The Oakland A's were supposed to be a good team entering the 2013 season. Specifically, they were supposed to pitch well and hit decently. The starting rotation was full of pitchers who were supposed to be good, and that rotation was supposed to anchor the team. The lineup was full of intriguing hitters with huge question marks, and no one was quite sure what to expect from it.
Reality has been quite different from expectations so far in April. The A's lead the Majors with 126 runs scored through 23 games; next on the list are Colorado (117 runs in 22 games), Cincinnati (115 runs in 23 games), and Baltimore (111 runs in 22 games). The lineup has been fantastic, and although they have been shut down several times by good pitchers (five games with one run or fewer), they have also scored double-digit runs three times already and put up at least an 8-spot a total of eight times. They've been feast-or-famine, but that's better than all-famine.
However, the starting pitching has been a mess. While they lead the Majors in scoring, Oakland has also allowed their opponents to score 105 runs, ranking 26th in the Majors (or, put another way, 5th-worst). They are 21st in team ERA (4.21), and 24th in starters' ERA (5.09). The bullpen has been great, with a 2.68 ERA that ranks 8th in MLB, but the rotation has really struggled.
The main culprits in this early season pitching debacle have been the two prospective "aces" of the staff, Brett Anderson and Jarrod Parker. Plenty of words have been written about both of them recently, so I won't rehash those painful topics. Suffice it to say that they've both been bad, they both have ERA's over 7, and there is every reason to believe that both will work out of their slumps. Only time will tell, though.
In the meantime, the rest of the starters have had to step up to pick up the slack at the top of the rotation. A.J. Griffin has been alright, but his strikeouts are down while his walk rate is up (along with his ERA). Tommy Milone is off to a strong start, with an increased strikeout rate to go along with his normal pinpoint control, but opponents have knocked him around a little bit and he's been allowing a few too many runs. Bartolo Colon, on the other hand, has been dominant.
Everyone has their own definition of what an "ace" starter is. He's supposed to be the best pitcher on the team, and probably your Opening Day starter, but "best" can be a fluid concept throughout the long season and Opening Day is just a formality. Really, your ace should be the steady hand, the guy who, when he starts, fans think to themselves, "We've got this game." He's a pitcher who can take over a game and burn through opposing lineups, and he can serve as a "stopper" when the team is on a losing streak.
Right now, Bartolo Colon is the ace of Oakland's rotation. I don't think that he's the best or most talented pitcher on the team, and I don't think that he'll still be the ace in September, but I believe that this is a label which can bounce around from player to player as the season progresses. If you want to argue semantics, then you can re-phrase this to say that Colon is simply pitching like an ace right now. Either way, he's clearly the anchor of the rotation.
Colon's ace moment came in Boston this week. The team was on a 4-game losing streak, and the last game that they'd won was his previous start against the Astros. They'd just given up 17 runs in a 3-game series in Tampa Bay, and they would allow 15 runs in their other two games against the Red Sox. With most of the players on both teams bundled up to their eyes in extra clothing to combat the rain and sub-40 temperature, Colon strode out in short sleeves like it was a summer day in Oakland. While Boston's pitchers spent the evening failing to find the strike zone, and Boston's fielders made error after error in the slippery conditions, Colon calmly pumped strikes into John Jaso's mitt, one after the other. The A's would bat for 30 minutes or more at a time, and Colon would just sit in the dugout, patiently waiting. When his turn came up, he walked out, threw some strikes, and sat back down.
When all was said and done, Colon had tossed seven shutout innings, allowing just three hits and a walk and throwing just 94 pitches (67 for strikes). Furthermore, he had ended the 4-game skid. At this moment, the A's have won two of their last eight games, and both of the wins came with Colon on the mound; they've also won all four games which he has started. He's the stopper right now, the guy who can set down opponents faster than you can run to the kitchen to grab a beer from the fridge. He's the veteran who the youngsters look up to, who reportedly taught Chris Resop to throw a new pitch this spring. He's the ace.
If you'd like some more objective evidence, let's take a look at Colon's numbers. He didn't walk a batter until his fourth start of the season, and he's currently got 17 strikeouts to just one walk in 26 innings. His 2.42 ERA is 13th in the AL, and 28th in the Majors. He's not getting particularly lucky with his BABIP or his batted ball rates, though he's been a bit fortunate with his strand rate of 80.2%. However, a look at his plate discipline numbers do reveal one source of his improved performance. Colon is throwing more pitches in the strike zone than he did last year (58.5%, up from 52.6%), even though he's not throwing as many first-pitch strikes. Opponents are swinging at his pitches at about the same rate as last year, but they are making less contact (83.9%, down from 90.1%) and whiffing more often (7.5% swinging strikes, up from 4.7%). Basically, he's throwing more strikes, and opponents are both taking more of those strikes and swinging and missing more. He's throwing the same selection of pitches (90.5% fastballs, up slightly from 89.2% last year) at the same average velocity (90.3mph) as last year, so his repertoire hasn't changed. He's just gotten even better at his relatively new strategy of soft-tossing with extreme movement and pinpoint control.
Now, I understand that not everyone is thrilled to have Colon on this team. He made a big mistake last year, and some folks will never forgive him for that transgression. I'm not happy about his controversial 2012 season, but I'm also not the type to cast the first stone. Every single report that I've heard is that Colon made amends with both management and his teammates, that he took full responsibility for his actions in a setting where the standard operating procedure is "deny, deny, deny," and that the organization considers his suspension to be water under the bridge now that he has done his time and served his penalty. If you believe that actions speak louder than words, then Oakland spoke volumes when they not only re-signed him, but actually gave him a raise from last year. As far as I'm concerned, if the team is cool with Colon, I'm cool with Colon. That's a personal decision that you'll all have to make for yourselves, but I would urge you to forgive and forget on the basis that everyone deserves a second chance. Colon seems like a true professional and a good person, and I believe that he is as deserving as anyone of that benefit of the doubt. Plus, he's clearly a robot, so synthetic testosterone probably didn't help him anyway. He was just using it to grease up his gears when he ran out of WD-40.
Regardless of your opinions on Colon, the reality is that he is pitching for your team this year. Not only is he pitching, but he's pitching even better than he did last year when he was on the juice. He's pitching like an ace. On a team full of guys who are kind of a big deal, Colon is the biggest deal of them all. Damnit, I said no fat jokes!
Note: All normal small sample disclaimers apply here. We are talking about four starts in April, and two of them came against the Astros. Colon probably won't continue to be this awesome, but for now, he's been the best that Oakland's got.