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The Oakland Athletics' starting rotation lost two key members to injury before the 2014 season even started, but it still performed well in the first half thanks to some unexpected contributors. In the second half of the season, the revamped rotation was the only positive aspect of the team. The question at hand is simple: who is the A's best pitcher, their proverbial Million Dollar Arm? (Or, $20 million arm if you adjust for MLB inflation.) For the purposes of this debate, let's consider this to mean "Who will be the A's best pitcher in 2015?"
If you were asking about 2014, the answer to that question would have been simple: Jon Lester. However, I don't think anyone really expects Oakland to re-sign the lefty when he hits free agency this winter. Even despite his postseason failure, he still put up a career year in 2014 and hasn't been on the DL in any of the last three seasons. Someone will give him $100+ million, and given that he'll be 31 next year it won't be the A's -- Billy Beane generally doesn't give monster deals to pitchers in their 30s. Of course, I also didn't think there was a chance in the world that he would acquire Lester in the first place, so I don't have the best track record of predicting Beane's zigging and zagging.
So, Lester is out of the picture. With respect to Sean Doolittle, we're going to skip right over the bullpen and look at the rest of the rotation -- after all, aren't relievers just guys who don't have either the endurance or the pitch variety to be effective starters? Jason Hammel is likely gone to free agency, considering his age (32) and the ridiculous price of even decent pitchers on the open market. Drew Pomeranz showed flashes this year, but he still has to prove himself over a full season or three. Jesse Chavez exceeded every expectation, and it's possible he could build on that success next year ... or that he could regress back down below average. Who knows what to expect out of Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin when they return from their Tommy John surgeries. Scott Kazmir fell apart at the end of the season and it might be best to rely on him as a No. 3 for now.
That leaves two options: Sonny Gray and Jeff Samardzija. And to be honest with you, I have no idea which one to pick.
Let's start with Sonny. He's not yet eligible for arbitration, so he will make somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million next year -- he's literally the team's Million Dollar Arm! Question answered, article finished! No? OK, well, on one hand he's young -- he'll turn 25 in a few weeks. On the other hand, he has a short track record and a short stature. The 2014 campaign was his first full one spent entirely in the Majors, and we still need to see how his arm responds to having thrown over 400 professional innings the last two years. Furthermore, it's not a point in his favor that he stands at 5'11, 195 pounds, as smaller hurlers are generally looked at as bigger injury risks; for optimism on that front, think of guys like Pedro Martinez and Roy Oswalt and Tim Hudson.
Sometimes, good things come in small packages. -- Photo credit: Ezra Shaw
Samardzija differs from Sonny in some of these respects. He'll turn 30 in January, and he's spent four full seasons in the Majors -- one as a reliever and three as a starter. That extra service time means he'll be quite a bit more expensive next year, likely demanding around $10 million, for whatever that's worth. However, note that he's only thrown about 50 more innings than Sonny has in the last three seasons combined, and that he was a roughly average NL starter prior to 2014. Perhaps he's no more proven than Sonny after all, but considering that he didn't break 150 innings in a season until he was 27 he does have a fresher arm than most 30-year-olds. And unlike Sonny, Samardzija's size (6'5, 225 pounds) is more what you would expect for a workhorse starter.
Given this information, Samardzija will likely have a leg up in this conversation. Some of Sonny's value is still tied up in potential, in how much he can build on a good first season, as well as what a bargain he is on a pre-arbitration salary. But the Shark is in his prime, and he's there with a lot less wear and tear than is normal for his age. In fact, if Beane were ever to break the rule I mentioned earlier by re-signing a pitcher in his 30s to a big contract, I could see him doing it for a guy like Samardzija who only has a few 200-inning seasons under his belt ... but that's an article for another day.
WEAR AND TEAR ... EVEN (Sonny is younger, but Shark is bigger and had light workloads in his early 20s)
TRACK RECORD ... EVEN (Each has one full year as an awesome MLB starter)
So, who is better right now? They each throw five pitches, according to Brooks Baseball:
Sonny: sinker, curve, slider*, 4-seam, change
Shark: sinker, slider, 4-seam, cutter, split
* - the slider might just be a mis-diagnosed curve, but even if so it demonstrates how Sonny's curve has multiple different looks
Samardzija throws his fastball 1-2 miles faster than Sonny throws his, but Sonny's offspeed stuff drops a couple of miles more off his fastball than Samardzija's does (with the point of offspeed being to get a big drop in velocity). Sonny's fastball and change are solid, but his bread and butter is his curve and he relies heavily on it; Shark's slider and splitter have been consistent weapons for him as a starter and his 95-96 mph fastball also turned into a plus last year, giving him three strong offerings.
