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The Spring Cleaning Begins

Hey Skip, it says here that my next scheduled start is against Fresno. Did the Royals move to California?!
Hey Skip, it says here that my next scheduled start is against Fresno. Did the Royals move to California?!

Late May is a magical time for the Oakland Athletics. Every year, the roster is full of projects, question marks, and developing youngsters. Billy Beane's M.O. is to spend the first two months of the season evaluating his roster so that he can determine the direction of the team and identify who the keepers are. Around this time every year, he makes a flurry of moves based on his observations, demoting or cutting the guys who aren't working out and adding new blood to the roster. This year, that new blood won't really be new at all, as Billy needs to make room over the next few days for the returns of Yoenis Cespedes, Brandon McCarthy, and Manny Ramirez.

A couple of weeks ago, we explored the list of players who were likely to step aside to make room on the roster. My list included Josh Donaldson, Collin Cowgill, Daric Barton, and Coco Crisp. Naturally, all four of those players are still on the roster, while Anthony Recker and Eric Sogard have since been demoted. I don't even know why you guys let me write on here. I literally don't know anything.

Ah, but my list was only considering position players! McCarthy wasn't hurt yet when I wrote that article. Well, I assume that McCarthy is always hurt, to some degree. Pitching looks painful. But McCarthy was not yet on the DL. So, with our ace starter returning on Saturday from his short DL stint, a pitcher will need to take the walk of shame back to Sacramento. My pick would probably be Jim Miller, who, despite his surprisingly solid numbers so far (13.2 IP, 12 K's, 3 BB's, 1 HR, 1.32 ERA), is still just a roster-filling mop-up man. McCarthy would then push Travis Blackley back to the bullpen, after his impressive spot start. Alright, Oakland A's Twitter, show me "Jim Miller":

The optioned right-handed pitcher Tyson Ross to Triple-A Sacramento.

D'oh! I'm really bad at this. It appears that Travis Blackley's spot start was good enough that he will get a chance to stick in the rotation. It also appears that Tyson Ross's 2012 season has been so bad that the team is going to have him work things out in AAA, allowing them to move forward with a 29-year old who has a career 7.46 ERA as their 5th starter. Follow me after the jump for a closer look at Ross and Blackley, the two pitchers involved here.

Oh, Tyson Ross. There are so many reasons why we want you to pan out as a Major Leaguer. You're a local guy, having been born in Berkeley and then attending Cal. You're big, at 6'6" and 230, which is always an advantage for a pitcher. You were a high draft pick, coming in the 2nd round of the 2008 draft. You breezed through the minors, although you weren't particularly impressive at any level. And yet, you've been one of those players who tantalizes with occasional success, just to dash everyone's hopes by looking completely lost at other times. Baseball people have a term for that sort of player: "young pitcher."

You don't need to dig very far to find the numbers which earned Ross his demotion:

5.94 ERA, 47 IP, 23 K, 21 BB, 6 HR, 65 hits, 1.83 WHIP, .335 BAA

That is the stat line of a poor pitcher with no redeeming quality. The pitcher allowed tons of contact, hurt himself further by putting a bunch of hitters on base via walks, and showed no ability to help himself by getting a strikeout. There isn't a single piece of encouraging feedback in those numbers.

Ah, but what if we look deeper? Ross has allowed a .355 BABIP in 2012, which seems high until you realize that his career mark is .326. He has certainly allowed his share of dinky seeing-eye singles, but he's also allowed 40 line drives out of his 169 batted balls, or 23.7% (20% is average, and 21.4% is his career norm; this is his career high so far, which is bad because line drives are the ideal batted ball type for hitters). Furthermore, he has allowed tons of contact in general. Hitters have put the ball in play on 87.1% of his pitches; league average is 81%, and his previous career high was 80.3%. Conversely, Ross is inducing a swing and miss on a paltry 5.3% of his pitches, down from last year's mark of 7.8% and far below the league average of 8.5%. For the sake of comparison, his 5.3% is 7th worst in the Majors among pitchers with at least 40 innings.

