The Oakland Athletics paid a big price this year to make their starting rotation as stacked as possible. Since their offense has turned into a real bummer, with no hint as to when or if it will regain its former glory, that rotation seems like the only thing keeping the team afloat. Each pitcher will have to be as sharp as possible in September if the team wants to stay in the playoff race. Here's a look at who is hot and who is not, specifically over the last month or so.
(In the brief start-by-start lines, runs include unearned runs and innings are rounded down to the nearest full inning.)
Last 6 starts:
8/07: 9ip, 0r, 8k, 2bb, 0hr
8/12: 6ip, 3r, 9k, 2bb, 0hr
8/17: 6ip, 4r, 5k, 1bb, 2hr (1 run unearned)
8/23: 7ip, 1r, 7k, 1bb, 0hr
8/29: 6ip, 3r, 5k, 1bb, 1hr (1 run unearned)
9/03: 8ip, 2r, 5k, 0bb, 2hr
Total: 2.36 ERA, 42 innings, 39 K's, 7 BB, 5 HR, 33 hits
Lester has been the model of consistency, with the upside to throw a shutout. He has turned in a quality start every time he's taken the mound for the A's, since in his four-run outing on Aug. 17 only three of the runs were earned. He's averaging seven innings per game. He was acquired to be the top man in the rotation, and he has been exactly that. It's not his fault that the A's have only managed to win four of the seven contests he's started.
Random thought: Lester doesn't finish every game he starts, but he seems to finish every inning he embarks on. In his first Oakland start (not listed above), he failed to get the final out of the seventh, but otherwise Bob Melvin hasn't needed to come out to rescue him. That might just be a neat fluke, or it might be one of the traits that makes him so good.
Last 6 starts:
8/06: 4ip, 7r, 3k, 4bb, 1hr (4⅓ innings, 1 run unearned)
8/11: 7ip, 3r, 2k, 3bb, 0hr (1 run unearned)
8/16: 5ip, 4r, 5k, 1bb, 0hr (5⅓ innings)
8/22: 8ip, 3r, 5k, 2bb, 2hr (8⅓ innings)
8/28: 7ip, 3r, 6k, 3bb, 0hr
9/02: 5ip, 6r, 2k, 2bb, 1hr
Total: 5.84 ERA, 37 innings, 23 K's, 15 BB, 4 HR, 43 hits
Sonny was phenomenal in July, and he won the AL Pitcher of the Month for that body of work. He followed that up with a great start against the Royals to begin August. Since then, he's been inconsistent. In his last six outings, he has two disasters, one subpar game, and three quality starts. However, he hasn't allowed fewer than three runs in any of those contests. His best-case scenario has been extending his outing to eat a couple extra frames, rather than actually keeping the other team off the board.
Sonny threw 195 innings last year as a 23-year-old, after tossing 152 in 2012. He's at 183 for this season so far, so he isn't in career-high territory yet. However, that doesn't mean that he can't be feeling the fatigue of his first full MLB campaign. The good news is that he's had more good games than bad ones lately, even though his overall numbers aren't pretty; he could step back up at any time and revert to the Sonny we know and love. The bad news is that he had a 2.59 ERA entering Aug. 6 and he's now at 3.25 for the season.
Random thought: It seems to me like Sonny has been walking a bunch of guys lately, but his walk rate is only a tick higher than normal. The real problem seems to be that he isn't striking anyone out right now. Prior to these last six starts, he was striking out over 21 percent of batters he faced, and in these recent contests he's down to 14 percent. In other words, his rate is only two-thirds what it normally is.
Last 6 starts:
8/03: 6ip, 4r, 2k, 1bb, 0hr
8/08: 6ip, 5r, 4k, 1bb, 0hr (6⅔ innings)
8/13: 7ip, 3r, 3k, 1bb, 1hr
8/19: 6ip, 1r, 6k, 3bb, 1hr
8/24: 3ip, 7r, 1k, 2bb, 1hr
8/31: 1ip, 6r, 0k, 4bb, 0hr (1⅓ innings)
Total: 7.80 ERA, 30 innings, 16 K's, 12 BB, 3 hr, 38 hits
Oh man. What happened, buddy? Everything was peachy through July 22, as Kaz was going seven frames per start and had a 2.32 ERA. He was only decent on July 27 against the Rangers, and then things started to go from shaky to awful when August began. He started with two bad-but-not-terrible outings, the kind you write off as off-nights but don't worry too much about. Then he seemed to stabilize with a pair of solid efforts against the Royals and Mets. And then the wheels came off, and he got pounded by the Angels twice in a row. He entered August with a 2.37 ERA and exited the month at 3.39.
