And Then What?: An Examination of A's Starting Pitching Depth

It's actually a pretty worrisome time right now to be an A's fan, but not for the reasons (Daric Barton, Nick Punto, Josh Reddick) that some wags would have you believe. The real concern is that we basically only have five starting pitchers. And sure, things are okay right now with Scott Kazmir, Sonny Gray, and Jesse Chavez anchoring the rotation up front and Dan Straily and Tommy Milone barely holding it together at the back end, but what happens if someone goes down? Even if it's Milone, who do we have to replace him? If the A's rotation is the Justice League, Milone is Green Arrow, but when Green Arrow died, there was at least another Green Arrow waiting to replace him. Who do the A's have?

Josh Lindblom: Lindblom is the owner of a cool 5.21 FIP in the young 2014 AAA season. Even less encouraging is the fact that he's basically gotten worse as a AAA pitcher the longer he's been at that level. In 39 innings in 2009 for the Dodgers' AAA affiliate, he FIP'd a respectable 3.78 with an attractive 2.54 ERA. In 2010, things went all kinds of wrong. In 95 IP, his FIP rose almost a full point to 4.69 while his ERA ballooned to 6.54. He had a decent small-sample-size performance at the MLB level in 2011 before reverting to terribleness again in 2012.

In 2013, he was again in AAA, this time for the Rangers. He logged professional-career highs in IP (108) and games started (18) and his FIP was 4.61. Ugh. He also put in some lackluster time with the Rangers at the MLB level, with an ERA near 5.50 and a FIP around 4.50. Now he's in Sacramento, in the A's organization, with the aforementioned 5.21 FIP and an ERA north of 6.50. In his one MLB start for us, he almost logged five innings, didn't get a decision, and put up a FIP of nearly 7.

It's hard to figure out exactly what I'm supposed to like about Lindblom. His K/BB in the minors isn't horrifying, but it's not world-beating either (2.56 at the AAA level, for his career), and as a MLB pitcher, it's similarly underwhelming: 2.09. To put that in perspective, the A's as a staff have a K/BB around of roughly π this year, and the rotation is at 3.27. In the limited pitch value data available, his offspeed pitches don't seem to be too scary. Maybe there's something I'm not seeing, but I'm not seeing it.

Philip Humber: Yeah, I'm gonna get weird here. I mean, there has to be something to this guy, right? He threw a perfect game once and put up 3.3 WAR in 2011. That doesn't mean he's a three-WAR pitcher, but you don't do that by accident. There's SOMETHING there, right? Perhaps we can mine the data and see what happened in 2012 and 2013, see if there's anything left to squeeze out for the A's in 2014.

First things first: 2011 was for all intents and purposes Humber's first year in the bigs. He appeared in a few innings for a few season before then, but basically, his MLB story begins in 2011. And it was a fine beginning. Again, 3.3 WAR. Other pitchers who put up 3.3 WAR in 2011 included Ubaldo Jimenez, Tim Hudson, and Oakland's own crazy-eyed Gio Gonzalez. So, you know, pretty respectable stuff, especially for a rookie. He didn't strike a lot of guys out, but he also didn't walk many, and he gave up very few home runs. Only 11 American League pitchers had a lower HR/9 than Humber, and two of them pitched for the A's, a team which plays in--as you may have heard--a pitcher-friendly ballpark.

In 2012, Humber threw a perfect game in his second start of the season, and it all went downhill after that. His ERA soared to nearly 6.50, with his FIP climbing over 5.75. What happened? A couple things. Although he was striking more guys out, he was also walking more guys. Perhaps more importantly, he also just plum wasn't as lucky. His opposing BABIP jumped from .275 to .294 and his HR/FB ratio more than doubled from 7.7% to 16.5%.

In 2013, things didn't change much. Although his FIP and xFIP actually went down, his ERA only went higher, climbing nearly to 8. His K/9, BB/9, and HR/9 all dropped, but his opposing BABIP skyrocketed nearly to .350. And now he's in Sacramento. The end?

No. No no no. I think there's something in Philip Humber that can be redeemed. THERE IS STILL GOOD IN HIM. OK, we already know what changed between 2011 and 2012/13 in terms of results, but what changed in Philip Humber? Well, for one thing, he appears to have basically given up on his offspeed pitches, at least by his standards. In 2011, only five AL starters with at least 160 IP threw the fastball less often than Humber. And that makes sense: by pitch value, his fastball is easily his weakest pitch. His slider, curve, and changeup were all much more effective.

Then in 2012, suddenly he's throwing 53% fastballs, and in 2013 it's up to 57%, while the changeup is virtually gone. Why? You throw like 90 mph, dude, and you have strong breaking pitches. What the hell are you doing? No wonder hitters were making better contact, as evidenced by the soaring opponent-BABIP and HR/FB ratio. You stopped throwing them the pitches that are harder to hit! If you look at the contact numbers, hitters weren't making any more or less contact against Humber. They're basically still swinging at pitches, laying off pitches, and making contact at the same rates. Yet the BABIP and HR/FB ratio spike, so they're not making more contact, they're making better contact. And not coincidentally, Humber is throwing fewer breaking pitches, which have a track record of fooling hitters, and more 90-mph fastballs, which major-league hitters can really barrel up.

In summary, I think Philip Humber is a prime candidate for Curt Young-ification. He's a basically meh-to-okay starter. FIP is never going to like him that much because he doesn't strike a lot of guys out, but when he's pitching like he should, he can keep the ball in the yard--something that will only be maximized by pitching at the Coliseum. If he's mixing his pitches properly, he can induce much weaker contact, allowing his defense to do a lot of the lifting, etc., etc., bottom line, this is all starting to sound like a whole lot of successful A's pitchers of the last 15 years.

Drew Pomeranz: Pomeranz really seems like a reliever to me, and to be honest, I'd rather see Scribner on the MLB club than Pomeranz. But in all honesty, he's probably the guy the A's go to if one of our starters gets injured, so for those two reasons, I don't really see much of a reason to talk about him here. He's clearly our sixth man, regardless of how I feel about it.

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