PITCH REPERTOIRES ... EVEN (Each has multiple good offerings and plenty of velocity)
And now, let's get to the stats to see how they've actually done on the field. Again, their different career paths make this a messy comparison. How about just the 2014 season?
Sonny: 219 innings, 3.08 ERA (120 ERA+), 183 Ks, 74 BB, 15 HR
Shark: 219⅔ innings, 2.99 ERA (126 ERA+), 202 Ks, 43 BB, 20 HR
Oh man, those lines are incredibly similar. Sonny pitched all year in the AL West while Shark spent half the season in the NL Central, where he got to face pitchers nearly 10 percent of the time. While ERA+ adjusts for the different offensive environments in each league, I wouldn't blame you for using AL superiority as an excuse to wipe out Samardzija's advantage in both ERA and strikeouts. That said, in some ways Samardzija got better upon reaching the AL -- he walked only 12 batters in 16 starts, and averaged an extra two-thirds of an inning per game.
I can't overlook that difference in walks. I hate allowing walks possibly more than anything else my team can do on a baseball field, and if I could only have one thing in a pitcher I think it would be a low rate of free passes. If I can have the lower walk rate without sacrificing any strikeouts, even better. To put the difference in blunter terms, both guys strike out almost a batter per inning, but Shark is likely to walk one batter per game whereas Sonny is likely to walk two.
Shark will eat you alive if you float around waiting for a walk. -- Photo credit: Thearon W. Henderson
You may wonder how Sonny can have nearly the same ERA as Shark despite handing out nearly twice as many free passes. His secret is keeping the ball in the park, as he ranks among the stingiest starters in baseball when it comes to allowing homers. While I usually don't buy into a single season of dinger avoidance, Sonny has displayed the ability consistently throughout his professional career and I'm willing to believe that it's a skill he has rather than the product of small-sample luck. Samardzija gives up homers at a more normal rate. Both are good at consistently limiting hits overall, but Sonny also boasts a level of defensive acumen that I believe will earn him a Gold Glove before too long. Sonny has also demonstrated some big-game ability, between his Game 2 performance against Justin Verlander in 2013 and his shutout in the must-win Game 162 last year, but Shark can't be penalized for not yet having gotten that chance. After all, he spent his whole career on the Cubs until now.
2014 PERFORMANCE ... EDGE TO SHARK (Close, but Shark kept the walks down)
2015 POTENTIAL ... EDGE TO SONNY (Sonny is more likely to improve in the long-run, just given his youth and lack of MLB experience)
Sonny and Shark are so different, and yet so alike. Shark is a power pitcher who is on the verge of being a proven workhorse. Sonny has marginally less power but a bit more finesse to make up for it, with that big wobbly curveball, and he essentially matched Shark's impressive inning total last year. They both strike out a lot of hitters, but Sonny walks a few more while Shark gives up more homers. Shark is in his prime and looks poised for a huge season in 2015, or he could fall back a bit from what was by far a career year in 2014; Sonny might improve on his first full season, or he might hit the dreaded sophomore slump. A gentleman never asks, and baseball never tells. Sonny will be in Oakland for several more years, unless he's not, and Shark will be gone after next season, unless he's re-signed. Never any telling the future with Billy at the helm. Neither has any significant injury history, so take your pick between the guy who is five years older or six inches shorter.
My gut says that Shark will be the better pitcher in 2015. They're too close to call statistically, with too many question marks around their short track records, so this one must be solved with an old-fashioned hunch. I can't get the 8.25 K:BB ratio that Shark posted in Oakland out of my head, nor the easy 96 mph fastball, nor the long flowing hair. Yes, I'm citing his hair. Hopefully, they'll just both be awesome next year and we won't much care who was marginally better. But for now, I think Samardzija is the best. Unless it's Sonny.