It's worth noting that the Angels are fourth in MLB in scoring, but are close enough to the leaders that they would be more accurately described as "arguably the best offense in baseball." Furthermore, in that final disaster of a game, most of the damage was done via the free pass on a day when the A's publicly raised concerns about the tightness of the strike zone; the Angels only actually recorded two hits against him that day. That doesn't mean those games don't count, especially since they are also his most recent ones, but it does provide a bit of context.
Kaz is clearly not at his best right now, and you can tell that just by watching him. The biggest culprit seems to be his fastball; he's throwing his four-seamer more and his sinker less than he did earlier in the year, and both pitches are getting pounded. His velocity is down a tick from its season peak, especially on the sinker, but the problem could be anywhere from speed to location to movement or any combination thereof. But he may not be struggling quite as badly as it seems. He's pitching more like a No. 4/5 starter than a Double-A youngster who accidentally drove to the wrong stadium, at least when he's not facing the Angels.
Random thought: Still wondering why Billy Beane made it such a top priority to acquire starting pitching? Imagine if the rotation right now was Gray, Kazmir, Chavez, Milone, and Pomeranz. Gray and Kaz are struggling, Chavez ran out of gas a while ago (5.51 ERA in the last six starts he made, though he's rebounded in the pen), and Milone has been a mess in Minnesota. The A's were bad in August, but I'll bet they would have been a lot worse if they'd been running out that group. It was clear that the Opening Day rotation was not going to hold up for the entire season, and indeed they haven't. The blockbuster deals are likely the only reason Oakland still at least leads the Wild Card race.
Last 6 starts:
8/04: 7ip, 2r, 3k, 1bb, 1hr
8/09: 6ip, 2r, 5k, 2bb, 0hr
8/14: 6ip, 4r, 5k, 0bb, 0hr (6⅓ innings, 1 run unearned)
8/20: 3ip, 7r, 3k, 2bb, 2hr (3⅔ innings)
8/25: 8ip, 2r, 10k, 1bb, 1hr
8/30: 8ip, 2r, 9k, 0bb, 0hr (1 run unearned)
Total: 3.92 ERA, 39 innings, 35 K's, 6 BB, 4 HR, 37 hits
Shark has registered a 106 ERA+ since arriving in Oakland, which means he's been only slightly above-avearge when he's taken the mound. However, what that stat doesn't show is that he's been a workhorse -- nearly seven innings per start in his 11 games with the team, and 6½ each over his last six outings. That's a big deal for a team whose bullpen is missing its best arm, and it's an even bigger deal late in the season when everyone else is starting to wear down a bit. Every extra inning Shark throws is another one that the relievers don't have to cover, which helps make up for the times when his rotation-mates can't go deep into a contest. He's gone eight full frames in four of his 11 Oakland starts.
There is the pounding at the hands of the Mets on Aug. 20, but the fact that he followed that up with a pair of eight-inning gems makes me confident that it was an outlier and not a cause for concern. If you remove that game, his August ERA goes down to 2.55. Shark is going strong.
Random thought: Shark allowed six homers in his first six games since the trade, but he served up only three more in his subsequent five outings -- and one of those three was by Chris Carter, who is so hot right now he could hit a wiffle ball with a piece of string cheese and it would clear the fence. Any concerns that Shark suddenly became homer-prone can be set to rest. As usual, the pitcher's home run rate settled back down after a brief fluctuation.
We're going to look at Hammel a bit differently.
