A’s Playing Time Battles: Pitchers

Through the first half of last season, the A’s ranked 2nd in baseball in starting pitcher’s ERA. They were also tied for 1st in HR allowed per 9 and second in the AL in GB%. Offensively, the A’s were 5th in the AL in runs scored, entering the All-Star break with a +44 run differential. And a -9 win differential. So what happened?

Well, they were terrible defensively. They ranked 29th in Defensive Runs Above Average and UZR and led the AL in unearned runs. With catcher Stephen Vogt rating as 2015’s 8th worst pitch framer, it’s a wonder the rotation fared as well as it did. And the bullpen? Is a -0.1 WAR something you might be interested in? Me neither.  

Out of contention by the trade deadline, Billy Beane traded Scott Kazmir, Ryan Cook, Tyler Clippard, and Eric O’Flaherty. Then in the offseason, he exiled Jesse Chavez to Canada, Evan Scribner to the Mariners, Drew Pomeranz to the Padres, and lost Dan Otero on waivers and Edward Mujica to free agency. Caught all that? 9 pitchers, most of whom started 2015 in the East Bay, gone.

But you know the good news? The A’s never tear it down completely. In rebuilding his pitching staff, Beane assembled an intriguing posse of youngsters and Methuselastic veterans you might not recognize if you were sitting next to one on BART. Your league mates definitely won’t either.

The Rotation

Oakland loves its fly ball hitters. However, A’s pitchers also led MLB in FB% from 2013-2014. Protected by an OF that ranked 6th in baseball in UZR during those years, Beane took advantage of the spacious Coliseum when assembling his staff. But Oakland’s outfielders dropped to the middle of the pack last year defensively and the only OF addition made this offseason, Andrew Lambo, is hardly known for his glove work.

Around the diamond, the A’s acquired Yonder Alonso, an excellent defender at first, and Jed Lowrie, a shortstop by trade to primarily play second. While his range has declined in recent seasons, Lowrie has been an above average defender at the keystone over the course of his career and is an upgrade both with the bat and leather. Could these moves signal a shift in the A’s run prevention strategy, one from an emphasis on fly balls outs to grounders?

Well, it’s difficult to say with certainty. Danny Valencia represents a downgrade at third base from Brett Lawrie, who had struggles of his own last year, and Marcus Semien is going to need a lot more Wash in his life if he hopes to transform into a league average defensive shortstop. Then again, fortifying the right side of the infield defense as well as some of the recent pitching acquisitions certainly suggest the A’s may be taking a more even-handed approach to the batted ball tendencies of its pitching staff.

Sonny Gray enters 2016 as Oakland’s undisputed ace while Bob Melvin pencils Jesse Hahn, Kendall Graveman, and Rich Hill into the next three spots. Battling elbow inflammation last season, Hahn was shut down in July while Hill, who turns 36 in March, pitched only 29 innings making them both risky upside plays. Based on a combination of opportunity and potential, Gray, Hahn, and Hill are the three A’s starters to own. But 13 different pitchers started games for Oakland last season and so with that in mind, we profile six more who are likely to spend some time in the rotation.

Kendall Graveman (115.2 MLB IP, 2015): Shut down in August due to an oblique injury, Graveman is eminently contactable. He brought his uninspiring strikeout rates with him to the Bigs while the elite control he displayed in the minors unfortunately translated to just league average walk rates. Finishing the year with a 4.05 ERA and 1.42 WHIP, PITCHf/x graded every one of Graveman’s pitches aside from his slider as below average. Neither a .302 BABIP nor a 75.7% strand rate point to any unusual amount of luck in play but he may experience some positive HR/FB% regression.

Despite potential upside in his walk rate, he’s still a WHIP risk due to a lack of strikeouts, a high ground ball rate, and that he depends on Marcus Semien to turn those grounders into outs. Officially, he’s listed as the #3 pitcher in the rotation so while he’s likely start the season there, he doesn’t possess the upside of several of the names below.

Chris Bassit (86.0 MLB IP): PITCHf/x liked Bassit’s slider and changeup last year, although Kiley McDaniel recently described them as average and fringy. His high strikeout rates in the minors failed to translate over 86 innings in Oakland yet he still saw success with most of his pitches.

