The Oakland A’s pitching staff was always going to be an evolving team effort in 2019. They began with five starters and eight relievers, but behind them were lots of MLB-caliber reinforcements waiting in the minors for their next turn, plus some top prospects inching closer to debuts, and even more injury cases eyeing midseason returns.
All of that meant the sky was never truly falling when the staff opened the year on an inconsistent note. Granted, these early games count too, but the long-term fortunes of the club weren’t tied to the specific handful of names on the Opening Day roster. This was just a rough draft, the proverbial first lap of a marathon, and they’re carrying a water bottle full of depth.
Indeed, it’s now late April and that evolution has already begun. Chris Bassitt made his first start of the year on Monday, and he was relieved by Ryan Dull, himself making his first appearance since the season opener in Japan. The pair carried a shutout into the 7th inning against the Rangers, in an eventual 6-1 victory.
Those fresh arms arrived not a moment too soon. In the rotation, Marco Estrada is already on the IL with lingering back problems, and Brett Anderson is a candidate to join him there after spraining his ankle. Mike Fiers is allowing nearly a run per inning despite reporting that he feels great, and Aaron Brooks has been decent but has everything left to prove.
Meanwhile, the bullpen has been shaky outside of the two top guns, and the A’s have already lost more games when leading after seven innings than they did all of last season. And with the starters averaging just over four innings per game on this homestand, the relievers are working overtime too. The staff has probably been better than they’ve looked, but that’s small solace when the real-life losses begin to pile up.
Enter the reinforcements. Bassitt slid into Estrada’s rotation spot and won his first start with five scoreless innings, against a Texas team that had just won 6-of-7 games while averaging more than seven runs per contest. Dull tapped in for Ryan Buchter, who was excellent in 2018 but got off on the wrong foot this year. These aren’t massive changes nor even necessarily permanent ones, but they’re another step toward identifying which of the team’s dozens of available arms will be the ones to lead them to October.
Granted, it will take more than one game for Bassitt and Dull to establish themselves as two of those keepers, but there is plenty of reason for optimism. Both of them have dealt with adversity, between Bassitt’s 2016 Tommy John surgery and Dull’s variety of smaller injuries. But both are arms that Athletics Nation was excited about within recent memory, and they looked sharp enough on Monday to remind us of that potential.
“To say that this is the best I’ve felt [since 2016 surgery] would be an understatement,” said Bassitt, whose road to recovery was especially long and winding. “My [velocity] is back, everything is kind of back. To be honest with you, tonight I was not really built up and conditioning-wise wasn’t that great [after a brief IL stint to open the season], but I mean, yeah, I’m back.”
Statcast says his velocity didn’t quite crack 95 mph on Monday, much less the 97 he occasionally touched pre-surgery, but it was a tick higher than it had been last year when he finally returned to the majors and pitched 11 games for Oakland.
What’s more, he had his whole arsenal working for him. He struck out seven batters, only the third time he’s ever reached that mark in an MLB game, and he earned multiple Ks with each of his four-seam, cutter, and curveball — the latter of which provides stark contrast by averaging a hair under 70 mph. The Rangers did manage to hit the ball hard twice against his sinker, but only twice and not devastatingly hard, and that’s his primary pitch so he threw a few dozen of them.
“It’s really tough to figure out where he’s gonna throw the ball,” said manager Bob Melvin. “One’s moving, one’s cutting, a real slow curveball, he can kinda slow you down, speed you up. Got a lot of movement, and as the game progressed, he got more and more confidence as it went along.”
That’s not to say the outing was perfect. Melvin wasn’t only talking about Bassitt’s repertoire in that quote, but also some of the wildness that led to four walks and a HBP. Bassitt echoed that sentiment.
“Effectively wild, I guess. Kinda just filled the zone up with everything and just hoped for the best,” said Bassitt.
He made it work, though. Of course, limiting the walks would be preferable, but if you also strike out one-third of the batters you face and the other team can’t actually hit your pitches with any authority, then the tradeoff can be, well, effective. Even the inefficiently high pitch count (93 in five innings) might not be a dealbreaker, on a team that seems more concerned these days with how many times a pitcher has worked through the lineup than the actual number of pitches thrown (and the former tends to come up before the latter).
As for Dull, he enjoyed a breakout season in 2016 but never built on it. A knee injury cost him a chunk of ‘17, and a shoulder delayed him in ‘18, and even when he got on the mound he couldn’t find a consistent groove in the majors. But he stayed strong in Triple-A last summer and was lights-out in Las Vegas to begin this year.
“He’s been pitching really well down there [in Triple-A], and I think maybe better than any time in his career about getting lefties out,” Melvin said of Dull. “Usually was a little bit more of a right-handed specialist, guy we weren’t afraid to bring in with guys on base, but for a while lefties were his problem and now he’s got that figured out.”
Indeed, he faced a few lefties out of the gate on Monday and held his own. Nomar Mazara hit it fairly well but his lineout was still routine. Joey Gallo swung through a 3-2 slider. Asdrubal Cabrera hit a weak bloop that BABIP’d in for a single, literally inches from being caught by a diving Ramon Laureano. And when a righty did come up, Logan Forsythe got eaten alive in four pitches for another strikeout, waving at a 1-2 slider off the plate that he had no chance of hitting.
Texas did hang a run on Dull, but it’s hard to blame him. The rally began when Jeff Mathis, a catcher who hits like a pitcher, laid down an unexpected bunt for a single. He did this in front of Platinum Glover Matt Chapman, against whom not even elite speedster Dee Gordon can beat out a bunt, and it only worked for Mathis because nobody saw it coming. Dull did then allow a sharp single to lefty Shin-Soo Choo, but that’s really all. He was pulled after that, and it was J.B. Wendelken who served up the double to drive home Mathis.
It was a strong return outing by Dull, but of course there’s still plenty more to prove. He’s always been able to have a good day, but the problem has come when he’s tried to string together several good days, into a good month, into a good (and healthy) season. If Melvin is right and he’s turned a corner against left-handed batters, then that would go a long way toward finally finding that elusive consistency.
There are no grand conclusions to draw yet, just one encouraging step in a long journey. The pitching staff was beginning to look dire, and the depth came to the rescue by inserting two new quality arms, resulting in a win right when the team needed one. There are reasons to hope that Bassitt and Dull are back for real, but even if they aren’t, there are a lot more intriguing names waiting in line for the next chance. This staff was built to evolve over the weeks and months, and that’s exactly what it’s starting to do.