Time with Cubs (17 starts):
2.98 ERA, 108⅔ innings, 104 K's, 23 BB, 10 HR, 88 hits
First 4 starts:
7/09: 5ip, 3r, 3k, 3bb, 1hr (1 run unearned)
7/19: 2ip, 5r, 2k, 2bb, 2hr
7/25: 5ip, 4r, 3k, 2bb, 0hr (5⅔ innings, 1 run unearned)
7/30: 4ip, 8r, 4k, 3bb, 2hr (4⅓ innings)
Total: 9.53 ERA, 17 innings, 12 K's, 10 BB, 5 HR, 26 hits
Last 5 starts:
8/05: 5ip, 0r, 2k, 4bb, 0hr (5⅔ innings)
8/10: 6ip, 1r, 5k, 2bb, 1hr (6⅓ innings)
8/15: 3ip, 5r, 2k, 1bb, 3hr
8/26: 7ip, 1r, 6k, 1bb, 1hr
9/01: 8ip, 1r, 5k, 1bb, 1hr
Total: 2.40 ERA, 30 innings, 20 K's, 9 BB, 6 HR, 23 hits
In Chicago, he was a six-inning guy who struck out a batter per inning and kept the walks and hits down. That was probably aided by being in the National League and facing a bunch of pitchers pretending to bat, but it wasn't all a mirage. He flashed that same strikeout potential, as well the hit- and homer-suppressing potential, in Baltimore in 2012.
In his first four starts here, he was horrendous. Chalk that up to what you want; a new team, a new league, no help from his defense, a rumored blister in one of those games, moving from a last-place team to the thick of a pennant race. There are excuses, but he was legitimately bad for a few weeks. But for some reason, we all seem to remember that poor stretch as extending much longer than it did.
What about those last five starts? The first one wasn't as good as it looked, but Hammel did prevent even a single one of his parade of baserunners from crossing the plate. He also got lit up by the Braves on Aug. 15, which definitely counts against him, and his strikeout rate has dropped since his acquisition no matter how you slice it. But three of his last five starts have been really good, and a fourth was accidentally effective. The more you look at his season, the more that four-game stretch of ineptness in July looks like an aberration.
Random thought: Hammel succeeds when his slider is working. He excels when his four-seamer and his sinker follow suit. In July, both fastballs were getting pounded and even the slider was getting knocked around a bit. In August, each pitch worked better, and the sinker in particular was lights out. His velocity has stayed consistent all year for most of his offerings, but the slider has lost multiple miles per hour over the summer; this could be a cause of concern, since opponents have hit the pitch better and better as it's gotten slower. Still, though, it's looking more and more like Hammel is back in the saddle and has something to offer the team down the stretch.
The A's have five starters. The two who were supposed to be leading the team down the stretch have been inconsistent at best for the last month, and both are showing signs of wear. The three who are pitching well and keeping the team afloat are the ones who Billy Beane acquired in July. The door is not closed on either of the trades and so we can't call them successes or failures yet, but if you want the A's to go to the postseason this year then you should be counting your lucky stars that Beane did what he did when he did it -- if not for Lester, Shark, and Hammel, that 12-17 August could have been even worse. In conclusion ...
First 8 starts:
3.21 ERA, 42 innings, 37 K's, 17 BB, 5 HR, 35 hits
Triple-A (8 starts):
3.69 ERA, 46⅓ innings, 54 K's, 17 BB, 6 HR, 45 hits
Since returning from DL (1 start, 1 relief):
8/27: 5ip, 1r, 7k, 1bb, 0hr (5⅓ innings, run unearned)
9/02: 3ip, 0r, 3k, 0bb, 0hr
Total: 0.00 ERA, 8⅓ innings, 10 K's, 1 BB, 0 HR, 4 hits
Oh, that's right. There's that sixth option. Pomeranz was solid as a No. 5 guy who could go five innings at a time, often without allowing a run. Just as he was demonstrating an ability to pitch into the seventh, he had a bad game and broke his hand punching a chair. It looks like he's back, and you have to start to wonder what it will take to get him another start. Kazmir is scheduled for Saturday, which is four days after Pom's recent three-inning mop-up outing; is it worth skipping Kaz one time just to give him a break?
Three-fifths of Oakland's rotation is pitching quite well right now. Two-fifths is not, but there is a viable backup available should the team decide to go in another direction on a particular day to give someone else a rest. The A's may be struggling, but the state of the starting rotation is strong.