In the wake of Mr. Beane's Wild Ride(TM) off-season, there's been a big "What-If" question mark floating about - what if the A's held pat in trades from June 2014 last year? It was a topic recently addressed by Grant Brisbee (SBNation writer) in this article from three days ago. Last year is remembered for the insane run differential and the terribly nasty end of season collapse. But there's a story line I haven't really seen enter the zeitgeist of the fans. Brisbee, whose opinion I respect well-enough for a Gnats fan, rather glossed over the serious SP struggles of our beloved A's. #Narrative
A less heralded story of the 2014 season is the tale of the A's starting rotation, also known as "How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love The Barren A's Farm System".
Let's go back to February 2014. baseballgirl gave us an article looking at the expected 25 man roster. The A's were the talk of the AL West, the division looking like theirs for the taking. Specifically, I want to note this quote:
Very, very weird you ask?
Someone on AN forgot to knock on wood. News broke March 17th, less than two weeks before Opening Day, that our presumed #1 starter Jarrod Parker was to undergo Tommy John surgery. There was also news that Griffin was going to start the season on the DL, but we wouldn't find out that he'd also be gone for good until mid-April. It was still just "Oh Noes" Parker gone.
This is how Josh friggin' Lindblom started game #3 of the season (we predictably lost that game).
Depth though. Oh that A's depth. When we found out Griffin was also destined for Tommy John here's what the rotation, sans our projected #1 and #3 starters, looked like:
The April / May Rotation
On April 30th, the A's were 18-10 with that rotation. Chavez was, I mean wow! A 1.89 ERA. That ace-ness would fade come May, he posted a 4.25 ERA through May/June. Still, in April Chavez was a Cy Young candidate. May Chavez was a No. 4 starter in a normal rotation and a No. 5 in Oakland. Basically we replaced Griffin no problem with some guy we grabbed off waivers.
Straily was another matter. We were hoping/expecting he'd be the one taking a great leap forward in 2014, not Chavez. But after seven starts of Straily struggling (that could have been the A's seventh day of Christmas) Melvin had enough. There was this ex-starter Pomeranz guy in our pen casually putting up a 1.98 ERA to-date on the year. Out goes Straily and in goes our second Beane miracle. Parker gone, no problem. Pomeranz exploded onto the scene, not going too-deep into games but also having not allowed a run until his 4th start. Thus by June:
The June Rotation:
On June 16th the A's were 42-28. LIFE WAS GOOD!!!! We had this astounding run differential, we were in top of the power rankings and the A's were finally getting noticed. So why do I mention June 16? Well, this:
Jun 16th Pomeranz faced that still nasty Texas line-up, threw 72 pitches in 3.2 innings, surrendered 8 runs, and then after being taken out promptly punched a wooden chair in the bowels of O.Co and broke his pitching hand. At least he took a tip from Crash Davis and used his non-throwing hand:
What happened next? Dolla Dolla Mills y'all! What can you buy for a dollar? Beane sure knows how to buy effective starters. Brad Mills performed well enough for a scrap heap acquisition, he kept us in games and we won two of his three starts. But with Pom out for who knows how long the whole rotation behind Gray was iffy:
Kazmir - pretty high injury risk
Chavez - fading ever since April, complete unknown
Milone- still effective but on a three year slide of walking more and striking out fewer
Mills - really, our #5 is some guy we bought for a dollar?
We were talking about this year's A's starting to catch up with all-time A's records. On June 30th, the A's were 51-31, a .622 win pct that was leading the whole of MLB (the Gnats were finally fading). But with that rotation, could we sustain it? Having already lost Parker, Griffin, and Pomeranz already forced Mills into the rotation. Any other missteps and you're looking at Leon or Lindblom in the heat of a pennant run. So, with the summer hot stove just getting warm, this happened:
Russell, our golden ticket. The first round hitter that finally was panning out. A perhaps top-10 overall blue chip prospect, ouch. In return though, arguably the second best starter on the potential trade market. Rumor was we dangled Russell for Price and the Rays refused to bite, so instead we found ourselves with a Shark. (took a while to learn that spelling, eh?
Beane was famously quoted in Moneyball with his ironclad rules of trading, and number 3 (I think?) was: Never be in the position where you have to make a trade. Look again at the June rotation minus Pomeranz. Look again at the record-breaking A's run differential, this offense was WINNING. What do you do?
