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Evaluating Andrew Triggs, Oakland A’s ace

How has he been so dang good, and can he keep it up?

Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Andrew Triggs had his best start of the season yesterday in Houston. Against the Astros and their lineup bearing the fruits of years of ineptitude, Triggs went seven innings, giving up no runs on five hits while striking out nine. It was a thorough dismantling of possibly the best offense in the league, all while being supported by its worst defense.

A single start is largely meaningless, but we’re to the point with Triggs where we’ve got enough data to know what he can do. So what is it that’s making Triggs so good in the early going, and how long can he keep it up?

The type and location of his contact is ideal

The most obvious number that jumps out for Triggs is his ability to get groundballs - Triggs is ninth in baseball with a 55% groundball rate. That’s just in front of such studs as Jon Lester and Masahiro Tanaka, an indication of the company he keeps.

Groundballs have long been known to be preferable for pitchers. It’s pretty difficult to make a groundball productive, in spite of Jed Lowrie’s best effort. Last year, AL hitters hit a paltry .242 with a .261 slugging percentage against groundballs. It’s rare that grounders become base hits, rarer they’re hit for anything more than a single, and even when it does happen, they can be erased by another groundball turned double play. Triggs groundball tendencies bode well in multiple senses.

Triggs’ increase in groundballs has supplemented a minor decrease in strikeouts, something that might just be a blip anyway. His K% is down to 18.6% this year (from 23.1% last year), but he’s ratcheted up the punchouts in each of his last two starts. It’s a trend to watch but even if that number stays down a bit, it’s offset by his ability to draw groundballs with his diving sinker.

When hitters do get the ball in the air, they’re going the other way a strong portion of the time. Of the 38 hitters to hit either a line drive or flyball off of Triggs, 15 have gone the opposite direction. That’s important as there’s a stark difference between pulling the ball or taking it up the middle vs. going the other way. In 2016, hitters that pulled the ball or hit it to center in the air hit a remarkable .469 with a .946 slugging percentage. The other way? Just .284 and .478 respectively.

Triggs isn’t exactly an outlier in that regard, but forcing hitters to go the other way is of course a good thing. And as we’ll explore later there’s more good news in regards to the few flyballs he allows.

He’s giving up weak contact

Triggs slightly less than ideal K rate is supplemented some by his groundball rate, ensuring he won’t give up countless dingers. It’s also supplemented by his ability to induce weak contact. Thus far, Triggs has the 12th best hard hit percentage in the league, seeing just 24.1% of contact against him being hit hard.

If that sounds ambiguous, it’s because it is. The actual numbers that determine what qualifies as hard hit are proprietary. We can dig deeper, though.

Statcast has its flaws, but can give us some more tools to judge Triggs start to the season. His average exit velocity is fairly average, sitting at 88.3 MPH, in the same range as such average pitchers as Martin Perez and John Lackey.

It’s more nuanced than that though, and in a good way! Triggs is giving up groundballs at an average exit velocity of 88.4 MPH, roughly the same as his overall exit velocity. While giving up shots on the ground isn’t ideal, it’s still preferable to giving up line drives and flyballs. No matter how hard they’re hit, groundballs will never leave the yard, are unlikely to yield extra bases, and are always candidates to be outs or double plays.

While his groundball exit velocity against is fifth highest in the league, his exit velocity against linedrives and flyballs is the 14th lowest at 90.3 MPH. So while his overall exit velocity against is high, it’s mainly high against groundballs. Not so much against balls in the air, giving the A’s defensively challenged outfield a better shot at catching projectiles coming their way.

But wait there’s more! Remember how the majority of Triggs contact in the air goes to the opposite field? That’s actually fairly standard for most pitchers but what’s exciting is breaking down that contact by direction. When hitters pull the ball in the air against Triggs, their exit velocity is only 86.5 MPH. That’s a full five MPH lower than the league’s average, and bodes extremely well for his future. His pulled flyballs take the shape of oppo flyballs, a huge part of his fantastic numbers against pulled balls in the air.

So, to recap again. Triggs is striking out a solid number of hitters, a number that’s trending upwards. Great! He’s getting groundball at a remarkable rate, good for ninth in the league which makes sense with his downward moving stuff. Also great! When he does give up flyballs, which isn’t often, they aren’t hit with much gusto and nearly 60% of the time, they’re going to the opposite field where it’s tough to do much damage if you’re name isn’t Khris Davis.

Is it sustainable?

That’s never an easy question to answer, and in Triggs case, it’s a two part question. From an innings count perspective, it’s a pretty clear no. Triggs hit his inning high last year at just 76 innings, a number he’s bound to shoot far beyond this year. If he continues to start, there’s no doubt the wear of all those innings would wear down his stuff, and his results would suffer.

The A’s haven’t been all that mindful of inning counts before, letting youngsters shoot well past their previous inning highs. They’ve yet to see a player like Triggs come through as he’s an anomaly in so many senses, including his usage. That means the A’s will have to do something to curb his innings, most likely moving him to the pen at some point during the year.

From the pure stuff and luck perspective, there’s a solid chance of regression too. For one, his sparkling ERA is in spite of the defense behind him. The A’s have been bad picking it so far and chances are they’ll get worse as the year goes on. That ERA is bound to increase as a function of his environment.

Still, strikeouts and groundballs always stabilize quickly and with the former being so high and the latter rising, Triggs has the makings of at least a mid-rotation guy. If he can keep inducing weak contact in the air, thereby making nearly all contact against him middling, things are looking good no matter how bad the defense is behind him.

I prefer to imagine Triggs with an arm of steel, losing nothing as the year goes on. He’ll have to battle Jesse Hahn for the Cy Young award just like everyone predicted, but still. Andrew Triggs. What a story.