I regularly exchange texts with a couple buddies of mine - Andrew and Matthew - in which we discuss general baseball topics. Sometimes they pertain to our fantasy league. Other times we talk about our favorite teams, the Oakland A's (my favorite) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (their favorite). Occasionally I will throw out two or more mystery players to compare. We'll guess which numbers belong to what player and talk about the differences and similarities, name-value, etc.
Numbers can be manipulated to fit almost any story you need them to. They might mean everything or they might mean absolutely nothing. But every now and then statistics can point to future success of a player. I want to apply that exercise to four Oakland A's starters that could play a pivotal role with the team in 2016. To compare I've lined their most recent full season stats up against the stats of an established major leaguer whose names you might have heard a couple times this offseason.
To do that I'll be using an assortment of numbers used to measure a pitcher's ability to control walks, strikeouts, home runs, and earned runs.
Editor's Note: The stat used in these tables is K-BB%, not K/BB ratio. K-BB% is simply the difference between a pitcher's strikeout rate (K%) and walk rate (BB%), calculated as ((K-BB) / (Total Batters Faced)). It is considered to be a better measure of a pitcher's control of the strike zone.
Player A is Marco Estrada of the Toronto Blue Jays. Estrada turned in his second best season as a pro by pitching more than 180 innings and earning 1.8 fWAR. Player B is recently signed Henderson Alvarez. His numbers are from his last full season when he threw 187 innings in 2014 for Miami, good for 2.1 fWAR.
Alvarez easily looks like the better pitcher, despite a higher WHIP. He'll be returning from a lost season, which required shoulder surgery and will likely begin 2016 on the disabled list. When he does return to the mound the A's can expect a starter who will limit walks, home runs, and earned runs.
The best part of the Alvarez signing is that with the $4.25 million contract the A's signed him to this season the team will retain his rights beyond 2016. For some perspective the Blue Jays signed Estrada to a 2-year, $26 million deal in November, 2015.
Player A is Edinson Volquez of the World Series champion Kansas City Royals. After bouncing around a few teams Volquez had his career resurrected in 2014 by pitching guru and Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage. Player B is the starting pitching version of Chris Bassitt.
Volquez has changed from being a strikeout pitcher to more of a control-and-soft-contact-oriented one. His K/BB numbers have been steadily improved since 2011. Bassitt was a starter primarily in the minors but upon his arrival to Oakland said he preferred to pitch in a relief. So he opened his Athletics career as a reliever in April. By the end of June he was in the rotation and, save from a brief stint on the disabled list, he was stellar in that role. He threw 5 and 5.2 innings in his first two outings before rattling off seven straight quality starts.
Volquez was worth 2.6 fWAR in 2015 and helped carry the Royals all the way through October. You don't have to look too hard to see a steadily above-average starter in Bassitt's future if he can stay healthy.
Player A is Dave Stewart's $200 million man Shelby Miller. Don't get me wrong, Shelby Miller is a very good starting pitcher and the prospects he was acquired for are just that, prospects. Still, many view the trade that brought Miller to Arizona as an overpay. Player B is Jesse Hahn. Yes, bum-elbow, possibly-needing-second-Tommy-John-surgery Jesse Hahn. This is my biggest stretch, but did you read anything Dave Stewart said? And he gets paid to say those things!
Obviously Miller was better at ultimately keeping runs off the board in 2015 than Hahn, but how he accomplished that wasn't any better than Hahn's process. As you can see their FIP is almost identical, as are their home runs rates. Hahn had the edge in WHIP whereas Miller struck out a few more hitters. The biggest difference is their innings pitched totals, but keep reading.
If all Hahn needed was rest and he returns this spring feeling healthy then the A's may have found their No. 2 starter. If he can show the strikeout stuff he displayed prior to 2015 when he was closer to striking out one batter per inning then the A's will be in even better shape. But I began this paragraph with a BIG IF. Hahn's health will be key.
Our cross-town rivals, the San Francisco Giants signed Player A, Johnny Cueto to a $130 million contract. Player B is Sonny Gray, who makes a lowly $500K. Both are poised to lead their respective teams in 2016. Cueto bested Gray in fWAR in 2015 4.1 to 3.8 despite posting only a better K-BB%.
Cueto has established himself as one of the best starters in baseball and is getting paid like one. Gray is not far behind, and if the A's don't figure out a way to lock him up or turn him into a haul of high-level prospects then they'll likely see him flourish with another team.
Not much else to say here, other than the fact that Gray has turned in two straight 200+ inning seasons and has beaten his peripherals in doing so. His ability to turn ground balls and fly balls into outs, coupled with above-average K/BB numbers, allow him to do that. Will 2016 be the season he falls to Earth a bit? Or will he solidify his place among the top tier of starting pitchers?
As I alluded to in my intro, these numbers and comparisons do nothing to guarantee future success for Oakland's starters. I'm certainly not saying that these four A's starters are sure-fire all-stars. But when you look at the numbers apart from the names there are similarities. Cueto, Volquez, and Miller all appeared on top-100 prospects lists and make almost $200 million combined. The four A's starters weren't top-100 prospects, with the exception of Gray. That doesn't mean they can't excel.