Put it all together, and Ross's profile reads the same as it did with his basic stats: A pitcher who doesn't miss bats, and instead gives up lots of contact. This contact tends to be fairly hard, and too often comes in the form of line drives. He then compounds the problem by walking even more hitters, and when it comes down to it, he has to rely on batted balls to get out of jams because he can't reach back for a strikeout when he needs to (resulting in a below-average LOB% of 68.2%, slightly worse than his career mark). Baseball people have a term for this, as well: "non-prospect."

To make matters worse, Ross seems to be regressing at age 25. Virtually all of his peripheral stats have gotten worse this year: Strikeouts are down, walks are up, line drives are up, home runs per fly ball are up, swinging strikes are down, contact is up, swings within the strike zone are up, swings outside of the strike zone are down, pitches within the strike zone are up (which is unfortunately resulting in more solid contact rather than more K's)...and to make matters worse, he comes in below average in nearly every single one of those stats. He's throwing all the same pitches at all the same speeds; if anything, his slider has gained a bit of velocity this year (he's also replaced about half of his change-ups with sliders). For some reason, Tyson Ross has become a less effective pitcher this year despite working with all of the same tools.

Many folks on this site, myself included, believe that Ross's future lies in the bullpen. I can't put any stats behind this assertion, but he seems like a guy who can succeed for a couple of innings and one turn through the batting order, but who isn't cut out for the rigors of starting. A move to the bullpen could allow him to add a bit of zip to his fastball, since he wouldn't have to pace himself for a long appearance. His limited pitch selection also suggests that he is better suited for relief work. I can't fault the organization for giving Ross an extended opportunity to become a starter, because a young starter is far more valuable than a young reliever. However, if he hasn't figured it out by the end of 2012, then it might be time to end the experiment and let him begin the next phase of his career.

So, with Ross safely tucked away in Sacramento so that he can re-learn how to pitch, Oakland will stick with Travis Blackley as their 5th starter. Blackley was born in Australia, which you should have been able to guess since he is a player on the 2012 Oakland Athletics. The soft-tossing lefty started out in the Seattle organization, where he shot through the minors and threw 26 inings for the Mariners in 2004 at age 21. Unfortunately, his numbers that year looked like Tyson Ross's 2012 stats if you removed all of his good starts. He walked more batters than he struck out, gave up a ton of homers, and sported a 4-digit ERA. His next taste of Major League coffee would come in 2007 as a San Francisco Giant, where he made two more awful starts. Five years and four organizations later (including a 2010 stint as a River Cat), Blackley made the Majors again this year in San Francisco. He was still terrible. At this point, Billy Beane had seen enough; he just had to have him. 8 career starts with an ERA over 9? Terrible K:BB ratio? No demonstrated ability to limit baserunners? You might see a bad pitcher; Billy sees a challenge, in his ongoing game of "How crappy of a pitcher can I pick up and still have him pan out and be awesome for a couple of months?" So, naturally, he has stepped in and thrown 11 innings for the A's, allowing just 7 hits and a walk while striking out 7. His ERA is 0.82. So far, he is this year's Guillermo Moscoso. The only question is, how long will his success continue until the magic Beane-dust* wears off?

* I assume that this is the substance which Billy uses to suppress offense, although I wish that he'd stick to the pitchers and stop using it on our hitters.

So, the spring cleaning has begun. Cespedes is expected to return on Friday, and I would expect that Cowgill heads out of town when McCarthy is activated on Saturday, since he's the extra outfielder and he will no longer be needed in center field. One of the 1B/DH options will finally be removed to make room for Manny, and the smart money is still on Barton since he has an option remaining and can be sent to the minors without being exposed to waivers. With Ross and Graham Godfrey out of favor, Bruce Billings and Brad Peacock are likely next in line for rotation spots in the event of future injuries, with Brett Anderson lurking in the shadows.

It's easy to get discouraged over Oakland's 8-game losing streak, but help has arrived. The lineup is getting two legitimate hitters, and the rotation is getting its ace back. If Billy's roster clean-up goes right, then June should look much better than May did.