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Don’t Look Now, but the Oakland A’s have a Starting Rotation

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Detroit Tigers v Oakland Athletics
Trevor Cahill is arguably Oakland’s best starting pitcher and he began the year without a job.
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s have now won six-straight games versus the Toronto Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers following 3-straight losses at the hands of Colorado Rockies. A 6-3 record in the last 9 isn’t amazing. But what is amazing is that since the A’s first faced the Rockies on July 27th Oakland pitchers haven’t allowed more than four runs in a single game.

This includes surviving a Coors field start from Brett Anderson, who then turned around to toss 7 scoreless frames against the yes-they’re-still-a-pro-team-Detroit-Tigers. Frankie Montas allowed just 3 earned runs in his Coors field game, albeit in less than 5 innings. Two strong starts from Edwin Jackson, as well as wins from Sean Manaea and Trevor Cahill, including one of Cahill’s best performances of the year wrap up the recent 9-game stretch.

For much of the season Oakland lacked depth and overall quality from it’s starters, but it turns out the A’s have a starting rotation after all.

A’s Starters: Better Than You Think

Oakland’s rotation depth was tested early on this season, then it was tested again. And just for fun the baseball gods then ran them through the gauntlet. What emerged was a starting staff in the bottom half of MLB in terms of fWAR and ERA. I’m sure you’re losing confidence as you’re reading, but stay with me.

The A’s season-long numbers are partially dragged down by a collection of really, really poor performances from the likes of Andrew triggs and Kendall Graveman. Paul Blackburn and Daniel Gossett also had their fair share of disasters. The current iteration of the Oakland rotation, however, has mostly been fine. It is also going to get better after the acquisition of Mike Fiers.

Since June 1st Oakland’s starters have a respectable 4.17 ERA, good for 14th in baseball and the group is 18th in MLB in innings.

The culprits responsible for delivering these encouragingly middle-of-the-road performances aren’t who we expected they’d be at the outset of the season, as the story goes. However, as the summer rolls on they’ve become the pitchers Oakland needs.

There are three ingredients which I believe are making Oakland’s rotation more than serviceable.

1: Trevor Cahill’s Whiffs

I examined Cahill back in April following his 2018 debut and pointed out a repertoire change that has fueled his resurgence. His changeup and curveball still feature prominent roles in his game, while his sinker is still the anchor for his 5-pitch mix. However it is the curveball and changeup that do his dirty work.

Cahill’s 2018 Pitch Splits

Split FA% SI% CH% SL% CU%
Split FA% SI% CH% SL% CU%
Usage 4.2 % 36.9 % 25.6 % 17.8 % 15.4 %
Value 0.9 0.5 8 -1.9 2.1
Velocity 93.2 92.4 84.6 88.4 80.7
Fangraphs.com

Cahill throws four above-average pitches. He has also received more than 13% swinging-strikes on three of his offerings. His overall whiff rate of 13.5 percent is good for 14th in baseball, just behind Chris Archer and Gerrit Cole.

Cahill’s 2018 Whiffs

Pitch O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
Pitch O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
Changeup (CH) 48.9 % 74.2 % 58.9 % 38.9 % 74.2 % 56.4 % 39.5 % 25.7 %
Curveball (CU) 25.4 % 55.1 % 36.6 % 31.0 % 79.0 % 58.2 % 37.7 % 15.3 %
Slider (SL) 30.2 % 67.4 % 46.9 % 57.1 % 79.7 % 71.7 % 45.0 % 13.3 %
Sinker (SI) 22.6 % 55.3 % 37.4 % 66.7 % 93.6 % 84.8 % 45.4 % 5.7 %
Fourseam (FA) 13.3 % 50.0 % 28.0 % 75.0 % 90.0 % 85.7 % 40.0 % 4.0 %
Fangraphs.com

Thanks to Cahill’s newfound ability to miss bats he’s been better this season than he ever has been, as I don’t see signs of it slowing down.

Cahill’s 2018 vs. Career

Season ERA K% BB% K-BB% SwStr% HR/9 BABIP WHIP FIP xFIP SIERA
Season ERA K% BB% K-BB% SwStr% HR/9 BABIP WHIP FIP xFIP SIERA
2018 3.12 25.3 % 7.7 % 17.5 % 13.5 % 0.72 0.268 1.07 3.24 3.26 3.53
Career 4.05 17.6 % 9.5 % 8.1 % 8.7 % 0.94 0.286 1.36 4.28 4.01 4.15
Fangraphs.com

2: Edwin Jackson has a Cutter

It’s not often 12-year veteran pitchers remake themselves without a complete role change. But Edwin Jackson has and the results are a career-best 2.87 ERA. Edwin Jackson has a cut-fastball that he throws one-third of the time! And it’s pretty good.

