The Oakland A’s haven’t just been bad over the past few seasons — they’ve been irrelevant. From a fan perspective, that’s probably worse than your run-of-the-mill terrible franchise, because teams like that at least come with the excitement of high draft picks and, potentially, high-upside prospects. The last time Oakland had a prospect that created real buzz across baseball, they traded him for Jeff Samardzija.
Of course, for the sabermetrically inclined fan, it’s not just disappointing, but rather shocking, that the A’s are this boring. Even when they weren’t great, the A’s always seemed to be up to something, whether it was the Moneyball draft in 2002 or the fly ball-heavy approach from earlier this decade.
Now? They’re just meh. A bad team, but not the worst. Same thing for their farm system: below-average, but not awful. If they’ve discovered the next great sabermetric truth, nobody knows about it yet. They’re out there in Oakland in their dump of a stadium, still with their ultra-tight budget, trying to build from the hardest starting point: the middle.
No team, no matter how inconsequential they seem at the moment, is without hope, however. That applies as well to Oakland as it does to any team. They might be further away than most, sure, but there’s a path back to contention here. Partially because there are a lot of reasons to believe in their talent and partially because their lineup is so devoid of almost anyone exciting, that path back has to begin with their starting rotation.
There is no clear ace on this staff, at least not after the season Sonny Gray just had. I’m going to undermine my own premise here, but there isn’t even a starter on the staff whom you know will give you an above-average 180 to 200 innings. Thinking this staff can be really good requires faith right now and luck in the future.
But nor is this your regular middle-of-the-pack pitching staff. There are actual reasons, rather than just blind faith, to believe most, if not all, of Oakland’s starters can exceed expectations.
First and foremost, there’s Gray. At just 27 years old, he’s coming off a terrible 2016, yes, but just two short years ago he was polishing off his second straight All-Star level season. There are several reasons to believe Gray could get back to being that guy, however. For one, he struggled with injuries for much of last season. That’s always an easy excuse for projecting a bounceback season.
But beyond that, he also had some bad luck, and not just in terms of his health. While his line drive, ground ball, and fly ball rates all stayed relatively consistent last season, Gray’s home runs per fly ball jumped from 9.3 percent in 2015 to 17.5 percent last year. Had Gray pitched enough innings to qualify, that figure would have been the fifth-worst in baseball. His BABIP also ballooned in 2016, going for a .268 career mark heading into the year to .319 during his season from hell.
Of course, Gray’s currently slotted to begin the season on the disabled list after a lat strain. I told you this was going to require some faith, didn’t I?
So while Gray is probably the most obvious candidate to be better this season and in the future than he was in 2016, there are some other pieces to be excited about as well. If you read this website, then you probably also read Baseball Prospectus or FanGraphs. I, therefore, do not need to introduce you to Jharel Cotton or Sean Manaea, but this is an article about the A’s rotation after all, so we need to discuss them both.
Both Cotton and Manaea are the types of pitchers who get some love from hardcore fans but are largely unknown to much of the baseball-watching population. Much of that is the organization they play for, but it goes beyond that as well.
Cotton wasn’t a non-prospect, but he was almost certainly an underrated one. While his fastball is nothing special, his changeup is lethal:
That’s exactly the type of pitch that can be vastly underrated when a player is coming up through the minors, only to serve as the foundation for a quality major-league starter upon the player’s debut.
In addition to the changeup, Cotton’s cutter also looks like a very promising delivery. The results are small — Cotton threw only 29 1⁄3 innings in the majors last season — but between those two pitches and his excellent command, it’s easy to see him being at least an average major league starter.
Unlike Cotton, Manaea was a blue-chipper once upon a time. Before his junior season at Indiana State, there was some buzz about him being a possible top-five selection. But then injuries, including a hip procedure right after the was drafted, caused his stock to slip. There was never much questioning Manaea’s talent. It was just a matter of whether he’d stay on the field often enough to display it.
Something he does have in common with Cotton, however, is the fact that he already owns at least one solidly above-average pitch — his slider:
Among starters who threw at least 200 sliders last season, Manaea’s had the ninth-best whiff per swing rate. At under 14 percent of his pitches, however, Manaea may well look to throw the pitch more in the future, and with that could come better results. Like Cotton, his changeup also shows some promise, which could help him solve his biggest problem at the moment: pitching to righties (they had a .322 wOBA off him last year, compared to .231 for fellow southpaws).
Those three pitchers are the primary reasons to believe in the future of the A’s starting pitching at the moment, but even the back end of that rotation offers some intriguing upside. First is Kendall Graveman, whom I don’t want to go into much detail on because this piece is already getting long and because he’s just terribly boring. But he’s fine, and we can just mention that here and move on.
The most enticing piece is Andrew Triggs, whom FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan wrote a great piece about last season. I would encourage you to read Jeff’s post to learn about Triggs, as he does a better job than I ever would, but I’ll summarize Triggs in the following way: His velocity is nothing special, but he gets some great movement, which he pairs with solid command and an outstanding ground ball rate. He’s like an older version of Cotton in many ways.
Of course, even if all of the A’s pitchers improve, the team still might not even have very good pitching numbers. That’s because Oakland’s defense last season was atrocious — the worst in the majors by a wide margin, according to FanGraphs. The A’s didn’t do much to address that problem this offseason, either.
Still, as we talked about earlier, the A’s are a long way from becoming a contender once again. But if this pitching staff is as underrated as I and others think it might be, it will at least lock one part of their team into place for the foreseeable future. They’re pitchers so it’s the most unreliable part of the team, but you take what you can get. Right now, it looks like Oakland has a handful of pitchers ready to make big strides in 2017.
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.