One of the best stories on the Oakland A’s over the last few years was Jesse Chavez. When they acquired him from the Blue Jays for cash in 2012, he was settling into a career as a fringe reliever. But he’d quietly begun throwing a cutter that revolutionized his game, and by 2014 the A’s had converted him into a legitimate middle-of-the-rotation starter. Chavez served as another example that professional athletes are always trying to improve their abilities, and that sometimes it works and results in totally unexpected results.
Andrew Triggs is most definitely not the same story as Chavez. He was picked up on waivers by the A’s, but not because he wasn’t a promising pitcher; the Orioles simply didn’t have room for him on a crowded roster. He also hasn’t drastically changed his repertoire since arriving in Oakland — he already had a wide arsenal and hasn’t added any new pitches. And yet here he is, at age 27, forced into the starting rotation by necessity and finding a level of success that I don’t think anyone saw coming.
That leads to an obvious question: Can Triggs keep this up? Can he be the next Jesse Chavez, as an unheralded reliever who makes the rare jump up to starting? Let’s begin with a look at what he’s done. Triggs has made four starts (we’re not counting the game in which Rich Hill left during the first batter and was replaced by Triggs, who was subsequently hit by a line drive in the 1st inning and knocked out as well):
This is an incredibly small sample, so all we can really do here is look for signs of hope rather than true conclusions about anything. But I see a few immediate takeaways from those outings:
- They didn’t come against doormat teams. The Indians are second in the AL in scoring, and he utterly shut them down. The Orioles and Rangers are comfortably in the top half of scoring as well, and all three of those clubs would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Even the Angels are around average and have a lineup containing two of the best hitters of our generation. Triggs earned every one of those scoreless innings.
- They were efficient outings. He averaged around 15 pitches per inning in each of those games, which is a great way to make it through seven frames if you’re capable of a 100ish-pitch workload. One reason for the efficiency is that Triggs hasn’t been wasting pitches walking people -- only one free pass in 18⅔ innings. I don’t think there’s anything worse a starting pitcher can do to hurt himself than spending 4-8 pitches putting a free runner on base.
- Despite throwing 63% of his pitches for strikes but only recording 13 Ks, Triggs still hasn’t been hit that hard. In these 18⅔ frames, he’s allowed just 13 hits and only one homer. And again, he did that against a few of the better lineups in the league, right as they were trying to heat up for their pennant chases.
The control of the strike zone is real. He’s kept the walks low for his entire pro career, and his minor league K/BB ratio is 4.52. He throws strikes, and he doesn’t walk people.
The question is, can he continue to maintain the weak contact that is helping his strong peripherals translate fully into good results? A great K/BB ratio doesn’t help much when all the contact the opponent does make is crushed -- just ask Ricky Nolasco or Phil Hughes. Or Dillon Overton, whose strong Triple-A peripherals have done nothing to prevent the barrage of homers he’s allowed in the bigs.
The good news is that Triggs has the pitch selection of a starter. He throws a sinker, a slider, and a cutter, and he occasionally mixes in a four-seamer and a changeup. One red flag we often cite for a starter is that he doesn’t have enough different pitches to keep hitters guessing, but Triggs throws just about everything but a knuckleball. Even his slider has enough variation that MLB Gameday frequently misidentifies it as a curveball. Velocity isn’t a problem either, as he operates in the 90-94 range that I would consider normal for an average starter. Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs has a good GIF of each pitch (and a great take overall, comparing Triggs to Justin Masterson but with the ability to retire lefties).
None of these pitches are new, either. This profile by Steve Melewski at MASN cites every last one of those offerings, so Triggs is the same guy he’s always been. He may be throwing some of those pitches more or less than he used to -- it’s difficult to say because he didn’t debut in MLB until this year so there isn’t a baseline performance to compare to. The biggest change between his relief work in May and his rotation work in August is that he wasn’t using his changeup out of the pen (and it’s only up to 5% usage now as a starter).
And what about his sidearm-ish delivery? It’s not something we’re used to seeing from a starter, but his funkiness is far from unique. Off the top of my head I can cite Randy Johnson, El Duque, and both the Weaver brothers as guys who made unusual deliveries work for long-term outings. Given what we know about the damage done by overhand throwing, I’m actually surprised we don’t see more sidewinders in the league these days.
Add it all up, and what do we have? Certainly no sure answer, but plenty of reason for hope. We know that Andrew Triggs conceptually has the stuff to start, in terms of pitch variety and velocity. We know that he can control the strike zone with the best of them. He has the extra bonus of an unusual, deceptive delivery. And he even started in college, so all of this isn’t completely new to him. The only question remaining in my mind is whether the league will make its adjustments to him and learn how to barrel up the pitches they do hit. For that answer, we can only wait.
Considering that Triggs was never supposed to be in this situation in the first place, I don’t have any specific reason to bet against him. We’ll see what the random number generator in the sky has to say about all this.