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Homer Bailey and Tanner Roark exceeding expectations for Oakland A’s

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The two starting pitcher acquisitions are playing out of their minds.

Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

Entering July, it was clear that the Oakland A’s needed to bolster their starting rotation if they wanted to contend for the postseason.

The unit had already been thin when the season began, even before attrition set in. Then they lost free agent addition Marco Estrada to an injury in mid-April, and then budding ace Frankie Montas to a PED suspension in June. Daniel Mengden was upgraded from depth arm to fourth starter, and converted reliever Tanner Anderson got the call despite an ERA over six in Triple-A. The rotation wasn’t good enough, and there was virtually no reliable depth remaining for the ensuing three months.

Given all that, the A’s didn’t wait until the trade deadline to make their first move. On July 14, they quietly acquired Homer Bailey from the Royals.

Bailey wasn’t any kind of splash, with a career track record that had fallen off a cliff. Multiple major injuries essentially cost him four seasons from 2015-18, and even the couple hundred innings he did manage during that span were extremely ineffective. The Dodgers acquired him as part of a deadweight salary swap last winter and paid him $22 million not to pitch for them. Even his relative bounce-back with Kansas City this summer featured a subpar 4.80 ERA.

In true A’s fashion, though, the misfit toy whom no one expected is coming through huge. You wouldn’t know it just from looking at his 5.68 ERA through seven starts, but you don’t have to dig much deeper to see how much he’s helped. Here’s his game log since arriving in Oakland:

  • 7/17 vs. SEA: 6 ip, 2 runs, 6 Ks, 0 BB
  • 7/22 @ HOU: 2 ip, 9 runs, 2 Ks, 3 BB
  • 7/27 vs. TEX: 6⅔ ip, 3 runs, 7 Ks, 1 BB
  • 8/1 vs. MIL: 6 ip, 2 runs, 5 Ks, 3 BB
  • 8/7 @ CHC: 4 ip, 7 runs, 0 Ks, 1 BB
  • 8/14 @ SFG: 7 ip, 0 runs, 7 Ks, 1 BB
  • 8/20 vs. NYY: 5⅔ ip, 1 run, 8 Ks, 0 BB

In seven starts, he’s been good five times. That’s a success rate you’ll take from any pitcher, much less the backend arm you just grabbed off the scrap heap. All five of those strong efforts resulted in A’s wins, four of which were fairly close games in which his quality outings made a real difference. His ERA is 2.30 in those five wins.

However, the two losses were so brutal that they’re skewing his overall stats. Granted, the losses count, and getting utterly shelled makes things worse because it reduces the chance of your teammates mounting a comeback. But you can only lose a game once, and the fact remains that the A’s scored only one run in each of Bailey’s two losses. Does getting plastered by the juggernaut Astros instead of merely regular-beaten really tell us anything more about him, especially when it doesn’t keep happening against other teams? Houston has tallied double-digit runs 20 times this year, most in the majors. It happens.

That said, we can’t ignore the other context of the opposition Bailey has faced. His first three quality starts came in the friendly Coliseum against mediocre lineups, and his fourth came in the cavernous Oracle Park against the mediocre Giants. When he ventured out of the Bay Area to pitch against actual contenders, he got lit up. Was this a red flag that he would continue to get exposed against the kind of good teams the A’s needed to be able to hang with?

That question is what made his performance against the Yankees on Tuesday so encouraging. He faced the most prolific offense in the sport and shut them down, coming just one out away from another quality start. It happened at the Coliseum, but he didn’t get any help from the park this time — there wasn’t a single ball that would have cleared the wall in other venues, or that shouldn’t have been squeezed in a normal foul territory, and anyway he struck out one-third of the batters he faced without walking anyone. He legitimately beat the best in the biz.

It was understandable for Bailey to get roughed up against the Astros and the Cubs-at-Wrigley, which are two of the toughest assignments in baseball this year, but he did need to eventually show that he could hang with (much less beat) a top opponent in order for his overall success to be taken seriously. Now he’s done that. And it’s not like his other wins came against total doormats — the Rangers, Brewers, and Giants are all .500-ish squads with average-ish offenses, and only the Mariners could be considered downright bad.

