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If the A's make the playoffs, they will rely solely on rookie starting pitchers once they get there. Is that going to be a problem?
Yesterday, Rob Neyer wrote about the Athletics' starting rotation. Specifically, he pointed out that Oakland now features a 5-man rotation in which all 5 pitchers are rookies. This is a rare situation on its own, and almost certainly unprecedented for a team on the verge of winning 90 games.
It's also very troubling for A's fans. At least, it should be. You see, rookies have a bit of a reputation for fading down the stretch. College seasons end in June, and the minor leagues stop playing around the end of August (or mid-September for a team in the PCL championship series). A Major League rookie is pitching in late September for the first time in his life. If his team makes the playoffs, he'll be pitching in October for the first time in his life. He will probably set (and greatly exceed) his career-high in innings pitched. He will be facing teams who have had months to study him and make adjustments. All of that adds up to a likely short-term decline. This isn't a universal rule, but it is something that a manager should keep in the back of his mind. The deeper you get into September, the less you should expect to rely on rookies, even rookies who are having spectacular seasons.
As usual, the A's are looking convention straight in the eye and giving it the finger. You say that rookie starters are unreliable late in the season? Screw you, then; I'll put out a rotation of exclusively rookies. If it works, we'll have changed the game!
Alright, that's a bit of an exaggeration. This all-rookie staff did not come about by design. Billy Beane and Bob Melvin probably expected to have 3 veterans anchoring the rotation at this point: Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson, and Bartolo Colon. You're reading an article on Athletics Nation, so I don't need to explain to you why those three men are not currently playing baseball. Brain surgery, oblique strain, and a Snickers bar with needles comically sticking out of it. (That's how I like to imagine that Colon administered his testosterone). The rookies are only here by necessity.
So, now that the A's are in this situation, what does it mean for their October outlook? Jarrod Parker continues to roll along without missing a beat, but Tommy Milone has uncharacteristically struggled with his command lately and A.J. Griffin has been different shades of awful in his last two starts. Dan Straily has shown flashes of brilliance, but has also struggled with the long-ball. Travis Blackley has been a complete train-wreck in his two starts since returning to the rotation after what was essentially a (completely baffling) 3-week break from pitching. That's a mixed bag of recent results. Of course, past successes and failures are thrown out the window once the postseason starts. The slate is wiped clean, and all that matters is how well you perform that day.
That got me curious. How have rookie starters fared in the playoffs in recent years? Unfortunately, there is no convenient resource for this, so I had to look it up myself. In the table below, you will find every rookie who has made a start in the postseason since 2006 (or pre-rookie, like Matt Moore last year; he hadn't even qualified for rookie status yet when he pitched Game 1 of the ALDS). All stats are taken from Baseball-Reference. I identified the pitchers by searching through the ALDS/NLDS records, so if a rookie didn't make a start in the LDS but did in the LCS or WS, then I may have missed him. Here are the results:
|5.02 ip/gs||3.99 ERA||1.39 WHIP||1.97 K:BB||1.16 HR/9|
Honestly, these results are much more encouraging then I thought they'd be. Overall, there is good news and bad news, as well as a couple of caveats. First, you must remember that all of these starts were made, by definition, against playoff teams. That means that they were probably made against, at worst, average offensive teams (and, at best, the top lineups in baseball). Second, not all of these pitchers were very good. Some were top prospects who turned out to be stars (Verlander, Bumgarner), some were veteran Japanese stars who only technically qualified for rookie status (Kuroda, Matsuzaka), and some were top prospects who didn't really pan out in the end (Wade Davis, Maine, Morales). Some, though were just average dudes who found themselves in extraordinary situations (Kendrick, Happ, Duensing). Let us all think back fondly to a time when the Phillies' rotation was such that Kyle Kendrick started Game 2 of a Division Series.
So, on to the good news: The rookies didn't pitch too poorly. With a collective 3.99 ERA, the Average Rookie Postseason Starter at least kept his team in the game. The ERA, the K:BB, the homers...they're all exactly "decent." When these pitchers were in the game, things were alright. Not great, but alright.
That leads us to the bad news, though: The rookies weren't in the games nearly long enough. With an average of almost exactly 5 innings per start, you have to expect to need at least 9 to 12 outs from your bullpen to finish off the contest. If you paid attention to Oakland's recent 10-day road trip, then the prospect of needing 3-4 innings from the bullpen every night should be downright terrifying.
The list of reliable Oakland relievers currently includes the following: Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, and Jerry Blevins. Pat Neshek is a pretty safe bet against right-handed hitters, and Evan Scribner is solid more often than he is awful. However, these guys are already being taxed in this mad September dash, and they can't all pitch every day. Furthermore, Jordan Norberto is unlikely to be ready when the playoffs start. On the bright side, Blackley will almost certainly move back to the bullpen for the postseason, so he could be available as a long-man in case of a disaster start by one of his rotation-mates.
You may harbor hope that Anderson could return for the postseason, but I choose to live under the assumption that he is done for the year. Oblique strains are notoriously difficult to predict, and even if he did come back for a start, he may have to leave in the 2nd inning again if the injury flares up. That might actually be worse than just moving on without him, because it would almost certainly cost the team that particular game and ruin the pen for the next couple of days.
What does it all mean? Not a whole lot. None of the pitchers who made those 31 postseason starts are currently in the Athletics' rotation. Not all of them are even good comps for the guys on Oakland's staff. But there is still a conclusion to be drawn here: If they've made it this far, then rookies can still hold their own in the playoffs. Now, we all just have to hold our breaths and hope that the team makes it that far.