When a team is struggling like the Oakland A's are right now, it's easy to get down on the whole lot of them. However, baseball is enough of a team sport that some areas of the club can play well without doing enough to earn victories. The A's are experiencing this phenomenon, as their bullpen has been so monumentally toxic that it has masked strong performances elsewhere.
Nowhere is that invisible quality more overlooked than in the starting rotation. A's starters haven't just held their own, they have thrived to the tune of an AL-leading 3.50 ERA -- and that's including Kendall Graveman's four disastrous outings. All five current members have ERAs below 4.50, and three of them are sub-3.00*. Lest you think I'm trying to fool you with a shiny-but-empty ERA, the group also ranks second in the AL in FIP (3.48) and they're tied for the league lead in fWAR (4.3). On one hand, their BABIP and home run rate might be unsustainably low, but on the other hand their rate of stranding runners probably is too so all of that could even out. However you slice it, this rotation is rock-solid so far, with room to grow. Here's a quick look at each starter.
Sonny Gray: His 1.61 ERA leads the league, and his 2.6 bWAR trails only Lorenzo Cain among all AL players. Simply put, he's been the best pitcher in baseball so far. He's averaging seven innings per start and has completed at least six frames each time out while only once allowing more than two runs. His walks are down, his strikeouts are up, and he's only allowed one homer all year. There is not a better way to start your rotation at this moment in time on planet Earth.
Scott Kazmir: His last two outings were a bit shaky, but Kazmir has six quality starts in seven tries. His 2.78 ERA puts him 12th among AL starters and he's striking out a batter per inning, and like Sonny he has completed at least six frames in each game he's pitched. After fading down the stretch last year, the 2014 All-Star is still a solid No. 2.
Jesse Chavez: He's got his rotation spot back and he looks like he wants to keep it for good this time. He has only once failed to finish the sixth inning, and he's looking a lot like the guy who impressed us all so much in the first half last year. His ERA is low (3.19 in 5 starts) and his peripherals are even better. It's safe to say that he's entrenched himself as the third reliable starter in the group, giving the A's an excellent top three.
Jesse Hahn: He's going through some growing pains as he gains MLB experience, but he's at least holding his own. He's not going deep into outings and he's having trouble staying consistent from inning to inning, but he's starting to strike guys out, he's limiting the walks, and he's keeping the ball in the park. That's a good starting point, and given the movement he has on his pitches there is every reason to believe he could get better as the year goes on.
Drew Pomeranz: Amazingly, Pom and Hahn have made the exact same number of starts, thrown the exact same number of innings, and posted identical ERAs: 7 starts, 38⅔ innings, 4.42 ERA. Hahn has been slightly better overall, but Pom has put up the best pair of starts between the two of them by far, with the latest coming last week against Boston. Overall, Pomeranz has still thrown too many pitches and thus failed to go deep enough into games, and he's still prone to outbursts of walks. But teams can do a lot worse with their No. 5 starters, and before long Pom might need to start fending off competition from the likes of Sean Nolin (who recently returned to Triple-A from the DL). And hey, Kendall Graveman isn't going to stop trying to get himself back on the team, and Arnold Leon is striking out nearly 11 batters per nine innings through five starts.
Add it all up, and every day the front half of the A's pitching staff gives the team a chance to win. On three out of five days, the A's probably have the better starting pitcher, and on the other two days they at least know that they'll get five decent innings at the worst. When you're scoring nearly five runs per game, that's often going to be enough to get you through. Of course, the bullpen will have to start cooperating or else it truly won't matter what the rest of the team does, but if the relievers can stop throwing batting practice then this team has the kind of rotation that can go on a big winning streak at a moment's notice. It's the kind of rotation that can get you back in a pennant race, if only it's given the chance.
* Note: Jesse Chavez's ERA as a starter isn't quite sub-3.00, but his overall mark is 2.63 including his relief work. His overall FIP is 2.68.