Los A starting pitching

Let's go back to that Slusser article I covered in the previous piece; Travis Blackley is out of options and has to make the club in order to stay with the team. Blackley is almost certain to MAKE the club--but only for the first 5 days of the season. Bartolo Colon has to be reinstated at game 6, and Blackley's the most likely guy to be put thru waivers at that time since most MLB clubs will have their 40-man rosters well set at that time.
I said it before--if Blackley stays with the club it comes at the expense of Colon, not A.J. Griffin or Tommy Milone. It makes no sense to have the A's send either one of those two back to the minors (barring injury or ineffectiveness) just to continue Colon's career.
So, how to handicap the rotation this year?

As in my last piece, I'm comparing the 2013 team to the 2012 team to see whether we can isolate areas where the team improved or got weaker. I'm basically trying to decide whether the 2012 performances represented a fluke season, a breakout to a higher level or performance, or was expected given previous history.

Looking back at 2012, the A's had 7 pitchers with 10 or more starts: Milone (31), Jarrod Parker (29), Colon (24), McCarthy (18), Griffin (15), Blackley (15) and Tyson Ross (10). Dan Straily made 7 starts and Brett Anderson 6 before his playoff run.
2012: Milone (Fluke), Parker (breakout), Colon (Fluke), McCarthy (expected), Griffin (breakout), Blackley (Fluke), Ross (expected), Straily (expected), Anderson (expected)
2013: Parker (expected), Anderson (expected), Griffin (breakout), Milone (fluke), Colon (fluke), Straily (breakout),

I've always thought the concept of a #1 starter was overrated, something the industry foisted upon the public to keep Yankee fans happy with overrating pitching. It really only matters with in the playoffs, and even then only if the series goes 7 games and teams are willing to throw their #1 on short rest.

The A's rotation clearly doesn't have a #1 in the marketing sense of the term. Both Parker and Anderson are young and coming off significant surgeries, so no matter how the team does the A's are likely to try to limit their workloads. It's unlikely that Parker sees 200 IP this year and I would say impossible that Anderson throws more than 200. A thumbnail guess is that A's SP last year threw about 900 innings as starters, so the 3-4-5 in the rotation are going to have to carry a pretty significant workload, probably 550 innings or more.

Parker's performance was clearly a breakout last season and I think he elevates that performance this season. He won't throw enough innings to be considered a true Verlander-type "Ace", but that could come later in his career. For 2013, expect a continuation of 2012. He's going to allow less than 1 hit an inning, strike out nearly a batter an inning, and walk less than 3 per nine. Those peripherals in the Coliseum almost always add up to an ERA in the mid-to-low 3s and could put him in the position to win 15 games. The one red flag I see from 2012 was a HR/9 rate that seemed unsustainably low--you can expect him to give up a few more HR this season than last, but likely with fewer baserunners against so it won't hurt his overall performance much. He's a lock to end up as the best player involved in the Trevor Cahill deal. Including Cahill himself.

Brett Anderson's case is a little more curious. His 2012 performance after returning from Tommy John surgery was as if he never missed a game. Pitchers commonly come back from TJ with increased velocity but diminshed command. Anderson? His peripherals were better what he did in his 2009 and 2010 pre-injury campaigns. K/BB ratio? Nearly 3.4 pre-surgery, 3.57 last season. Using rate stats, he walked less players, gave up less HR, gave up significantly fewer hits per 9 and threw less pitches per batter faced. Those are all indicative of IMPROVED command. His K rate was way down from 2009/10, from 7.7 per 9 to 6.4, but that isn't all that surprising (and could easily be chalked up to pitching to contact, as all of his rate stats were down.

If you're into BABIP--and I am--his .272 is something of a red flag. And of course there's the whole small sample size thing. But I just thought it mildly amazing that his return went as perfectly as it did--and that, to me, is NOT a product of luck.