Jackson’s Career Pitch Types

Season Team FA% FC% SI% CH% SL% CU%
Season Team FA% FC% SI% CH% SL% CU%
2007 Devil Rays 55.3 % 6.3 % 10.4 % 27.6 %
2008 Rays 64.4 % 4.5 % 6.7 % 21.6 % 2.8 %
2009 Tigers 62.4 % 2.5 % 5.0 % 27.5 % 2.6 %
2010 2 Teams 48.6 % 10.7 % 7.9 % 30.3 % 2.6 %
2011 2 Teams 44.1 % 0.9 % 9.8 % 8.6 % 33.9 % 2.6 %
2012 Nationals 45.9 % 4.5 % 8.6 % 8.1 % 28.6 % 4.3 %
2013 Cubs 38.6 % 8.7 % 19.4 % 1.9 % 28.2 % 3.3 %
2014 Cubs 45.1 % 15.0 % 4.9 % 27.0 % 8.0 %
2015 2 Teams 48.7 % 1.2 % 6.3 % 3.8 % 34.6 % 5.4 %
2016 2 Teams 40.6 % 20.3 % 3.4 % 1.7 % 27.1 % 6.9 %
2017 2 Teams 35.3 % 12.7 % 13.2 % 6.3 % 24.8 % 7.8 %
2018 Athletics 16.0 % 35.6 % 16.3 % 7.3 % 21.2 % 3.5 %
Fangraphs.com

By Pitch Info Pitch Value his cutter is his best pitch by a wide margin. While his fastball, changeup and slider each registers just less than a run above average, his cutter is a whopping 4.5 runs above average.

Jackson’s Career Pitch Values

Season Team wFA wFC wSI wCH wSL wCU
Season Team wFA wFC wSI wCH wSL wCU
2007 Devil Rays -4.6 -5.8 -1.1 5.3
2008 Rays -11.8 -3.8 -6.5 16.3 0.4
2009 Tigers -4.9 -2.6 -2.1 15.6 3.8
2010 2 Teams -7 -1.4 0 13.2 -4.9
2011 2 Teams -5.1 1 2.3 -4.5 2.2 0.2
2012 Nationals -7 3.6 -4.5 -1.3 9.8 0
2013 Cubs -0.3 -2.4 -15.9 -3.6 7.5 -3.5
2014 Cubs -19.9 -1.2 -1 -5.4 -3.6
2015 2 Teams 3.6 -0.4 0.6 1.1 0.4 0.5
2016 2 Teams -1.8 -4 -1 0.6 -1.1 -2.4
2017 2 Teams 1.2 -4.3 -6.9 -0.2 -2.1 -1.8
2018 Athletics 0.6 4.5 -0.1 0.9 0.5 -0.4
Fangraphs.com

His cutter isn’t a swing-and-miss pitch, garnering just over 7% whiffs, but opposing batters have just a .283 wOBA against it and are hitting pop-ups 35 percent of the time.

3: Frankie Montas Is Killing Worms

Without a doubt something seems totally off when you glance at Frankie Montas stat line. From his previous two seasons of major league games he has lost a significant amount of strikeouts. He has also shaved his walks allowed by nearly half, and he’s cut down on the homers he has allowed, all while throwing more innings and starts than ever before.

Montas’ Career Results

Season Team Age ERA IP GS K% BB% K-BB% SwStr% HR/9 BABIP WHIP FIP xFIP SIERA
Season Team Age ERA IP GS K% BB% K-BB% SwStr% HR/9 BABIP WHIP FIP xFIP SIERA
2015 White Sox 22 4.8 15 2 30.3 % 13.6 % 16.7 % 12.9 % 0.6 0.361 1.53 3.13 3.94 3.6
2017 Athletics 24 7.03 32 0 23.7 % 13.2 % 10.5 % 11.8 % 2.81 0.349 1.84 7.13 5.18 4.51
2018 Athletics 25 3.75 57.2 10 15.6 % 7.6 % 8.0 % 8.8 % 0.62 0.328 1.46 3.8 4.56 4.83
Fangraphs.com

This is because Frankie Montas is now a groundball-oriented pitcher. Compared to his previous seasons he has traded many flyballs for groundballs and a few more line drives. The more line drives aren’t ideal, especially considering he allows plenty of hard contact. However, a 42.5 percent groundball rate is especially good when you consider the A’s elite infield defense.

Montas’ Career Batted-Balls

Season Team GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB
Season Team GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB
2015 White Sox 0.82 16.2 % 37.8 % 45.9 % 5.9 % 5.9 %
2017 Athletics 0.87 23.7 % 35.5 % 40.9 % 7.9 % 26.3 %
2018 Athletics 1.36 26.3 % 42.5 % 31.2 % 3.4 % 6.9 %
Fangraphs.com

Montas has allowed just the 88th highest xwOBA on groundballs this season, among starting pitchers. His .222 mark is the same as Stephen Strasburg and Aaron Nola and just .001 higher than Zack Greinke.

He’s keeping the ball on the ground, and therefore in the yard and that means good things for the A’s. He still has a problem going deep into games, as he has only thrown 6 innings or more in just 5 of his 10 starts, which is interesting considering his times-through-the-order splits show he gets better from the first to the second to the third time through. Still, he’s been generally effective as a back-end starter and has allowed more than 3 earned runs just twice this season.

Conclusion

With Fiers and Shawn Kelley now in the fold the A’s have decisions to make. What will become of Brett Anderson? Who gets ousted from the bullpen? We still don’t know, but we do know that the A’s are in a much better place pitching wise than they were in the spring. It may even be enough to get them through a series of playoff series.