The Oakland A’s rotation has been quite a story this season. Their extensive list of injuries is well-chronicled, as is the fact that they’ve called on 13 different pitchers to start throughout the year, but the amazing part is that they’ve been totally decent despite all the adversity. They had every right to be terrible but instead they’ve hung around the middle of the MLB pack, which has opened the door for the lineup and bullpen to power the team into contention.
Things have gotten even weirder in August. The rotation isn’t just holding its own, but rather thriving over the last two weeks. They’ve made a dozen starts this month and eight of them have been of the quality variety, including five scoreless efforts. Their collective numbers, including an MLB-best ERA:
A’s SPs, Aug: 1.88 ERA, 71⅔ ip, 52 Ks, 14 BB, 3 HR, 54 hits, 2.88 FIP
To put that into context, the average line per start would be around 6 ip, 1 run, 4 Ks, 1 BB. Extend it back to the last two days of July and the story stays the same, with a 1.83 ERA, 9-of-14 quality starts, and 6-of-14 scoreless outings. That encompasses the last five series the A’s have played, and more or less three full turns through the rotation.
Of course, not all of the competition has been top-notch, but it hasn’t been a cakewalk either. The Tigers have arguably the worst offense in baseball, but the Blue Jays and Mariners are close to average at scoring, and the Dodgers and Angels are good though not elite. In a season defined by haves and have-nots, the schedule could have been tougher but also could have been much easier.
What makes this success even more incredible is who is doing it. Of the five members of the current rotation, only two of them had contracts when spring training began. Sean Manaea was supposed to be here, and Mike Fiers signed a show-me deal with Detroit in December after a brutal 2017, but Trevor Cahill didn’t arrive until mid-March and Brett Anderson and Edwin Jackson were both afterthoughts on minor league pacts. And of course now, in that way that baseball loves to do the opposite of whatever you’d expect, Anderson and Jackson are carrying the group.
Well, carrying might be too strong a word. Leading, perhaps. Manaea has been good in two of his last three starts, but the other was a bullpen-taxing stinker in which he couldn’t escape the 3rd inning. Cahill has also been strong twice in his last three, except for that time he got blown up and left in the 5th. Fiers has been solid in two games since being acquired, but he’s navigated around some hard contact both times. No one has been bad this month.
Jackson and Anderson have been on another level, though. They’ve each been brilliant in their last three starts, and only once has either of them even allowed an earned run.
Jackson, 7/30 (TOR): 5⅔ ip, 0 ER, 5 Ks, 3 BB, 3 hits
Jackson, 8/4 (DET): 6⅓ ip, 0 ER, 3 Ks, 1 BB, 5 hits
Jackson, 8/11 (LAA): 7⅓ ip, 0 ER, 6 Ks, 3 BB, 3 hits
Anderson, 8/3 (DET): 7 ip, 0 ER, 2 Ks, 1 BB, 2 hits
Anderson, 8/10 (LAA): 5 ip, 2 ER, 4 Ks, 0 BB, 4 hits, 1 HR
Anderson, 8/15 (SEA): 7⅔ ip, 0 ER, 2 Ks, 0 BB, 5 hits
Add it up and they’ve combined for 39 innings and an 0.46 ERA, with only 22 hits allowed. They were efficient, too, as only twice in that span was either of them asked to throw more than 85 pitches. Even with a short leash ahead of the electric bullpen, they’re still eating tons of quality innings.
Where is this all coming from? The likeliest answer is always that it’s just a convenient hot streak, but it’s worth noting that both hurlers have tweaked their arsenals slightly. Jackson has found success this year with a relatively new cutter, and lately he upped its frequency from around a third of the time to nearly half. Anderson has eased off his slider quite a bit, halving its usage, and has mostly replaced it with changeups. It remains to be seen if there is any connection between those alterations and the improved results, but it’s at least worth noting.
One way or other, the performances haven’t been complete flukes. Jackson in particular has done a great job inducing weak contact, which shows up in his xwOBA marks. This metric judges the quality of contact using Statcast measures like exit velocity and launch angle, while ignoring the volatile effects of defense and sequencing. The league average is .327, but here are Jackson’s last three starts:
He’s not relying on smoke and mirrors here, but rather outright shutting down the opposition. Again, the best of those outings came against the doormat Tigers, but even looking at his full season he’s rated well in this metric more often than not.
Anderson hasn’t fared quite as well in xwOBA lately, but he did put up a gem in his last game against Seattle.
He was probably a bit fortunate to go scoreless in that first game, and he was getting smoked by the Angels his next time out — perhaps that explains why he got pulled after just 63 pitches. But both times he found ways to get outs, and then against the Mariners he was every bit as good as he appeared while carrying a shutout into the 8th. Besides, what he lacked in consistently weak contact he partially made up for by issuing just one walk in nearly 20 frames.
So what comes next? Do Jackson and Anderson continue pitching like stars, or do they turn back into pumpkins sooner than later? I don’t have a compelling reason to lean heavily either way. While Jackson’s 2.48 ERA seems likely to come up a bit, there’s nothing about his numbers that suggests he’s a complete fluke, from his sub-4 FIP to his league-average xwOBA to his fully intact velocity (94 average, 97+ top). We love to tease Anderson around here and often lament his name appearing on the lineup card, and he’s always a risk to get hurt at any given moment, but he’s on a roll now and has suddenly become the efficient innings-eater that many of us wanted to find last winter. He’s truly gotten better as the season has progressed.
The gap denotes his DL stint, and the dotted line is a trendline.
The smart bet is always that the upstart breakout performer will fall back to Earth, but I don’t have a specific reason why that will happen here (other than that they’ll eventually allow a couple homers). And even when this pair does start allowing runs again, so what? They’re just supposed to be the fourth and fifth starters, not the shutdown aces, and the rotation isn’t supposed to be the team’s strength anyway. Getting anything from these two, especially on such tiny salaries, has already been a bonus, and there are still three viable backups waiting in Triple-A if the clock ever does strike midnight.
For now, let’s keep enjoying the ride. The rotation is so hot right now, and for none of the reasons that any of us would have expected. The next real test comes tonight, when Jackson faces the Astros juggernaut.