After the 2014 season, the Oakland A's infamously traded away four popular All-Stars in an attempt to youthenize their roster. No, that's not a word. Enyoungen their roster? Spell check says no. The A's traded away four popular All-Stars to reload their roster with younger players and look toward the future. It was part of the cycle we've come to expect from the Beane-now-Forst A's, if a year earlier than we anticipated (which itself made it par for the course).
One of the primary focuses was to restock the starting rotation, which had suffered a lot of attrition due to injuries and free agency. The A's picked up four young starters as part of their overall haul. Translating that into the language of pitching prospects, you expect at least two of them to flame out, and indeed Sean Nolin has already been waived and Chris Bassitt has already undergone a Tommy John operation and is out of the picture for now.
The other two, Kendall Graveman and Jesse Hahn, made the jump and posted solid 2015 seasons cut short by injuries they've since recovered from. But then their 2016 seasons both began in massive slumps, casting doubt on whether the A's had added any true keepers to their rotation in those blockbuster trades. Fortunately, things have started looking up for both pitchers in July, and hope is restoring that the A's did in fact get some real pitching help.
Our look at Hahn will be sort of a recon mission. I don't even have a conclusion for him yet as I start this, we're just going to take a look under the hood and see what's there. Our look at Graveman will be an update from our recent look at his sinker.
Hahn has had arguably the weirdest season of anyone on the A's, possibly even more so than the mysteriously ineffective Sonny Gray. The question all winter was whether Hahn's elbow would be healthy enough to pitch, with an assumption that he'd be good if he could just get on the mound, but the opposite has happened. He's reportedly been perfectly healthy, and in fact his velocity is up by 2 mph on both his fastballs, but he's lost touch with the strike zone and his pitches have been more like exploratory missions to rediscover it.
His spring was so bad that he began the year in Triple-A, and even in the minors his walk rate has been far too high. Through his first seven MLB starts, his ERA was 6.49, and the eyeball test didn't see anything to refute that assessment. Hahn was a gascan.
But then, after another stretch of mediocrity in Nashville, he was called on to make a spot start for Rich Hill on Sunday. For some reason, he dominated, carrying a shutout through seven innings and finishing with a line of 7⅔ ip, 1 run, 5 Ks, 1 BB. That's the kind of performance we expected to see more often from Hahn.
We've looked at the pitch selections of several A's hurlers lately, partly because they have shown such clear demarcation lines between their good outings with certain selections (like Manaea with more changeups, or Sonny with more breaking balls) and their bad outings with different mixtures. It doesn't always look so obvious like it does in some of these cases, which is why it's caught my attention so much. With that in mind, is there anything in Hahn's arsenal that could help explain his excellent start, other than it being a one-game sample against a crappy Rays lineup?
On the left side you see what Hahn did last year, when he was good -- April was probably his best month, May was his worst, June was good but a bit walky, and July was just one good game. It seems like he got worse the less he used his 4-seamer, regardless of whether he replaced it with sinkers or offspeed/breaking balls, but even that is probably a weak correlation.
And how about this year? First off, the slider is gone, for health reasons (it was his worst pitch anyway). April and July are each made up of just one good start, while May and June are just multiple bad ones. The April start goes against the conclusion I just tried to draw about 4-seamers, so, dang. But here's the rest of his season, game-by-game:
It looks like he experimented with ditching the 4-seamer completely, and then when that didn't work he tried ditching the sinker instead. Or maybe he was just so off that the pitches weren't moving the way they were supposed to, leading to things like sinkers that didn't sink? Either way, producing just one type of fastball in a given game does not appear to be a viable strategy for him. On Sunday, when he returned to throwing both fastballs in concert (even with his newfound velocity still intact), everything clicked and he looked like his old self (though with fewer grounders than he's capable of).
In the end, though, I don't think there's enough to draw any serious conclusion about Hahn's pitch selection, certainly not like with our looks at Manaea and Graveman. If anything, the lesson might just be that variety is important for Hahn, and that one of his keys to success is mixing up his fastball to give it different looks throughout a game -- especially since he has one fewer secondary pitch now.
For the full story on Graveman, check out our profile from last week. The short version: He's throwing his sinker almost exclusively the last several games, and almost never throwing anything that isn't a fastball (like, 2% of the time).
That sinker-heavy game plan helped put Graveman on a serious hot streak, and against the Astros he got three outs away from his first career shutout. On Saturday against the Rays, he notched his first career nine-inning complete game. What did he throw to do that?
