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Mike Minor’s small-sample 2020 is better than it looks

Still not as good as 2019 so far, but he could surprise a lot of Oakland A’s fans

Texas Rangers v Oakland Athletics Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s acquired their new starting pitcher on Monday before the trade deadline, but it wasn’t the one folks thought they might get. And it doesn’t seem to be the one whom many fans wanted.

At first glance, Mike Minor might not look like much of a get for the A’s rotation. His 5.60 ERA is ugly, his 4.83 FIP is discouraging, and, if you’re like 80 years old and still care about this stat, he also has an 0-5 record. Sure, he was good in 2019, but what have you done for me lately?

First off, let’s be clear — he wasn’t just good in 2019. Mike Fiers was good. Mike Minor got an All-Star berth and Cy Young votes. He was great in 2019, even with a bit of a homer problem that bloated his FIP. He mitigated that by making 70% of them solo shots (lg avg: 59%), with only three of them counting for more than two runs each.

Minor, 2019: 3.59 ERA, 208⅓ ip, 200 Ks, 68 BB, 30 HR, 4.25 FIP

Statcast liked him too, with his .303 xwOBA ranking him among the top 25% or so of MLB starters who worked a half-season or more. League average was .328 for starters.

But now ...

Minor, 2020: 5.60 ERA, 35⅓ ip, 35 Ks, 13 BB, 7 HR, 4.83 FIP

And his xwOBA is up to .340 this year. Yikes.

I could just tell you that it’s a small sample (which it is) and that hopefully he’ll improve. But I’m going to go a step beyond that. Not only could he reasonably bounce back just as countless stars do after one-month slumps, this slump itself isn’t even as bad as it appears — precisely because it’s a small sample with some noise involved.

In this short 2020 season, small samples count more than ever. A hot streak doesn’t have to be real if it can just hang on for two months, and a slump can be a fluke and still sink a campaign. But just because these samples have greater bearing on the standings doesn’t change what they mean to a player’s talent level and future outlook.

Let’s begin with that .340 xwOBA. The league is up to .339 among starting pitchers this year, which is the highest of the Statcast era by several points. So right off the bat (zing), that seemingly poor mark is actually perfectly average.

But wait! Here are the ingredients making it up. These are his seven individual starts, keeping in mind that .339 is average.

  • .470
  • .391
  • .341
  • .334
  • .315
  • .313
  • .203

Really, we’re talking about two bad starts here. The .391 was his second outing of the year, in late-July when we were still giving starters mulligans due to the weird abbreviated preseason. He threw 98 pitches in that game at a time when everyone else in the league was still stretching out and getting pulled early, and he gave up almost all of his runs in the 5th and 6th innings. The Giants began 4-for-15 against him, then torched him later at a point when almost no other MLB starter would have still been in there.

The .470 was against the Padres, who you may have heard are kinda good this year. In fact, they lead MLB in scoring per game. They ambushed him in the 1st inning and nearly batted around, and he got knocked out in the 4th for his shortest outing of the year. Sometimes you get smoked by a great lineup, and when it happens in what is effectively late-April, your stats are gonna take a minute to normalize. That San Diego game alone is adding more than a full run to his ERA.

Looking at it this way, xwOBA says he’s been legendary once, really good twice, average-ish twice, and terrible twice. And one of the terribles was maybe his manager’s fault a little bit for leaving him out too long. Take out that one Giants start (but leave in the Padres debacle), and his overall mark goes down to .329, which is still worse than last year but also notably better than league-average.

Obviously all of these starts count in the standings, but the small sample doesn’t always tell the truth of the player’s talent level. His strikeout rate, walk rate, and swinging-strike rate are all close enough to 2019 to be functionally the same, and his average exit velocity is almost identical to last year too. Where exactly is the part of him that’s gotten worse? Just a couple extra homers, really, which is a prime small-sample goblin — xFIP adjusts for this, and he’s one point better this year than last (4.59, down from 4.60). And this time around there have been runners on base for most of the dingers, which is also mostly random sequencing (yes, that means his 2019 was a bit lucky too with all those solo blasts).

So, all Minor has to do is allow a couple fewer homers, pitching in one of the most notorious power-suppressing home parks in the sport. And allow fewer hits to fall in front of the remaining dingers, pitching in front of arguably the best defense in the majors. Those sound like achievable goals.

And then there’s the good news. He still strikes out a batter per inning, which is one thing that makes Frankie Montas and Jesús Luzardo so good. He still fans nearly three batters per walk, which is better than Montas and about the same as Luzardo. He misses roughly the same amount of bats as Montas. And he’s completed at least five innings in five of his seven starts, with an assist from the fact that the second time through the lineup is when he’s at his best (the opposite of Sean Manaea, who has struggled that second time through).

Worried that Minor got torched the one time he faced a truly elite lineup against San Diego? Fear not, in his last start for Texas he faced the Dodgers, who are such close runners-up in scoring that they may as well be tied with the Padres for the MLB lead. Minor fired six scoreless innings against them. What have you done for me lately? Shut down the A’s most likely World Series opponent.

And what about his diminished velocity? He averaged 92.5 mph on his fastball last year, and he’s down to 90.6 this year — and that’s not a league-wide trend, as MLB starters’ four-seam velo is virtually identical to last season. And indeed, his not-so-heater is getting creamed for 71 extra points of xwOBA.

But here’s the thing: It’s not actually showing up in the results. The actual batting and slugging that shows up in the box score is basically the same as last year. The difference in 2020 is his slider and curve are getting destroyed in the real-life stats, with the slider also getting crushed in xwOBA. And that’s kinda weird when you consider ...

Fortunately, after crunching the spreadsheets and mixing some chemicals in the lab, I have discovered the explanation: Small samples are weird and aren’t to be trusted. You already know this, but everyone forgets every year, and it’s especially tough this summer because the calendar says September but really we’re functionally in early May in terms of discerning players’ true talent.

Also, semi-related: You know who’s consistently excellent at helping pitchers make that one tweak to help unlock their upside as Sarris mentions above, or maybe rediscover a lost tick of velocity? The A’s. Happens practically every year.

Minor was probably more like a No. 2 starter than an ace last year, because of the homers. And he’s been a tick worse this year, so far. But despite his nasty ERA in 2020, he’s really been more like a No. 3 guy (even with the low velocity), which is absolutely an upgrade to the A’s current depth chart — now Daniel Mengden is the seventh starter instead of the sixth, with a whole month left for someone to get hurt, and at least three doubleheaders coming up in that month (and maybe even five or more, depending how long this coronavirus quarantine hiatus lasts).

Oakland absolutely had to add another starter. A current, hot ace would have been neat! But also expensive to acquire, and you only have to think back as far as 2014 to remember that even that kind of splashy trade doesn’t always work out. Even a mid-rotation arm was a big get, and that’s really what Minor has probably been this year. And that’s before getting to the upside that his recent track record affords him, with an ERA 30% better than MLB average over 2018-19.

Give Mike Minor a chance. There’s always the possibility that any player could flame out, so there’s never any guarantee, but there are good odds that he’s going to surprise you.

(And if he ends up a multi-inning reliever in the bullpen? Perhaps with some extra oomph on his fastball in shorter stints? We could have an Andrew Miller Lite on our hands, which would be quite valuable in the playoffs. Minor was an elite reliever in 2017, so this isn’t even theoretical, he’s literally done it before.)