Let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way now: there’s no such thing as a good time to lose a starting pitcher like Bartolo Colon. Over 24 starts with the A’s, Colon posted a 3.43 ERA and peripherals that make him look only a little less good, and Colon has been a big part of Oakland’s attempted playoff push. Now he’s done, having been found out for cheating, and at this writing Oakland is five games out of the division and just a half-game out of the wild card. If the A’s were terrible, this would be too bad, but it wouldn’t be potentially devastating. The A’s aren’t terrible. The starting rotation has lost value right when the season leverage is getting its greatest.
But while there’s never a good time to lose a Bartolo Colon, there are worse times and there are better times. In one regard, this was a profoundly bad time for the A’s given their position in the playoff race, but on the other hand, Colon was suspended a day after Brett Anderson made his 2012 season debut. Anderson was excellent against the Twins Tuesday night, and Anderson figures to be a major stretch-run contributor right when it turns out the A’s could really use one of those.
For those who have forgotten, or for those who never knew, Anderson’s back from Tommy John surgery, having last pitched in the majors in June 2011. He had a good deal of success earlier in his career for A’s teams that were neither remarkably good nor remarkably bad, and now he has a chance to make a real difference with people paying attention. And where you’d think Anderson might be treated with kid gloves, since he’s a 24-year-old coming off major elbow surgery, it doesn’t look like there are any restrictions. In fact:
The A’s say there will be no extra limitations on Anderson when he returns. Melvin noted that like the other pitchers in the rotation, he will be held to around 100 pitches. Anderson says the team hasn’t told him he is only allowed to throw a certain number of breaking balls. The leash is completely off.
Brett Anderson will be allowed to pitch as much like Brett Anderson as he possibly can. And based on his 2012 debut performance, there’s not a whole lot of difference between Brett Anderson now and Brett Anderson before. Hands-down the biggest change is that Anderson has shed considerable weight from his previously more abundant physique. If you just want to talk about pitching, then Brett Anderson didn’t pitch like a different pitcher.
It needs to be stated that we’re working off of one start. Tuesday night, one start, 86 pitches, facing the Twins. I suppose we can’t say much of anything about 2012 Brett Anderson conclusively. But we can work with the evidence. What’s the first thing you look at when a pitcher’s back from injury? Fastball velocity? Anderson sat 90-93 miles per hour, which is about where he used to be. His final two fastballs, in the top of the seventh inning, clocked in at 92. Nothing in there suggests any reduced arm strength.
How about pitch mix? Last year, before succumbing to injury, less than half of Anderson’s pitches were fastballs. He’s been about a 50-percent fastball guy since breaking into the league. Tuesday, 42 of Anderson’s 86 pitches were fastballs. He barely threw his changeup. Anderson hasn’t come back from surgery hesitant to use his breaking balls; he’s embracing them as much as he ever has. The breaking ball is and has always been Anderson’s bread and butter.
The next thing, obviously, is pitch movement, and there’s nothing of note in Anderson’s pitch movement if you’ve got your eyes peeled for changes. All of Brett Anderson’s pitches were still Brett Anderson’s pitches. If you’re concerned about his sink, since Anderson was an established groundballer, the Twins put 16 balls in play, and 13 of them chewed dirt. Granted, nobody has hit grounders quite like the Twins have hit grounders this season, but Anderson generated his grounders and then some.
How about wow factor? Is that even a thing? If that’s a thing, then Anderson had it last night, and because I can’t seem to go a post without a .gif, here’s a .gif:
If you can believe it, that’s a slider. Brett Anderson’s still got his slider. That’s the pitch that most allowed Anderson to finish Tuesday with six strikeouts, in addition to all the grounders. Generally a slider is a relatively ineffective pitch against opposite-handed hitters, but Anderson’s slider — and his slower, similar curve — has a lot of up-down drop to it, so he can feature those pitches against righties without getting burned.
Possibly of note is that Anderson threw a ton of strikes, and a ton of pitches in the strike zone. When Stephen Strasburg first came back from Tommy John surgery, he peppered the zone in the name of fewer deep counts and greater efficiency. In theory, it would help to preserve his arm, although Strasburg’s abandoned that approach in 2012. We’ll see if Anderson goes to the zone more often down the stretch, or if he’ll just pitch like he always used to pitch.
Based on what we could learn from one start, Brett Anderson’s fine. Maybe his stamina isn’t what it could be, but his ability remains intact. Anderson owns a career 3.57 FIP and 3.56 xFIP. Funny thing about guys who get grounders and strikeouts while limiting their walks: they’re good pitchers. Anderson’s a good pitcher, back in the Oakland rotation right when the same rotation has lost an important regular. There could’ve been worse times for Colon to get suspended.
Of course, this isn’t about Brett Anderson vs. Bartolo Colon. Had Colon not been suspended, they both would’ve been in the rotation. Colon’s suspension presumably means more innings for Dan Straily and, immediately, Tyson Ross. That’s where you run your WAR calculations to try to measure the impact. But overall, the A’s received good news and bad news on consecutive days, and they kind of offset. Maybe they more than offset. With the Colon suspension, the A’s are probably worse than they were this morning. With Anderson’s return, the A’s might still be better than they were a few mornings ago.