able to play four different positions and hit over thirty percent better than average. He's been able to sustain this increased offensive output by cutting his strikeout rate and running a high batting average on balls in play. His strikeouts are down because he's become extremely selective at the plate. He isn't swinging and missing much (5% whiff rate) and when he does swing, he makes contact (88% contact rate).

CF Coco Crisp - For the past five years, Coco Crisp has been the quintessential Athletic. His skillset isn't anything out of the ordinary but they've been able to squeeze every ounce of value out of him and that's allowed them to invest elsewhere without a second thought. Never the image of perfect health, this year has been marked by more nagging injuries that have kept Crisp off the field more often. When he has been on the field, his contributions at the plate have been useful but his value as a fielder has tanked -- he's been worth -11 runs according to DRS and -9.1 runs according to UZR.

3B Josh Donaldson - The last time I wrote about Josh Donaldson, I compared him to Kyle Seager. They're still very similar players and the two best third basemen in the AL this year. Donaldson has been singlehandedly trying to carry this team into the playoffs. In the past 30 days, he's the leader in almost every major offensive category on the Athletics.

1B Brandon Moss - Once a top prospect who disappointed for three teams before finding his way to Oakland, Brandon Moss is the perfect example of how the A's are able to develop excellent value out of seemingly broken players. His previous teams wanted him to develop into a complete hitter but his huge platoon split prevented that from happening. The A's were able to take Moss as he was and maximize his strengths -- mashing right-handed pitching.

C Derek Norris - Another success story for the A's player development group, Derek Norris has enjoyed a breakthrough campaign this year. He has an incredible understanding of the strike zone and has been able leverage that command of the zone into a 127 wRC+. The A's have also controlled his playing time by using him with Stephen Vogt and John Jaso in a three-headed catching hydra.

Probable Pitchers

RHP Jason Hammel

IP

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

162 1/3

21.6%

6.5%

11.9%

39.7%

3.55

3.98

Pitches

Four-seam

Two-seam

Slider

Curveball

Changeup

92.3 mph;

34.0%

92.1 mph;

24.8%

82.7 mph;

30.4%

76.9 mph;

6.8%

85.2 mph;

3.7%

The Athletics traded for Hammel in July before the trade deadline and he has pitched pretty poorly for them. Hammel has vacillated between very effective years and really ineffective years. This year, he's fallen on both sides. Since joining the A's, he's lost the control that was driving his success. His slider usage with Cubs was much higher but it's steadily dropped since joining the A's in favor of his fastball. It could be that he's falling behind more often so he's turning to his fastball more often. Whatever the reason, he's not the same pitcher as he was earlier this year. When Hammel faced the Mariners last Monday, he was able hold them to just a single run which came off a Brad Miller home run. He hasn't allowed more than two runs in each of his last three starts. They've come against the Astros, twice, and the Mariners but it does seem like he's settled down a bit and regained his command.

RHP Sonny Gray

IP

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

190

19.6%

8.5%

9.1%

54.6%

3.22

3.53

Pitches

Four-seam

Two-seam

Slider

Curveball

Changeup

93.1 mph;

33.8%

92.8 mph;

22.7%

86.0 mph;

7.1%

81.3 mph;

28.3%

85.9 mph;

7.1%

In just his second year in the majors, Sonny Gray has established himself as a key piece of the Athletics' future. He's already thrown more innings than he's ever thrown in a season and he started to break down in August. His FIP jumped up to 4.10 in August as his walk rate and strikeout rate both moved the wrong direction. I wouldn't be surprised if the A's shut him down in September to save him for the postseason. His signature pitch is his curveball and he'll use it against both lefties and righties. The Mariners were able to knock Gray around for six runs last Tuesday. He's now way over his highest inning count and Oakland hasn't shown any inclination to rest him. Their precarious position in the standings certainly doesn't help.

LHP Jon Lester

IP

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

199 2/3

24.7%

5.2%

7.5%

42.7%

2.52

2.81

Pitches

Four-seam

Cutter

Sinker

Curveball

Changeup

91.5 mph;

42.0%

87.5 mph;

24.8%

91.4 mph;

14.9%

75.1 mph;

15.6%

85.0 mph;

2.8%

Jon Lester was the A's big ticket acquisition at the trade deadline and they're hoping he'll guide them past the Division Series, deeper into the playoffs. This year, Lester's strikeout rate has spiked over 25% and he's been more effective than ever -- his FIP is a career best 2.67. His pitch selection has driven this improvement. He's throwing his sinker less often in favor of his cutter which has been his most effective pitch according to his pitch values. King Felix outdueled Lester last Wednesday after he gave up back-to-back home runs to Kyle Seager and Corey Hart. He was pretty efficient otherwise -- scattering five other hits and striking out five while walking no one. Expect more of the same on Sunday.

The Big Picture:

The AL West

Team

W-L

W%

Games Behind

Recent Form

Angels

91-55

.623

-

W-W-W-W-W

Athletics

81-65

.555

9.5

L-L-W-L-L

Mariners

79-66

.545

11.0

W-L-W-L-L

Astros

65-81

.445

25.5

L-W-L-W-W

Rangers

54-92

.370

26.0

L-W-L-L-L

The Angels are hot at just the right time. They've won eight straight games and have swept their last two series. They host the Astros over the weekend. Their magic number for the division is just seven.

The Wild Card Race

Team

W-L

W%

Games Behind

Recent Form

Athletics

81-65

.555

+1.0

L-L-W-L-L

Tigers

80-66

.548

-

L-W-W-W-L

Mariners

79-66

.545

0.5

W-L-W-L-L

Indians

76-69

.524

3.5

W-L-L-W-W

Blue Jays

76-69

.524

3.5

L-W-W-W-W

The Mariners couldn't take advantage of losses by both the Athletics and the Tigers on Wednesday and so they find themselves sitting a half game out of the second Wild Card spot. The Tigers and Indians face off in Detroit over the weekend while the Royals finish up a four-game series against the Red Sox. The Blue Jays are 7-2 in September and have vaulted back into the Wild Card race; they host the Rays at home this weekend. The Yankees are still lurking just below the Indians and the Blue Jays; they open a four-game series against the Orioles with a doubleheader today.

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