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Fan confidence rising for Oakland A’s rotation

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The starting pitchers are settling in and looking good.

Bass & Frankie
Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Welcome to SB Nation FanPulse, a survey of fans across MLB. Each week, we send 30 polls to plugged in fans from each team. A’s fans, click HERE to learn more and join FanPulse.

A’s fans were asked this week if they have confidence in the team’s starting rotation, and the result was more positive than it was a month ago. This time, 33% of fans answered Yes to the question, “Are you confident that the A’s can contend with their current starting rotation?”

That might not sound like a good approval rating, but it’s a significant improvement over the last time we asked about the rotation. Back in late April, only 5% of fans answered Yes to the same query.

What’s changed since then? Two things: The personnel, and the performance.

When we asked about the rotation last month, it was a different group of pitchers. Marco Estrada had only just gone on the injured list, and Aaron Brooks was still in the picture too. It’s no wonder the fanbase never really warmed up to that pair — Estrada seemed like a lackluster free agent signing, at age 35 and coming off two bad seasons, and Brooks brought virtually no MLB track record and seemed to get his spot at least partly because he was out of minor league options, all while fans clamored for the more exciting names waiting in Triple-A.

Indeed, Estrada and Brooks turned out the way fans feared they would. Estrada’s balky back landed him on the IL after just five starts with a 6.85 ERA, and Brooks only made it a month before being bombed out of the rotation. Fortunately the damage was limited, as Estrada’s struggles were mostly concentrated in his final two disaster starts, while the A’s actually won all of Brooks’ outings in which they scored more than one run themselves. But it was clear why A’s fans hadn’t believed in them.

In their places are Chris Bassitt and Daniel Mengden, two pitchers whom A’s fans have waited a long time for. They’ve both shown flashes over the years, but Bassitt was stalled for two seasons by Tommy John surgery, and Mengden has struggled to find consistency in both his health and performance. Still, there’s plenty of upside left for both of them, especially after promising partial-campaigns in 2018. Here’s what the unit looks like now:

  • Frankie Montas
  • Chris Bassitt
  • Mike Fiers
  • Daniel Mengden
  • Brett Anderson

It’s still not star-studded, and they have a lot to prove, but that’s three strong breakout candidates and two solid veterans. There are a lot more ways that this group can go right than there were with the Opening Day arrangement.

Better yet, that last sentence is beginning to come true — not only has the rotation improved on paper, but they’re heating up on the field too. The new guys made an immediate difference, and the holdovers are settling in as well.

Bassitt burst onto the scene with five scoreless innings in his debut, on the exact day of our previous rotation confidence survey. He boasts a 2.48 ERA through six starts so far, and three of them lasted at least seven frames — hugely important for a team that has already used its bullpen heavily this season. He finally had a stinker last time out, but he’s showing the ability to work deep into games and he’s also striking out the world (10.9 K/9, or 29.9% of batters faced). As for Mengden, he was shaky in his debut start but then tossed seven quality innings his next time out.

Meanwhile, Montas is beginning to look like a potential ace. He had a good April, but his May has been on another level through four starts: 26⅔ ip, 31 Ks, 3 BB, 0 HR, 1.69 ERA. Last week he came one out away from his first career complete game, and he’s yet to allow more than three earned runs in an outing this season. Seven of his 10 appearances have registered as quality starts, and another missed by just one out. One reason for the breakout is his new splitter, which earned him 11 swinging strikes against the Indians on Wednesday.