We've looked again and again at Hammel's disastrous July (he gave up 8 runs against the Astros, the Astros!). But I think we gloss over just how good Shark was. Look, Hammel pushed Milone out of the rotation. But Shark pushed Mills out. That cannot be understated. In exchange for Russell, we replaced Mills with Shark for 16 starts on one of the best Oakland teams we've seen in a while.
Right at the trade deadline, Beane struck again, swapping Cespy for a true ace in Jon Lester. Lester pushed Chavez out of the rotation (Chavez vs. Hammel is a debate for the ages). But no questioning Lester's credentials. Going into the stretch run the A's SP situation had morphed into:
The Sept/Oct Rotation:
Milone was gone for Fuld (yes, we're all a tad bitter about that one). But Milone had no place in a rotation that couldn't even fit Jesse Chavez. Look, clearing out the farm system hurt, and there's some mixed feelings about Hammel, but during a year with the A's put up the fourth most runs scored in all MLB Beane saw an entire top of a rotation wiped out by injury and managed to replace it just like that with a snap of his fingers.
Lester for Cespedes has I believed settled into a meh to well-regarded move. Most hurtful about it was perhaps the loss of the A's most recognizable player, but just talking about on-field production Cespy was somewhat replaceable. Russell was the big loss of 2014 trades but I think we fail to appreciate just how much Shark solidified this rotation. Let's start with the end-of-season Oakland leaderboards:
End of Season SP Leaderboards (OAK stats only):
Pomeranz - 2.35
Lester - 2.35
Gray - 3.08
Samardzija - 3.14
Chavez - 3.45
Milone - 3.55
Kazmir - 3.55
Hammel - 4.26
Samardzija - 1.0
Lester - 1.9
Kazmir - 2.4
Milone - 2.4
Hammel - 2.8
Chavez - 3.0
Gray - 3.0
Pomeranz - 3.4
Chavez - 8.4 (seriously, Chavez was our K leader?!)
Lester - 8.3
Pomeranz - 8.3
Samardzija - 8.0
Kazmir - 7.8
Gray - 7.5
Hammel - 7.2
Milone - 5.7
By the fancier metrics Shark had the lowest WHIP and second-best FIP (behind Lester) on the team. Samardzija was worth 2.1 WAR in 16 starts (Lester had 1.6 WAR in 11 starts). Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir each finished with 3.3 WAR.
If we were picking most necessary pitcher in 2014, I ABSOLUTELY, HANDS DOWN give it to Samardzija.
Lester is the better pitcher. Let's get past that. But Lester replaced some combo of Milone/Chavez. I loved the idea of Lester for a deep playoff run, but he wasn't necessary per se. Kazmir faded BAD down the stretch but was a darn nice piece. So it comes down for me to Gray versus Samardzija. Gray was our ace, but he's still young and developing. Look at the leaderboards again. Gray was almost last in BB/9 and middle of the pack in K/9. He was indeed the HR/9 leader but on the whole I'd argue that Shark was by far the better overall pitcher in 2014 (a 4.1 WAR whole season to Gray's 3.3 WAR). And here's the thing - we know Gray was supposed to be the #1 guy. Every competitive team has such a guy and Gray was ours.
Gray was always supposed to be there. But without Shark (and Hammel tagging along) then though all of July, Aug, Sept, and Oct it's a steady diet of Milone, Mills, and then Lindblom/Leon. We went 8-8 in Samardzija starts at a time when the offense started disappearing. 8-8 sounds bad, but how many more do we lose with back-end guys instead?
We captured the second Wild Card over Seattle by a single game. Lester was part of that, but we also lost Cespy's bat, so maybe it was a wash? But without Shark's 2.1 WAR for Oakland, I say we get roughly 0 WAR with Mills and that 8-8 record under Shark drops to 6-10 and we don't even get the chance to lose to KC in epic fashion with Jon friggin' Lester on the mound.
Shark was critically necessary to the 2014 season after the losses of Parker, Griffin, and Pomeranz. And the end result - we lost Russell and Robertson (and Jaso, Powell, Ynoa) and replaced them with a 2015 of Semein, Zobrist, and Escobar.
Yes, we lost two potential stars (but hey, also two possible busts). And in return our middle infield, our weakness for years and years, is fixed for 2015 and beyond, and we ALSO had our 2014 season saved. Not bad.