(Note: The sinker averaged 93.2 mph, which is right in his normal range, down a tick from his season-high 94.5 in his last outing.)
He dialed back a little bit on the sinkers, but they were still his predominant pitch at over 70% (72-of-102). He threw a few extra changeups this time, so his overall fastball use (sinker, cutter, 4-seam) dropped to "only" 91.2% -- still more than Bartolo averages. The whole package added up to 9 ip, 3 runs, 4 Ks, 1 BB, 9 hits. The A's won it for him with a walk-off in the 9th partly because he kept them in the game all night, and he also gave the bullpen a night off.
Let's go a bit further, with an inning-by-inning look:
1-3: He cut through the first three innings in only 27 pitches, all but two of them sinkers. He did allow a run in that time, but still, that's a nice beginning.
4: Well into his second time through the order, he started mixing things up. But his sinker got beat again for a one-run rally on a couple solid hits.
5-6: Now into his third time through the order, these two frames take only 17 total pitches, partly thanks to a GIDP from his sinker.
7: Starts mixing things up a bit and the secondaries get him in trouble. In particular, the cutter plays a big role in a walk and later an RBI hit.
8-9: Now in the fourth time through the order, the whole arsenal shows up. In the 8th inning alone, the cutter (flyout), change (groundout), and slider (K) each get an out.
Graveman is a pitch-to-contact guy, so even at his best he's likely to give up some runs here and there. Sometimes that'll mean a few grounders trickling through a hole, others a few mistakes hanging up and getting banged, but the point is that his sinker getting beat a couple times for a couple runs in this game isn't meant as a criticism. Rather, using it as the predominant offering in a 102-pitch, three-run, complete game victory shows how efficiently it can cut through a lineup when it's working right.
The experiment of Graveman becoming a one-pitch fastball guy has another data point in its favor. His numbers in seven starts since making the switch:
Graveman, last 7: 2.74 ERA, 49⅓ ip, 23 Ks, 8 BB, 44 hits, 2 HR
On Monday we looked at the post-DL resurgence of reliever Liam Hendriks. The takeaway was that he seemed to be at his best when he capped the usage of his powerful 4-seam fastball to about half of his pitches, while making sure to include a steady diet of his whiffy slider.
Hendriks pitched later that day, throwing only eight pitches to record a perfect inning. He only threw one slider, but that was because his fastball didn't really need much help this time. After six fastballs he had an out and a 1-2 count on the next batter, and then the slider showed up to register the swing-and-miss for the K. One more sinker ended the inning.
He went again on Tuesday. He struck out the side in his first inning -- it took seven pitches to get the first one but it probably helped that he mixed things up with a slider on the penultimate offering; the second one was all fastballs, mostly sinkers; the last one was set up by fastballs, with a slider as the hammer. In the next inning the slider didn't show up until the third batter, but it helped retire MVP candidate Ian Desmond with a runner on base. Then he walked Adrian Beltre on four pitches and I don't blame him because Beltre is terrifying, and that was the end of his night.
Hendriks found success in these outings despite relatively light slider usage. That would seem to run counter to my previous hypothesis, though I will note two rebuttals. First, one of these outings was quite short, and just because the slider is important doesn't mean the fastball can't have a good hair day and get the job done so quickly that it doesn't need help. Second, though the sliders were fewer in total, they did record three of the eight total outs while playing a big role in a fourth. The fastball is good and it's still important to set things up, but using the slider at the right times seems to be what turns him into a truly dangerous opponent.
Hendriks, post-DL (15 games): 1.40 ERA, 19⅓ ip, 14 Ks, 6 BB, 15 hits, 2 HR
Heck, we're already this far, let's look at Manaea's start from Wednesday as well. He pitched into the 7th and struck out nine batters without a walk. With him we're looking for a high percentage of changeups, preferably 30% or more, and he basically got there at 29.2%. The pitch played a big role in five of those strikeouts, though it also got launched for a homer by Desmond.
It was another strong outing for Manaea in which he made big use of his change. His fastball topped out at 94 mph, and it appears that with his offspeed pitch mixing things up he doesn't need to sell out for max 95-96 velocity. By changing speeds, he can focus on control rather than just power, and now he hasn't walked a batter in his last four starts.
Manaea, last 4: 1.69 ERA, 26⅔ ip, 26 Ks, 0 BB, 24 hits, 2 HR