As for the veterans? At the time of our last rotation survey, Fiers had an 8.28 ERA and Anderson had left his previous start with an ankle injury. Since then Fiers made five straight good starts, including literally a no-hitter, and along the way he racked up a 2.53 ERA in 32 innings. Anderson hasn’t been quite as strong, but he at least avoided the IL and he’s finished six innings more often than not. Here’s a quick look at everyone’s last month or so:

  • Montas: 4 starts, 1.69 ERA, 26⅔ ip, 31 Ks, 3 BB
  • Bassitt: 6 starts, 2.48 ERA, 36⅓ ip, 10.9 K/9
  • Fiers: 5 starts, 2.53 ERA, 32 ip, 17 hits
  • Mengden: 2 starts, 3.65 ERA, 12⅓ ip
  • Anderson: 4 starts, 3.86 ERA, 23⅓ ip

In the month of May, A’s starters have combined to rank third in MLB in ERA (2.88), 10th in FIP (3.84), fourth in innings per game (5.93), and sixth in fWAR (2.5). (Remove the Liam Hendriks opener game on May 11 and/or replace it with the Brooks long relief that followed him, and they jump up to second place in innings per start without hurting their ERA.) That all brings their season totals up to the following, with QS standing for the percentage of games that registered as quality starts.

  • Montas: 2.40 ERA, 2.71 FIP, 70% QS
  • Bassitt: 2.48 ERA, 4.48 FIP, 50% QS
  • Fiers: 5.05 ERA, 5.13 FIP, 45% QS
  • Mengden: 3.65 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 50% QS
  • Anderson: 4.14 ERA, 4.22 FIP, 40% QS
  • AL avg: 4.52 ERA, 4.52 FIP, 39% QS

Everyone is at least doing an average or better job of keeping the club in each game as often as possible, and if Montas keeps pitching like this then he’ll find himself on the All-Star team. It’s fair to wonder whether they can all keep it up, which is why I wouldn’t begrudge the 67% of fans who still voted no confidence, but for now at least this is no longer looking like an area of the roster that will specifically hold the A’s back from contending.

And of course, it could still get better yet. We’re waiting on returns from the likes of Jharel Cotton, who’s finally on a rehab assignment after Tommy John surgery, and Sean Manaea, who is throwing again after 2018 shoulder surgery. And the farm boasts top prospects Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk (also both recovering from injuries), as well as sleeper Parker Dunshee, who recently moved up to Triple-A. If something goes wrong before that group is ready, then Paul Blackburn represents a depth arm with MLB experience.

All told, the rotation still has work to do but it’s no longer looking like a dire, dealbreaker weakness. That’s why fans are feeling better about it than they did a month ago, and I’d bet the approval will rise even further when we ask again in June.

As the rotation has gotten stronger, the team’s fortunes have improved with it. Their 4-2 homestand was followed by a 6-2 road trip, and they return to the Coliseum on Friday riding a six-game winning streak. At 25-25 overall, they’re back up to .500 for the first time since they were 14-14 in late April, after digging the hole as deep as six games under. They’re up out of the AL West cellar, and only two games out of the second Wild Card, with well over 100 left to play.

The resurgence hasn’t been entirely due to the starters, though. The lineup also woke up after a long slump, and the bullpen hasn’t added to its MLB-leading total of blown saves in more than a week. Given all that, fan confidence trended upward in our other questions as well.

  • Manager approval: 92%
  • Confidence in direction of team: 80%

Confidence in the team had dropped as low as 51% when the A’s were bottoming out, but it’s rebounded each of the last two weeks and is now back in the top half of MLB. The Phillies are the only team at 100% this week, while the Nats and Mets trail the league at only 13% confidence. As for Bob Melvin, whom A’s fans clearly love through thick and thin, he jumps back up above the 90% mark after dipping as low as 85% two weeks ago — he now ranks ninth among the 30 skippers in this measure.

Finally, this week’s national question asked about the upcoming draft.

Personally, I voted for high-ceiling high schoolers, because that’s the best way for my small-budget team to acquire top-end talent. They can’t afford to sign expensive free agents or spend too many resources trading for established superstars, so the top of the draft is the shrewdest place for them to find chances for impact prospects. Don’t waste that opportunity taking a “safe” college fast-tracker, especially when the A’s are so good at creating 1-2 WAR players seemingly out of thin air.

Whatever route Oakland takes this June, though, fans are confident in their judgment even after the Kyler Murray gamble didn’t pan out last year. After all, Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, and Chad Pinder are among the recent draft successes, and the last few classes have several potential stars among them in Oakland’s farm system.