If you had a baby the last time the Braves played a baseball game in Oakland, that baby would be in high school right now. Yes, that’s right — the last time the Braves visited
Network Associates Coliseum McAfee Coliseum Overstock.com Coliseum O.Co Coliseum Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum was all the way back in 2003. when they won two of three en route to a 101-win season. Those were, of course, different eras for both teams. The Braves were still in the midst of their historic division streak, while the Athletics were wrapping up their fourth straight 90-plus win season during the acme of Moneyball. These days, the Braves are still rebuilding, and the Athletics are also in danger of finishing a third straight season at the very bottom of the American League West.
(It’s not like the Braves haven’t played the Athletics that much — they’ve actually faced them in three other series since 2003, but all of those have been in Atlanta. During the most recent matchup in 2014, the Braves swept a three-game series from an Athletics team that would qualify for the Lightning Round but lose that game.)
Oft-rumored trade candidate Sonny Gray will be greeting the Braves as they start play in Oakland. Gray burst onto the major league scene with two-and-a-half really good seasons from 2013-2015, but fell apart last season, with injuries, bad luck, and worse performance all combining to deliver a career-worst season. He’s been clambering back somewhat this year: his ERA remains inflated at 4.45 due to a fairly low strand rate, but his 3.60 FIP is right in line with his career mark, and his 3.38 xFIP is lower than his career rate. In short, don’t let the ERA fool you: this isn’t yesteryear’s struggling Gray.
To put an even finer point on that, Gray’s last start was one of his best this season: seven innings, two runs (one earned), four hits, one walk, seven strikeouts, in the unfriedly confines of U.S. Cellular Field (home of the White Sox). He had another, more dominant performance earlier in the year against the Marlins at home, where he allowed one run in seven innings and struck out 11 while allowing just four baserunners. However, that doesn’t mean Gray isn’t prone to the eventual blowup, and that’s what the Braves may be hoping for here. Two starts ago, he was knocked around by the Astros for five runs in five innings. On top of that, his nature as a groundball pitcher means his line can get ugly when BABIP does not go his way: he’s given up three or more runs in eight of his 11 starts, though two of those starts featured mostly unearned runs.
Gray has faced the Braves just once before, back in 2014. He allowed four runs in five-and-a-third on eight hits and one walk while striking out five, and the Braves won the game 4-3 behind Julio Teheran, and the David Carpenter, Jordan Walden, Craig Kimbrel combo that was in vogue that year. However, literally no one that appeared for the Braves in that game is even on the active roster anymore, aside from Teheran: Freeman is still rehabbing his wrist, and Emilio Bonifacio, who pinch-hit in that game, has mercifully been jettisoned. Notably, though, you can say the exact same thing for the As: aside from Gray, they also do not have a single player on their active roster that appeared in that game. Vogt would have been the only candidate, but he’s been shown the door as of a few days ago.
Gray is a popular name to bandy about in trade talks. The Oakland front office has been willing to deal pretty much anyone at any time, and with a good track record and a couple of years of arbitration left, he may fetch a pretty good package before next month’s Trade Deadline.
The Braves will send Mike Foltynewicz to make his 15th start of the season to oppose Gray. Folty has strung together two straight good starts after a disaster in Washington, as he’s allowed just three runs over his last 11 innings. He struck out nine in his last start, against the Brewers, but an escalating pitch count saw him depart after just five innings. He allowed just one run on a solo homer in that start, but allowed four hits and three walks in total. Overall, Foltynewicz features a 4.10 / 4.69 / 4.52 pitching triple-slash.
Overall, the As have hit reasonably well this year, but have fielded terribly. They are last in MLB by both UZR and DRS. Khris Davis has been terrible in left field, and their usual rotating cast of characters, including Ryan Healy, Jaff Decker, Matt Joyce, Mark Canha, and a bunch of other names have all failed to do good work defensively so far. Catcher Stephen Vogt was recently released for poor performance, while my repeat favorite Matt Joyce has not fared well in right field and failed to repeat his sky-high 2016 walk rate, though still has a 106 wRC+ for the season. The offensive story for the Athletics has been Yonder Alonso, who has transformed from an average-hitting first baseman (which constitutes a guy not really worth of starting) into a monster with a 152 wRC+ and a .287 ISO, and has already hit 17 homers. Alonso is struggling with a knee ailment and may miss tonight’s game, but the Braves probably won’t be so lucky as to miss him for the entire series, and will have to be careful when pitching to him.
Also, let’s just take a second to appreciate Tyler Flowers’ framing. Per Statcorner, among all catchers with 1,000+ balls caught this year, Flowers is ninth-best in not letting balls in the zone be called balls, and is far-and-away the best at “stealing” strikes on pitches outside the zone. In fact, the difference between Flowers and the next-best strike-stealer, Jeff Mathis, is the difference between Mathis and the next 13 catchers. To put numbers on it, 13 percent of the pitches that Flowers catches outside the zone are called strikes; the median catcher is at about 7.5 percent. Overall, Statcorner reports that Flowers has given his pitchers about 3.2 “wrong” calls a game; this is more than double the next-best such mark (Yasmani Grandal, 1.4). Hooray, Tyler Flowers.
Atlanta Braves @ Oakland Athletics
Friday, June 20, 2017, 10:05 pm ET
Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Oakland, CA
TV: MLB Network (out-of-market only), Fox Sports South
Radio: 680 AM / 93.7 FM, Braves Radio Network