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A’s Starting Pitching Gets More Up In The Air

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Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees
Let the CHiPs fall where they may.
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

“Wait,” you think. “The A’s just signed Marco Estrada today — how does that make the rotation less certain?” Then you realize that Nico’s world mostly centers around puns and you go, “Ohhhhh.”

Oakland has signed two free agent pitchers this off-season, Mike Fiers and Marco Estrada, and despite the narrative that the A’s might target extreme ground ball pitchers to pitch in front of their Matt-tastic infield, in fact both signings are fly ball pitchers. Expect more than a few balls to fly out of the park this season, especially on the road.

Why Fiers and Estrada? Don’t get too drawn into the trap of shrugging every pitching weakness by thinking, “Eh, the Oakland Coliseum will mask that.” First of all, the Coliseum plays closer to neutral than you might think, especially in day games. Also, A’s pitchers don’t uniquely enjoy the benefits of the marine layer and spacious foul ground — it’s all graded on a curve and every pitcher gets some benefit. Finally, half the games are played on the road and those games impact the season quite a bit.

One answer as to why Fiers and Estrada is that the most ground balliest pitcher on the market happens also to be the most expensive: Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel was never in play for Oakland’s budget. Another answer could lie in the “takes two to tango” factor: the A’s tried to secure C.C. Sabathia and Anibal Sanchez with competitive offers that were rejected, whereas Fiers and Estrada said yes to the offer put in front of them.

As far as Estrada goes, my reaction is neither positive nor negative at the moment. The price ($4M) is not high in baseball-starting pitcher terms and Estrada has shown the ability (just not the last 2 seasons) to pitch well in the big leagues. At the same time, he is coming off of two very sub-par seasons and at age 36 is a candidate never to pitch well again.

Ultimately, two factors lead me to be ok with the signing even if not giddy. One is that Estrada is generally durable and the more innings Oakland can ask of its SPs, the fewer it will need to lean on from its bullpen. The other is that Estrada’s velocity has remained fairly stable, losing just 1 MPH from his career average in 2018. Estrada has proven that sitting at 89-90MPH with his fastball, he is capable of putting together a very solid season and there isn’t any particular reason to suspect his fastball velocity will be lower than that in 2019.

But here’s my bottom line as to why pitchers like Fiers and Estrada, even if paid only $10M combined this season because they aren’t worth more than that, could be solid additions to the 2019 club. The A’s are in a somewhat unusual position, with a strong lineup, defense, and bullpen, in which a so-so starting pitcher who stays healthy can win a lot of games.

Fiers and Estrada will benefit some from being fly ball pitchers whose home park turns more than a few HRs into long fly outs, foul fly balls into foulouts. What they will really benefit from, home and away, is being able to throw 5-6 ok innings and ice their arm after the game with a “W” next to it.

Maybe the A’s know they can win a lot of games 5-2 behind a Keuchel they can’t afford, and they can win a lot of games 5-4 behind Fiers and Estrada. You don’t get rewarded for point spread, just outscoring the opponent. Now you can offer as a rebuttal (and you should) that teams reliant on winning by small margins have more trouble sustaining success than team who tend to win with bigger margins. But if you’re a small payroll team and you see a blueprint for winning games, affordably, without a great rotation, perhaps you rely on the blueprint to build your castle.

Perhaps that’s why Oakland has actually spent more so far on two relievers ($11M this season on Joaquim Soria and Fernando Rodney) than on two starters. You might look at “5 IP, 3 ER” and see an unsightly 5.40 ERA while the A’s front office might look at the same line and see a win.

Fiers and Estrada are not going to get a lot of ground balls for the infield to convert to outs. They will give up a lot of HRs, and ultimately quite a few runs. They also might combine to make close to 60 starts and the A’s may well win the lion’s share of them. You buying?