Pitchers typically perform better in their second calendar year from TJ. Anderson's anniversary is July. So while he won't be asked to throw a big workload, it is very reasonable to expect his performance to start improving later in the year. His 2013? I'd expect something like 170 IP, with an ERA just above 3 and 11-13 wins (he will be pulled earlier than Parker to keep his innings totals down). He'll be a marginal all-star candidate at the least.

Rany Jazayerli (a minor personal idol of mine) had an interesting tweet the other day: "in 2000, the average strikeout-to-walk ratio in the AL was 1.74. Last year, it was 2.57. That's astounding." That IS astounding, and what's more astounding is that I missed the whole move. I have grown so used to increasing strikeouts that I stopped paying attention to the (rather historic) statistical increase.

All of this puts the AJ Griffin career in a little bit more context. He's been nothing short of amazing if you look at his minor league career. I'll be generous and describe him as having average velocity. But he has fantastic control and gigantic courage--and that skill set takes full advantage of all the free swingers at the plate. His minor league stats, taken in context of his actual skillset, are ridiculous: struck out 5 times more batters than he walked (!) with a K rate of a batter an inning. 7 hits allowed per 9, and only 0.7 HR. If the guy threw 95 he'd be on Baseball America's top-10 prospects list. Instead he threw 89, and nobody cared.

What do all those minor league stats mean? That his 2012 season wasn't a fluke. His rate stats were in keeping with his minor league numbers; not as good, but the things that worked for him in the minor leagues kept working for him in the majors. He struck out more than 3 times the number he walked, allowed less than a hit an inning, kept his K rate at 7 per nine, and didn't walk a ton of guys.

He'll have more growing pains than Parker or Anderson--the league's likely to catch up to him a few times this year--but he is most decidedly a quality major league arm and would be the next guy I'd want starting in a short series.
2013? He'll get about the same number of IP as Anderson--I'm guessing 170--and will win more than 10 games. K/BB will improve to near 4, and he'll carry an ERA around 4 all season. He's going to be the biggest beneficiary of the controlled workload the A's will give to Parker and Anderson.

My thinking at this point is that the #4 starter role will be in flux all season. Colon is the leader in the clubhouse, but I am not at all confident that he's going to be much more than a league-average pitcher. Drug suspension aside, he's a difficult guy to hide in your rotation because he puts a lot of runners on base and is taxing to a bullpen. Last year was just an anomaly, even in the context of his recent resurgence with the Yankees after being out of baseball in 2010.

It's just hard to imagine that his walk rate stays as low (1.4) as it did last season, especially when it wasn't confirmed with a good K rate. Colon only struck out 5 batters per nine last year. Steroids or not, someone throwing 84 miles an hour without ridiculous secondary pitches isn't likely to have long-term major league success.

I understand why the A's like him--there's no risk. They can slag his arm. The "innings eater" concept fits here--the A's can afford to throw Colon and mix and match with guys like Straily and Blackley to supplement the innings they won't get as a result of limiting Anderson and Parker. So a lot of innings from Colon, even if they are below the league average, add value to the A's long-term perspective. Make no mistake--winning now counts for something, but it doesn't override the need to plan for later.

Strictly in terms of the number of starts, Tommy Milone was the A's #1 starter. But really, he's as close to a platoon pitcher as you can get; if you can start him strictly in night games at the Coliseum he'd be a borderline Hall of Famer. The problem is, you have to start him on the road and in day games, too--and he's just brutal.
Everyone knows his splits for the year were bad, and the splits in this case back up the eyeballs; when he's at the Coliseum he can afford to pitch to contact, and when he's anywhere else he pitches like he's afraid to get hit.
He's an ideal #5 starter for this reason: the A's can both afford to skip his turn in the rotation AND they can load up their outfield to optimize defense when he's pitching. So they can spot him in more favorable matchups and skip those crooked-number July games in Texas. Prediction: the A's DON'T do that and he regresses significantly in 2013. I see him as a winner of 8-10 games, with a lot of innings pitched and an ERA back toward the mid-4 level. He'll have really good outings, but when things don't work he has to pitch away from contact and that won't be good for him. Think a modern-day Kirk Reuter and you've about got it.

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