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Chris Bassitt is the Oakland A’s latest unexpected star

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The No. 6 starter has become the No. 1, which isn’t unusual in Oakland

Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros - Game One
Pointing in the direction his career is headed
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Back in March, it was unclear if Chris Bassitt would even make the Oakland A’s rotation. With a few veterans locked in, and a couple hot prospects vying for spots, Bassitt found himself in his familiar home on the bubble.

But by Opening Day in late July, rookie A.J. Puk had been shelved with a shoulder injury, and fellow rookie Jesús Luzardo was delayed due to a coronavirus positive. That those two youngsters were already front-runners for the rotation spoke to their immense potential, but it also demonstrated how Bassitt himself seemed to be the odd man out anytime any other possible option arose.

That’s not to say he never played before this summer. He made 25 starts in 2019 and posted good numbers, but even then, by late-September he was coming out of the bullpen after Oakland replaced him with multiple midseason acquisitions. Now his spot was finally guaranteed for a while.

Insert your metaphor or idiom here. He grabbed the opportunity and ran with it. Cashed it in for all it was worth. Seized the day. Took the bull by the horns. Struck while the iron was hot. He’s the Hound, so I like to think he set sights on the steak sitting unattended on the kitchen counter and wolfed down the whole thing.

In his first three starts of the year, he allowed just two runs total, and that span included a seven-inning gem against the Houston Astros. From there he had a rough patch for four games, putting up crooked numbers each time, but two of those outings were against the Angels and almost all the damage was done by superstars Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon — fair enough. The last of those bad games came against the Astros, on the road in Houston.

But then Bassitt recovered. He faced the Astros again his next time out and dominated them, needing just 89 pitches for seven shutout innings. He only allowed one run the rest of the year, in four starts totaling 26⅔ innings, a stretch that earned him AL Pitcher of the Month honors. His final numbers turned out excellent.

Bassitt: 2.29 ERA, 63 ip, 55 Ks, 17 BB, 6 HR, 3.59 FIP, .288 xwOBA

That ERA is Top 10 among regular MLB starters, and the FIP and xwOBA are around the top 30th percentile. You could say he pitched like a No. 2 starter and got the results of a No. 1 arm. That doesn’t qualify him as a true ace — such a label takes time to build over a period of years — but he filled the role of ace in the A’s 2020 rotation. Nobody was perfectly consistent from wire to wire, but he came the closest, had the most great outings, and beat his teammates by two runs in ERA while leading in FIP.

And then came the playoffs. The Chicago White Sox roughed up Luzardo in the Wild Card Series opener, putting the A’s on the ropes in Game 2. Bassitt stepped up and delivered exactly the stopper performance you’d expect from an ace. He silenced the powerful Sox lineup for seven scoreless innings, before finally seeing one of his runners score in the 8th after Oakland’s lineup had already built a comfortable lead.

The A’s didn’t win the series until Game 3, but they only got to that finale because their star pitcher Bassitt carried them there on his back. Imagine reading that sentence six months ago, much less in 2015 after they acquired him from this very White Sox club.

Island of Misfit Toys

This phenomenon is nothing new for A’s fans. It seems like every year, at least one completely unexpected star steps up. Maybe it’s that mysterious minor signing or trade pickup, finally making sense. Or a role player who learned a new swing, or a reliever who refined a new pitch. Or a failed prospect blooming late, or a former star who got healthy, or an old veteran cast-off who conjured up one more hurrah.

In 2011, Brandon McCarthy established the latest generation of misfit toys, rising from injury to finally pan out his old prospect stock. In 2012 several more followed, led by more late-blooming prospects like OF-turned-1B Brandon Moss coming out of nowhere at age 28 to slug .600, catcher-turned-3B Josh Donaldson breaking out at 26, and 1B-turned-pitcher Sean Doolittle becoming a setup man. These guys weren’t even playing the positions we’d been expecting.

In 2013, Bartolo Colon went from being a solid redemption story to earning Cy Young votes at age 40, while Donaldson rose further up to an MVP candidate. In 2014, the rotation suffered spring injuries so reliever Jesse Chavez took his cutter from the previous summer and just became a quality starter instead.

It kept happening during the lean rebuild years. In 2015, their best hitter was waiver pickup Danny Valencia. In 2016 they rolled the dice on promising slugger Khris Davis and he went from 20-something dingers up to 42. In 2017, Yonder Alonso taught himself to homer and made his first All-Star Game, and Jed Lowrie taught himself to sleep and bounced back after three straight bad and injured seasons.

