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Don’t give up on Adam Kolarek yet

The lefty has improved since his rough 2021 debut

Houston Astros v Oakland Athletics
Plus you’ve gotta respect the high socks
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Among the thousand things that have gone wrong for the Oakland A’s in the first week of the 2021 season, one bummer is that they haven’t gotten the results they hoped for from reliever Adam Kolarek.

The A’s acquired the lefty over the winter after he posted an 0.95 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers last year, winning a ring along the way. But so far through three appearances for Oakland, he’s got a 22.50 ERA, an 18.39 FIP, and a .476 xwOBA, which are the kinds of off-the-charts bad rates you can only have in a tiny two-inning sample.

Should we panic? You already know my answer is gonna be no, so let’s get on with it.

First let’s set the scene. Kolarek’s sub-1.00 ERA was obviously a short-season fluke, just as none of us thought Jake Diekman would repeat his own similar mark no matter how good he is now. Just doesn’t really happen in a full season. Kolarek’s three-year totals from 2018-20 paint the picture of what his true talent was during that span:

Kolarek, 2018-20: 3.07 ERA, 3.53 FIP, .273 xwOBA, 86.5 mph exit velocity

Those are all excellent numbers, far better than league average, and they all line up about right with each other. The strong ERA roughly matches the strong FIP which roughly matches the strong Statcast report which is partly derived from the low EV.

The whole package is based not on collecting strikeouts, but rather on inducing weak contact in the form of one of the highest groundball rates in the sport (63.3% during those three years). If you want to put a name on it, his past A’s comps could include Jeff Tam and Brad Ziegler, but a lefty version. Expect him to be good, knowing he might luck into great, but with the ever-present chance he could get BABIP’d for a disappointing year.

How is it actually going so far?

Kolarek allowed homers to the first two batters he faced in 2021. That’s the opposite of everything he wants — hard contact, and in the air. The first batter was Michael Brantley, a perennial All-Star who bats roughly .900 against the A’s. The second was Alex Bregman, who has a pair of top-five MVP finishes the last three seasons and is one of the best hitters in the sport.

The third batter finally hit a grounder, but it was blasted even harder than the two dingers had been. The three exit velocities were 107.9, 106.0, and 108.6 mph, which are massive. From there the southpaw lost it completely, issuing a walk and a HBP before being pulled. It almost literally couldn’t have gone worse.

Kolarek, 1st game: 1.001 xwOBA, 107.5 mph avg exit velocity

He’s pitched twice since.

On Sunday, he faced five batters and induced grounders from all of them. One of them was hit fairly hard, and two of them found holes for singles, but all were generally playable outside the context of where the defense happened to be arranged. The last one would have been a routine inning-ending double play, which would have left Kolarek with a line of 1⅓ scoreless frames, but instead two-time Platinum Glover Matt Chapman muffed it for an uncharacteristic error. Kolarek was pulled and the new reliever allowed a homer to the next batter.

Kolarek, 2nd game: .299 xwOBA, 94.1 mph avg exit velocity

That’s a good outing. Still a bit high on the exit velo, but at least everything was on the ground.

On Monday, he faced his old Dodgers teammates. The first batter hit a sharp grounder to a spot that, for 115 years of baseball history, would have had a second baseman waiting to collect it. But the A’s had the entire infield shifted to the left

That’s 1B Matt Olson trying to field the ball
Screenshot from NBCS broadcast

The next batter hit a weak grounder, which might have been a GIDP with a straight-up defense, but instead they were only able to get the out at first. Another grounder scooted right under Jed Lowrie’s glove for an RBI single. Granted, two of these grounders were hit decently well, and one way to beat a shift is by the pitcher missing his location and giving you something to poke the other way, but still, this could have been a 1-2-3 inning and instead it was a run-scoring rally.

Kolarek responded with a weak flyout from superstar Mookie Betts, and then he struck out superstar Corey Seager to end the frame.

Kolarek, 3rd game: .127 xwOBA, 89.1 mph exit velocity

Put it together and Kolarek has pitched three games. The first one was an unmitigated disaster, in every way we didn’t expect to see from him, coming off a shaky spring training performance. The second game was most of the way back to normal. The third game was excellent, in every way we’d expected him to be.

At this point you can see what you want to see. You can panic and cling to that horrible debut, and blame him for all of the bad BABIP luck that came after. Or you can give him a mulligan for Opening Day and take solace that he’s back to normal, with more good games than bad, and trending better every time out. Or you can land somewhere in between, nervous about Thursday and last month and also much of last year’s postseason (5 runs in 3⅓ innings), but also cautiously encouraged that he’s settled down lately.

The one real sticking point is the homers. If they were flukes, just a reliever being blitzed in his debut by two elite hitters, then that’s one thing. If he continues giving up dingers, that’s a different story. Whether you think the long balls will continue goes a long way toward how you think Kolarek’s future will go. In the past, he allowed only eight in 108 innings from 2018-20.

If you’re looking for a prediction, then you’ve come to the wrong place. One of my core principles is that you can’t guess what relievers will do. What I see is a pitcher who was consistently good for three years, has shown a few red flags recently, and then looked generally back to normal his last two times out. At the very least, I’m not panicking about him.