Pitch Type SwStr% wOBA against
Curve 14.7% .250
Fastball 9.6% .305
Slider 8.3% .254
Change 4.9% .098
Sinker 6.0% .394

Unfortunately, you’ll notice that hitters teed off on his sinker. This is despite the fact that the pitch registered more horizontal movement, more drop, and higher velocity than the average sinker thrown in 2015. He also threw it 33% of the time, more than any other pitch in his arsenal. When hitters did get his sinker the air, they did damage at an unsustainable rate (20% HR/FB).

But having shown strong results on his secondary pitches and high strikeout rates in the minors, there’s a lot to like about Bassit. Given the frequency with which he throws his sinker, even a marginal improvement to it or a more effective pitch mix would have a profound effect on his overall line. While I’d like to see an increase in his whiff rates, Bassit is someone I’m keeping my eye on late in drafts.

Aaron Brooks (55.1 MLB IP): On the opposite end of the spectrum sits Brooks, who features unimpressive strikeout rates but is stingy with the free pass. Aaron Brooks just doesn’t miss bats. Like at all. Of pitchers who threw 50 innings or more, he ranked 283rd out of 328 in SwStr%. PITCHf/x shows he has 5 pitches but on three of them, Brooks was tagged for a .400+ wOBA making him little more than a fastball/changeup pitcher.

Luckily for him, his change is pretty effective, boasting a 15.7% whiff rate. Had he qualified, his 9.2 mph fastball-changeup differential would have ranked 12th out of 73 pitchers. Steamer sees him as league average in 2016 but unless he shows improvement in his secondary pitches, I’m staying away from him. If he breaks camp with the team, he’s a deep league or AL-only option at best, streamable at home in favorable matchups. So what’s a favorable matchup for the righty? Apparently, not right-handed heavy lineups as they teed off on him to the tune of .339/.397/.545 last year. Sadly, lefties didn’t fare much worse.

Henderson Alvarez (22.1 MLB IP): Now here’s where the fun begins. Alvarez was signed to an incentive-laden one year $5.85m contract with $4.25m guaranteed. He missed most of 2015 due to a shoulder injury but in 2014 posted a 2.65 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. For a guy who throws as hard as Alvarez does, he doesn’t induce many swings and misses. In fact, among 2014’s qualified pitchers Alvarez ranked 74th out of 87th in whiff rate. But his GB% ranked 10th and his GB/FB ratio ranked 3rd. So yes, his 2014 FIP-ERA differential implied he wasn’t as good as his sterling ERA might suggest but he made up for it by limiting the free pass and keeping the ball on the ground.

Hell hath no fury like a shoulder torn. Slated to start the season on the DL, Alvarez sat out most of last year with a torn labrum. He isn’t projected to join the rotation until May. That said, he’s my favorite pitcher of the bunch and someone I like a lot in all league formats. Moving to the AL is a concern as is his velocity upon returning from shoulder surgery. And given his groundball tendencies – sorry, Marcus – Oakland’s defense isn’t much help either. 

Not every reclamation project can turn into Scott Kazmir but the A’s want to give Alvarez every shot at the rotation. I love his control and ground ball rates so don’t be scared off by his FIP-ERA differential; health willing, he’s the type of pitcher that can out-perform his peripherals. You likely won’t even need to draft him in most leagues and can stash him off waivers instead. That said, if you’re looking for pitching upside late in the draft and feel confident in the staff you’ve assembled, don’t be afraid to use your last pick on him.

Jarrod Parker (0.0 MLB IP): In one of the more wretched storylines of 2015, Parker’s return from a second Tommy John surgery was cut short by a gruesome injury that fractured his right elbow. He underwent surgery to repair it for the third time. Last seen in 2013, prior to his second Tommy John, Parker failed to build upon his rookie season. His FIP(s) increased along with his FB%, while his GB% and pop-up rate decreased. He cut his walks to under 3 per 9 but that was offset by a larger drop in his K/9. The movement on most of his pitches decreased as well. According to PITCHf/x, Parker’s secondary pitches declined across the board and all but his change rated below average.

The track record of pitchers coming back from two Tommy John surgeries is dubious at best. Add a 3rd elbow surgery and – just a guess here – the likelihood of a successful return decreases even further. Last month, Susan Slusser reported that Bob Melvin sees Parker as a starter. Even if this is the case, I’m wishing Parker the very best while staying away from him in drafts. The injury risk is too great and even before his second surgery, Parker didn’t show the progression one would hope to see in a young pitcher. As an A’s fan, I hope he returns to his 2012 or even 2013 self. But a more plausible scenario might feature him playing an important role coming out of Oakland’s bullpen.