The 2018 playoff team featured plenty of stars, but some fans will tell you the MVP of the squad was Blake Treinen, the failed closer acquired as a cast-off who unexpectedly turned in one of the best seasons in history. When he fell back off in 2019, the mantle was taken up by Liam Hendriks, who had been DFA’d the previous summer. Also in 2019, shortstop Marcus Semien went from being a reliable 2-4 WAR player to third place for MVP, while Frankie Montas suddenly put together his lofty prospect stock and became a front-line starter.

These all seem obvious now in retrospect, because we lived through them and we now attach these new upgraded values to each player in our minds. But not a single one of them was expected when that season began, and most of them went on to be not just stars but the biggest stars on that year’s team.

It almost makes you wonder why we even bother previewing the A’s every spring. Even if you correctly guess the final result of the standings, you’ll never predict how they’ll get there. For 2020, I may have jokingly suggested that Bassitt would emerge as the top starter, precisely because he was the least likely to do so, while perhaps light-hitting walk specialist Robbie Grossman would develop power and join the middle of the lineup. Oh wait, that happened too; he pulled an Alonso. Why are we surprised anymore? Grossman isn’t even a new idea, just a pure rerun from three seasons ago.

Quick note that in 2021, the rotation will be led by a resurgent Paul Blackburn after learning a new screwball during the offseason, the next All-Star closer will be Jordan Weems, they’ll get 50 dingers out of Khris Davis and 30 out of Seth Brown, and Nate Orf will bat .336 while playing everyday at, I dunno, fifth base. Go ahead, tell me those are wrong, I dare you.

What happened?

So what actually led to Bassitt’s breakout? For starters, he wasn’t bad to begin with. Since returning from Tommy John surgery, he quietly had solid numbers in 2018-19.

Bassitt, 2018-19: 3.62 ERA, 191⅔ ip, 182 Ks, 66 BB, 25 HR, 4.30 FIP, .309 xwOBA

Good ERA, decent peripherals, better than average on Statcast. It’s not like he was a flameout who rose from the ashes. He had been a promising starter cast as a role player, who now emerged into a star.

As such, there were only minor tweaks, not an entirely new pitch or a huge bump in velocity or anything significant. His stuff was already working, he just improved it at the margins.

Relative to 2019, he used his cutter and changeup a little more, and his sinker and four-seamer a little less. Those trends held in Game 2 against the White Sox. The pitches themselves haven’t changed much in speed or shape or overall effectiveness, but he’s at least slightly altered his selection of them. Everything except the changeup saw a jump up in put-away rate (turning two strikes into a K), especially the cutter (which was only added in 2019).

It’s not hard to see the value in balancing out the use of his cutter and sinker. The screenshot below from ESPN’s Game 2 broadcast (showing a replay of an earlier game, courtesy of the Pitching Ninja) illustrates the 10-inch difference between the two fastballs despite coming out of the same arm slot.

Overlay: Cutter (left) and sinker (right), from same arm slot
Screenshot from ESPN broadcast

Here’s another overlay, between his sinker and curve.

All of that, and/or whatever other changes we can’t easily see in the public metrics, appears for now to have helped bump him up toward the stats of a No. 2 starter, including the best FIP he’s posted since his rookie cup of coffee in 2014.

As for the remaining gulf between that FIP and his ace-like ERA, the most obvious factor to point to is his strand rate. At nearly 86% it jumped 10 points from the previous year, and it’s not a metric that’s considered particularly sustainable in either direction. Some fortunate sequencing, and an MLB-best bullpen behind you vaporizing anything they inherit, can go a long way in a small-sample season.

But that’s not to write off the whole breakout as pure luck. He still improved, and established himself as a for-sure starter after years on the bubble — even before his surgery, when the A’s acquired him as a prospect, there were questions about whether he’d end up in the pen. Let home a few more of those stranded runners and he still had a great season, and he’d still be the obvious choice to start Game 1 of the ALDS (which he will indeed do).

And of course, we can’t ignore the human element, for a 31-year-old who finally got to settle into a stable role in the league for the first time in his career.

You don’t have to take Hendriks’ word for it. See that energy for yourself.

And a bit of inner weird, which you’d have to imagine is a good fit next to Sean Manaea.

Last spring, there’s not a single A’s fan who expected Bassitt to be starting Game 1 of the ALDS. But this new, improved, comfortable, energetic, weird, confident version is the latest in a long line of surprise stars to shock the green and gold faithful. He can raise his legacy even further on Monday by hounding the Astros hitters once more and out-dueling true ace Zack Greinke.