Add it all up, and this is more than anyone likely expected out of Bailey. He threw six quality starts in 18 tries for the Royals, and he’s got four (nearly five) in seven games for Oakland. It’s unlikely that Mengden or Tanderson would have led the A’s to a 5-2 record, even if given equal run/bullpen support, so this addition may well have earned the team an extra victory or two already.

Will he keep it up? That remains to be seen, but it’s also kind of beside the point. Those wins are already in the bank, and if he does turn into a pumpkin next month then alternate options are finally emerging. But for what it’s worth, his success doesn’t look like a total fluke. Behind his ugly ERA is a 3.95 FIP for Oakland, more than a half-run better than MLB average for starters. His .308 xwOBA is also better than average for starters (.321), and each of his five good starts individually registered better than average on that metric too. His peripherals have been strong enough to withstand the two disaster losses, even though his small-sample ERA is still trying to recover.

Bailey, OAK: 5.68 ERA, 38 ip, 35 Ks, 9 BB, 5 HR, 3.95 FIP, .308 xwOBA

Athletics Nation had low expectations for Bailey. The best-case scenario seemed to be a serviceable innings-eater. Instead we’ve seen five quality-or-close starts in seven games, nearly four strikeouts per walk, and better-than-average peripherals. Regardless of whether it turns out to be real or a fluke moving forward, this trade has already turned out better than anyone could have hoped.

But the A’s didn’t stop there. On July 31, just hours before the deadline, they acquired Tanner Roark from the Reds.

Roark was a higher-profile target than Bailey, with several other teams chasing him, and he therefore cost a bigger prospect in return. He’s not an ace, but he needed to be more than merely “better than Tanner Anderson.” He was here to be a good mid-rotation starter. And even with the loftier expectations, he has managed to go above and beyond.

The biggest knock on Roark in Cincinnati this year was that he wasn’t going deep into games. In his career with Washington he’d been a quality start machine, and consistently averaged six innings per game. Upon joining the Reds, he became a five-inning starter — in 21 outings, he completed six frames just six times, and registered quality starts only four times. His results were still good, but how much of that was because he wasn’t working that sixth inning anymore? Was the shorter leash something he earned, or just a Reds managerial decision?

Since coming to Oakland, Roark has gone back to his old, best self. He’s made four starts, and three of them were quality efforts, already nearly matching his total from four months in Cincy.

  • 8/4 vs. STL: 5 ip, 1 run, 6 Ks, 2 BB
  • 8/10 @ CHW: 6⅔ ip, 2 ER, 7 Ks, 0 BB
  • 8/16 vs. HOU: 6 ip, 2 runs, 3 Ks, 3 BB
  • 8/22 vs. NYY: 6⅓ ip, 2 runs, 7 Ks, 0 BB

He’s routinely pitching six-plus good innings, just like he did in his peak years for the Nats. Better yet, he’s already faced three division leaders in the Astros, Yankees, and Cardinals, so his success is coming against top competition.

Roark, OAK: 2.63 ERA, 24 ip, 23 Ks, 5 BB, 3 HR, 3.67 FIP, .311 xwOBA

Athletics Nation had moderate expectations for Roark. We hoped for something along the lines of a #3 or #4 starter, conceptually speaking, who might not be a star but could generally keep the team in the game every fifth day. Instead we got another 2019 Mike Fiers, laying down six strong just about every time out.

Again, the point is not to anoint Bailey and Roark as sudden breakout stars. Their success is still just a small sample, and it might not last. But they were each brought here as two-month rentals, and their first month is in the books and exceeded any reasonable expectation. In the meantime, Sean Manaea hasn’t yet returned to the bigs, and top prospect Jesus Luzardo hasn’t yet debuted after missing July to a setback, and Estrada has been released entirely, so it turned out there were no reinforcements coming in August after all. On top of that, Mengden is now on the IL in the minors with the dreaded sore elbow, so one of the June incumbents did indeed go down with an injury eventually.

The A’s needed midseason rotation reinforcements, even before we knew that none of the in-house contingency plans would bear fruit by now. Not only is it a good thing that they got a couple new starters when they did, but they’ve hit the jackpot on the two they picked. Bailey and Roark have been excellent, and with Manaea finally looking ready to return, suddenly the 2019 A’s might have an upcoming problem we haven’t dared to worry about this year — too many good starters to fit into one rotation.