Sean Manaea (0.0 MLB IP): Prospect hounds rejoice! Huzzah! There’s a lot to like about this imposing lefty. Acquired from the Royals in the Ben Zobrist deal, Manaea averaged nearly 11 K/9 in the minors last season. He’ll begin 2016 in AAA-Nashville refining his command of the strike zone (3.14 BB/9) and could join the A’s later in the season. Depending on his development and the health of the varsity staff, it’s difficult to predict when we might see Manaea and his mid-90s heater in Oakland. He’s an exciting prospect though and aside from Gray, the only one who possesses truly dominating stuff. Definitely a keeper league commodity and someone whose progress you should monitor in redraft leagues.

The Bullpen

2015 was a rough year for the bullpen and particularly closer, Sean Doolittle. After spending months rehabbing a shoulder injury, the pogonophilic former first baseman returned to the DL after just one inning, having re-injured his shoulder. He pitched only 13.2 innings last year during which he struggled with his velocity. It’s tough to recommend paying a middle tier closer price for Doolittle given the nature of shoulder injuries.

Should Doolittle succumb to injury or ineffectiveness, some familiar names stand poised to carry the torch. John Axford channeled his inner, well, John Axford and once again posted a double-digit K/9 and a BB/9 north of 5. But as one might expect playing in Colorado, his Home/Road splits tell a different tale. On the road, Axford still struggled with command but his HR/FB% was a quarter of that at home. Away from Coors, his FIP was a much more manageable 2.98 and his BABIP was 78 points lower. Axford will be on the short list for saves should Doolittle miss time with injury.

Returning to baseball after a 3 year hiatus, Ryan Madson pitched with the best control of his career. With a BB/9 25% lower than his career average, he also posted the third highest fastball velocity of his career and an 8.24 K/9. Overlooked as just another part of Kansas City’s harrowing bullpen, Madson has the opportunity to feature prominently in Oakland’s. His mid-90s fastball coupled with elite control make him an excellent option in high leverage situations.

Possible closer candidates don’t stop with the old guys. Newly acquired Liam Hendriks and Fernando Rodriguez each boast “closer stuff.” Combining pinpoint control, imposing velocity, and above average whiff rates on 3 pitches, Hendriks is the most deserved to take over the 9th for Doolittle. But as knowing fantasy owners often lament, “Deserves got nothin’ to do with it.” While he may not get the first crack at the closer’s gig, Hendriks is certainly valuable enough to own in holds leagues and arguably in standard leagues for his rate stats.

Rodriguez similarly posted above average SwStr% on 3 pitches last season to go along with mid-90s velocity. Through all of the A’s bullpen woes, Rodriguez inexplicably tallied only 2 save opportunities in 2015. Likely 4th in line for saves in 2016, I don’t expect that to change.

Ryan Dull displayed excellent control in the minors but struggled in 17 innings in Oakland. Given his development and current role, he doesn’t really hold any fantasy value. Lefties Felix Doubront and Marc Rzepczynski both struggled mightily against righties last year and profile as LOOGYs.

Oakland’s pen is an interesting situation. There are four pitchers who could immediately step into the closer’s role. Of them, Liam Hendriks deserves the first shot in the event Doolittle struggles but I think it’s unlikely he gets it. Based on the financial commitments made to experienced veterans, the most likely candidates to succeed Doolittle appear to be Axford and Madson. However, a lot can happen including Doolittle staying healthy, Madson not, or Axford imploding. Therefore in drafts, I’ll be targeting Doolittle (for the right price) and Hendriks, fully expecting the former to miss some time and the latter to provide value regardless of save opportunities.       

We hoped you liked reading A’s Playing Time Battles: Pitchers by Rylan Edwards!

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Rylan writes for Fangraphs and The Hardball Times. Look for his weekly Deep League Waiver Wire and The Chacon Zone columns this season.

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wily mo
Member

ryan dull was actually incredibly amazing in the first half of his callup and then hit a wall for some reason. i’m not sure what it all means but i think it was at least slightly more encouraging than “struggled in 17 innings” gives him credit for. still a bit buried after all the winter additions, of course