This is getting ridiculous. The Oakland A’s rotation was supposed to be the worst part of the team’s 2019 roster, but so far it’s been the best, at least since returning from the opening series in Japan.
The A’s have now played five games since returning to the U.S., which means the rotation has gone through one full turn and all the starters have pitched. In those five starts, they’ve combined to allow just one run in 30 innings.
Oak SPs, last 5 gms: 30 ip, 1 run, 21 Ks, 8 BB, 11 hits
What’s more, this has been a full team effort by all five pitchers. They each went exactly six innings, and their lines are eerily similar.
Mike Fiers: 6 ip, 0 runs, 2 Ks, 3 BB, 1 hit
Marco Estrada: 6 ip, 0 runs, 3 Ks 2 BB, 2 hits
Brett Anderson: 6 ip, 0 runs, 4 Ks, 2 BB, 3 hits
Frankie Montas: 6 ip, 1 run, 6 Ks, 0 BB, 3 hits
Aaron Brooks: 6 ip, 0 runs, 6 Ks, 1 BB, 2 hits
The latest arm to step up was Brooks — the least likely of the bunch, making his first MLB start since 2015. When the offseason began, absolutely nobody expected him to be in the rotation, but the A’s held on to him all winter and now here he is. Whereas the other four all faced an Angels lineup missing multiple star hitters, Brooks shut down the defending champion Red Sox at full strength.
Brooks benefited from some good luck early in his game. There were several loud outs on hard-hit balls in the first three innings, and a run was cut down at the plate on a brilliant throw from Ramon Laureano. But the right-hander settled down from there, and in his final three frames the Red Sox hit the ball hard against him exactly once — and even that was a pitch getting golfed out of the dirt for a routine lineout, and only barely qualified as “hard” contact. He also helped make some of his own luck with six strikeouts (that’s 32% of his batters), and by allowing only one walk.
“You could see the confidence build as the game went along,” said manager Bob Melvin, via my recap in the S.F. Examiner. “After the first, and the second, and third, he’s going out there with more confidence, and boy he pitched really well. (Catcher Nick) Hundley did a great job with him. Can’t say enough good things.”
Granted, this was only one game and there are a thousand small-sample red flags to wade through. In particular, everyone is seeing Brooks for the first time and the league won’t yet have formed a book on him — how many times have we watched the A’s get dominated by a nobody starter, precisely because he’s a nobody that they’ve never faced before?
But to his credit, Brooks’ stuff was pretty impressive and so was his command of it. He’s best known for his changeup, but his fastball gets up to 94 mph and his slider earned a few swings-and-misses including a couple of his Strike 3s. His ability to mix his sinker and four-seam fastball helped change the batters’ eye levels and kept them off balance, and (irresponsible comp alert) that combo is one thing that helped Blake Treinen break out last season (but throwing 100 mph and being a witch also helped). There’s a lot to prove, but you can at least see how Brooks could pan out as a viable starter.
“Obviously when the first four (other A’s starters) go that well you kinda have to keep the roll going, or at least try,” said Brooks. “Thankfully it worked out for us. They’re not the easiest of lineups to face and keeping them off balance and keeping them guessing is the way to go and it worked out.”
To be absolutely clear, none of this should lead us to any huge conclusions yet about the rotation. It’s all still a neat short-term accomplishment rather than a legitimate breakout, occurring within a teeny-tiny sample size, and there are all kinds of extentuating factors. For example, the group’s .115 batting average against is unsustainable for even the league’s top aces, so at some point more hits will start falling — especially since these guys don’t pile up strikeouts and aren’t shy about allowing contact.
Furthermore, none of this means anything until we see the starters on the road. The Coliseum is notoriously one of the best pitcher’s parks in the league, between it’s ample foul ground and thick coastal air, and some of these pitchers rely on flyballs that might become problematic in other stadiums. Case in point, Mike Fiers and Marco Estrada gave up some homers in Tokyo, but then came home and found those flies dying on the warning track in Oakland. What will happen to them in Houston, or New York, where it’s much easier to clear the fence? (Having said that, though, the A’s themselves did hit nine homers in these five games, including three off of superstar David Price, so it can be done here.)
Brett Anderson in particular seems to have benefited from his home park, which is ironic since he’s the biggest groundball pitcher of the bunch. He’s sitting on a home scoreless streak of 34⅓ innings, which is an Oakland team record. That stretch comprises his last five starts at home, dating back to last year, and meanwhile he posted a 6.06 ERA and 4.77 FIP on the road in 2018.
Anderson, last 5 home: 34⅓ ip, 0 runs, 17 Ks, 4 BB, 14 hits, 69% grounders
But even the ballpark doesn’t explain everything. Trevor Cahill was famously unhittable at the Coliseum last year, allowing just 13 earned runs in 11 starts here, but he returned last week in an Angels uniform and allowed four earned runs including two dingers. That’s more than he gave up in any Coliseum start last year. The stadium surely matters, but a great lineup can hit anywhere — and on Monday, for example, Brooks faced a great lineup.
This could all turn out to be a big pumpkin and the clock could strike midnight any day, especially as the weather warms up and the team heads out on the road and the rest of the league finds its groove. But all of this sounds uncannily similar to the conversations we had about last summer’s surprisingly adequate patchwork rotation, and at some point it will stop being a coincidence and start being a reminder that this team has long been famous for polishing unheralded pitchers into solid contributors.
“They keep pushing each other,” said Melvin. “It’s a momentum thing, that you see quite often with starting pitchers. The next one wants to go out there and up the ante, that or continue the trend, and Brooksie did. For a number five guy against the world champions, that’s a pretty good effort.”
Fiers, Estrada, and Anderson are off to good starts as innings-eaters who can keep their team in the game, Frankie Montas looked every bit like the breakout star we’re hoping he’ll be with his new splitter, and Brooks has already done more than anyone expected — and there are still more quality reinforcements waiting even if someone does falter or get hurt. Maybe this rotation won’t be such a problem after all. Maybe.