In 2016, Oakland A's starting pitchers have fit into one of three categories: injured, falling far short of expectations, or Rich Hill. There has been some slight overlap at times, with guys in the latter two categories also landing in the first one, but in general that's been the breakdown. There have been a bunch of enormous ERAs, sometimes switched out for different guys with enormous ERAs, and then every fifth day when moonlight hits the mound at just the right angle Rich Hill appears and strikes out a bunch of batters using a curveball he learned from watching old Twilight Zone reruns.
While this has all been disappointing, it shouldn't come as that big of a shock. The A's chose to rely almost entirely on young starting pitchers, mostly rookies and sophomores, and while that's worked for them in past years it is still a risky strategy. Young pitchers like to do things like make mistakes that they'll learn valuable career-long lessons from, and go through slumps that will eventually lead them to make the adjustments that finally unlock their talents. The nerve! Sometimes it all works out great in the end, but even then it often kind of sucks getting there. There will be losses. Even Mark Mulder had a 5.54 ERA his rookie year.
We're past the halfway point in the season, though, and with the passage of time has come some positive developments. Two of those young, struggling pitchers have made serious strides lately, and more importantly their success has resulted from tangible changes in their game plans rather than simple small-sample hot streaks. Say hello to Sean Manaea and Kendall Graveman, who both learned to retire batters using this One Simple Trick: figure out what your best pitch is, and then throw that more often.
Sean Manaea's changeup
We'll start with Manaea, since he is the top prospect whose high ceiling we are all excited about. After nine starts in the bigs he found himself with an ERA over six and a ticket to the disabled list, leaving Athletics Nation wondering if he wasn't what we thought he'd be. His fastball had velocity but didn't seem to be fooling anyone, and hitters were teeing off.
But when Manaea came back from the DL, he made an adjustment to his pitch selection. He started throwing his changeup more, and so far the results have been incredible. In five games since his return, he's got a 2.35 ERA, and his only bad game during that span was the one in which he didn't use his change as often. In his last three games, he's thrown 20 innings with 17 strikeouts and no walks.
This one isn't tough to figure out. The offspeed pitch is not only excellent on its own, it also helps set up the fastball and make it look even more powerful. Hitters can't just sit dead-red anymore, so when the heater does come they aren't always as prepared for it. He also seemed to experiment for a couple games with taking a couple ticks of velocity off his fastball, presumably so that he could command it better, but he hit 94-95 several times on Friday and still posted the best outing of his career with eight shutout innings. The changeup is the one consistent factor throughout.
Looking through Manaea's game logs, the difference is like night and day when he uses his changeup more often -- that is, 30-40% of the time rather than 20-25%. He has exceeded 30% changeups in six games, and those happen to overlap with five of his top six Game Scores (taking liberty by assigning a Game Score to his long relief outing). His best starts have been the ones in which he used his change a lot, and the starts in which he's used his change a lot have been his best ones. That's not a coincidence.
Manaea, change 30%+: 6 games, 1.83 ERA, 39⅓ ip, 30 Ks, 4 BB, 3 HR
Manaea, fewer changes: 8 starts, 7.30 ERA, 40⅔ ip, 36 Ks, 16 BB, 8 HR
(Note: Those splits are counting his July 22 start at 30.1%. After this was posted, Brooks Baseball updated for that game and listed it at 28.4%.)
There was one at-bat in particular on Friday that I thought illustrated Manaea's transformation perfectly. Steve Pearce was leading off the 2nd inning, and Manaea started the at-bat with a changeup. Pearce swung through it as it tumbled down out of the zone. Manaea threw it again in the same place, and Pearce swung through it again. Manaea threw it again, and this time Pearce let it go for Ball 1.
That's when Manaea struck, pumping in a 93 mph fastball. It actually wasn't that great of a pitch, missing away and maybe a bit up. If it had been the first pitch of the at-bat then most batters would have watched it for a ball. But Pearce was down in the count and had seen a steady diet of mid-80s offspeed pitches, and the jump up to even 93 was enough to fool him. He reacted far too late, tried to hold up his half-hearted swing when he realized it was outside, and got called for going around, Strike 3. What would have been a forgettable pitch in another situation became the hammer when it was properly set up by the right sequence.
Kendall Graveman's sinker
Manaea's resurgence symbolizes a top talent getting back on track toward his high ceiling, but Graveman is more like a fringe guy trying to prove he belongs. When he's pitching like he was through May, he looks like a passable No. 5 guy who can eat some innings for you but might wind up in the bullpen or bouncing around the waiver wire over the long haul. When he's pitching like he has been in his last couple games, though, he looks like a legit mid-rotation starter. The fact that his success came right as he started using his sinker more provides plenty of hope that the improvement is real.
Perhaps "more" isn't a strong enough word for Graveman's sinker use. "Almost exclusively" is more accurate. The right-hander has thrown his sinker 81.4% of the time over his last two starts, with each game registering over 80% on its own. To put that into context, Bartolo Colon leads all MLB starters in fastball use at 88.3%, and no one else is above 74%. Graveman has been right there with him these last two games, and that's only his sinker. Most of the rest of his pitches were cutters and 4-seamers, and overall he threw five non-fastballs (2.4% of 205 pitches). He's streamlined his arsenal to an extent that few starters ever do, and it's working beautifully:
Graveman, last 2 starts: 15 ip, 4 ER, 8 Ks, 1 BB, 12 hits, 1 HR, 81.4% sinkers
He had another two-start stretch in mid-June that told the same story. His sinker use rose to 68% and then 82%, and he threw a pair of quality starts with three total runs and one walk. The usage dropped again for his next two starts and he saw increases in his runs and walks, then he had the two excellent sinker-heavy starts listed in the stat line above. The pattern is unmistakable.
Graveman has always been a sinker/grounder guy, but the addition of a cutter is what initially helped his career take off. It was a big part of his game plan in his mediocre rookie season, showing up a quarter of the time (compared to half the time for his sinker). He began using the cutter even more at the beginning of this year, nearly at a one-to-one ratio with the sinker, and his results got worse. Now that he's flipped the script and moved back toward the sinker (while still mixing in at least a handful of cutters along the way), he's putting up quality starts again, and he's doing so by inducing the groundballs that are both his calling card and a necessity for his success.
Granted, the four sinker-heavy starts I've cited all came against only two different teams (Angels, Astros), so he still has to prove that this new strategy works on other lineups too. But even if going all-out and becoming the Colon of sinkers doesn't turn out to be viable, at least the answer to unlocking Graveman's potential clearly lies in making that pitch his primary weapon to some extent. And facing the same lineup in back-to-back quality starts (as he's done twice) does at least show his one-trick approach can continue to fool the same hitters over and over even after they've seen it several times.
For now, Graveman's sinker is looking good enough that he might not need another regular offering, especially when he's dialing it up as high as 97 mph. Here he is getting a whiff at 95 mph, as a great example of how nasty the pitch is between its movement and velocity:
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Both Manaea and Graveman are finding success by leaning more heavily on their nastiest offerings, and in different ways -- Manaea by mixing things up more, and Graveman by paring them down and keeping it simple. But of course, just as their previous struggles weren't permanent, they still have to prove that their newfound success is sustainable. Opposing teams will make their own adjustments to these adjustments, and the cycle will continue. For now, though, it looks like both of these pitchers have turned a corner and figured out how to use their stuff to get results, and because of it the A's rotation looks a lot sunnier than it did a month ago.
Pitch data courtesy of MLB.com and Brooks Baseball.