A’s Rookie Starting Pitchers Defying Odds

The other day, a clerical error on Major League Baseball’s part gave Athletics pitcher Travis Blackley another chance to be a freshman. As a result, the A’s — who had already received more than 60 starts from rookie pitchers — moved even further up the leaderboard of games started by rookie pitchers. But while many rookie-laden pitching rotations stumble, Oakland has gotten some of its finest efforts this season from its group of youngsters.

Since 1947, there have been 85 teams who have had rookies start at least 60 games. Five of those teams were in their expansion season: the 1961 Angels, 1962 Mets, 1969 Padres, 1969 Expos and 1977 Blue Jays. Three teams reached the postseason: the 1952 Dodgers, 1984 Royals and 2003 Giants. It’s this latter group that the A’s and their now six rookie starters hope to join.

Even if Oakland doesn’t reach the postseason, the team has already defied some pretty long odds. These 85 teams averaged only a .431 winning percentage, which is essentially a 70-win season. At a minimum, Oakland will become one of 13 teams in this group to compile a winning record — and the team;s winning percentage will be either the third- or fourth-best among the group. Even though veterans started six of the team’s first eight games, the rotation is all rookies now.

Veterans Brandon McCarthy and Bartolo Colon led the rotation into Japan this March, and then started four of the first six games stateside. But ever since, rookies have dominated the A’s rotation. Really though, it took a while for them to get to the big leagues. Rookies Tommy Milone and Graham Godfrey started the first two games that didn’t involve either McCarthy or Colon. This makes Milone the only wire-to-wire rookie Oakland starter, as mediocrity — as well as a blister problem — conspired to torpedo Godfrey’s season after just five appearances. When Godfrey was demoted the first time, Jarrod Parker came up. Because of that, the A’s essentially had two rookies in the rotation all season. Blackley didn’t hop across the Bay until mid-May, A.J. Griffin arrived in late June and Dan Straily didn’t make his major-league debut until August. Since Straily’s first start though, rookies have started 68% of Oakland’s games. And now with McCarthy and Brett Anderson injured — and Colon suspended — rookies have started the team’s past eight games, and 17 of its past 20.

Much of the success of this rookie class rests with Parker, but it’s not as if he’s  breaking new ground this season. His 83 FIP- doesn’t show up until the seventh page of the rookie leaderboard that dates back to 1947. Instead of one rookie leading the way, it’s been a team effort in Oakland. And now this young crew holds their team’s playoff fate in their hands.

That runs in stark contrast to the 2003 Giants. That season’s Giants overcame their World Series hangover to reach the postseason, and rookies Jerome Williams, Jesse Foppert, Kurt Ainsworth and Kevin Correia helped get them there. But Williams was the only one who pitched in the postseason, and he logged only the two innings following Jose Cruz’s dropped fly ball, and even though it was a whole new game, San Francisco was probably dead in the water already.

We find a similar pattern for the 1984 Royals. Mark Gubicza, Bret Saberhagen and Danny Jackson contributed 58 of the team’s starts that season (and Frank Wills chipped in with five), but in the ’84 ALCS, Saberhagen was the only one who pitched. Perhaps Gubicza or Jackson would have pitched had the series continued, but the Royals — who had no business being in the playoffs, look at how bad the AL West was in ’84 — were quickly dispatched by the Tigers.

In ’52, the Brooklyn Dodgers had eight rookie pitchers start games, though five of the eight started five or fewer games. One of those five was rookie Joe Black. Black, primarily a reliever that season and throughout his career, started just two games in the regular season, but was trusted with starting Games 1, 4 and 7 of the World Series that season. The move paid off too, sort of. Black was tagged with the loss in two of his three starts, including Game 7, but the eventual 1952 National League Rookie of the Year only allowed 23 baserunners in 21.1 innings — hard to say it was his fault. Fellow rookie Billy Loes started Game 6, giving rookies four of the seven starts. That is probably the closest parallel, at least in terms of number of games started to this year’s Oakland team. And it still doesn’t do Oakland justice.

While those teams made the playoffs, as the A’s hope to, that doesn’t mean they were necessarily the best among rookie-heavy teams. The ’75 Giants got over with John Montefusco (7.0 WAR) and Pete Falcone (2.0). The ’69 Royals had four rookie starters each compile a FIP of 3.66 or lower and a WAR of 1.7 or higher. In 1968, the famous rookie card brothers, Nolan Ryan and Jerry Koosman, helped the Mets compile the best ERA (2.42) and FIP (2.92) among this 85-team sample. And that’s not even the best season for Mets rookie hurlers. That honor goes to the 1984 team fronted by Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling and Sid Fernandez. No matter how you want to slice it, Gooden’s ’84 is going to come out as the best rookie starting pitcher season since ’47, and probably of all-time. But Darling and Fernandez weren’t exactly chopped liver either for the 90-win, second-place Mets. This year’s A’s don’t have a star like Gooden, but they will end up being a similar quality team. The only difference is now there are extra playoff spots, so Oakland will get to play one more game. And it will be started by a rookie.

The A’s have relied on rookie starting pitchers like few other teams, and they have succeeded to boot. That five rookie pitchers are poised to lead a team into the postseason is basically unprecedented. Only three teams who were so reliant on rookie starters in the regular season reached the postseason, and two of them didn’t lean very heavily on them during their abbreviated playoff runs. Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin, Travis Blackley and Dan Straily may not be the most imposing rotation in history, but let’s take a moment to appreciate just how rare their accomplishment would be.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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