The A’s Low-Risk, Reasonably High-Reward Rotation

There are a couple of very broad ways for pitchers to keep the opposition off of the scoreboard. One is to impose your will, maximizing K’s and minimizing BB’s – in most cases, pitchers excelling in those areas possess obvious, in-your-face tools and skills that are very easy to see. The other way is much more subtle – to manage contact, optimizing the batted-ball mix allowed and minimizing the authority with which the ball is impacted. Sometimes, pitchers more skilled in this area fly beneath the radar a bit compared to their more dominant counterparts. If you can accomplish both, however, you’ve got something. Based on the very early returns of the 2014 season, the Oakland A’s might have something.

While a pitcher’s upside is more accurately defined by his ability to dominate with K’s and missed bats, and minimization of free passes, his foundation is comprised of his ability – or inability – to manage contact. Even the most dominant pitchers allow contact the majority of the time. If you can do both and your best stuff begins to fade, you’ve got contact management to fall back upon. We’ve only gone three full times through rotations to date, but let’s take a look at the pitchers with the best batted-ball mixes allowed so far.

AL LD% GB% FB% IFFB% STD BIP ERA+ K% BB% STD ALL ERA+ ALL < BIP
R.Ross 8.0% 72.0% 20.0% 10.0% 64 17.3% 10.7% 81
Ventura 6.3% 53.1% 40.6% 23.1% 65 27.1% 6.3% 57 Y
Cosart 9.8% 64.7% 25.5% 15.4% 69 20.3% 8.1% 75
Scheppers 14.0% 56.1% 29.8% 23.5% 76 14.5% 6.6% 89
Straily 10.2% 40.8% 49.0% 20.8% 79 21.7% 5.8% 77 Y
Peavy 8.5% 40.4% 51.1% 16.7% 81 26.0% 13.0% 85
Hutchison 12.8% 48.7% 38.5% 13.3% 85 23.8% 12.7% 92
Nolasco 12.7% 52.4% 34.9% 9.1% 85 11.3% 8.8% 112
J.Chavez 15.1% 56.6% 28.3% 6.7% 87 28.6% 2.6% 64 Y
Skaggs 19.6% 60.9% 19.6% 11.1% 88 15.8% 1.8% 87 Y
Weaver 6.1% 38.8% 55.1% 7.4% 88 22.7% 9.3% 90
Kazmir 14.0% 48.0% 38.0% 10.5% 90 26.0% 5.5% 76 Y
NL LD% GB% FB% IFFB% STD BIP ERA+ K% BB% STD ALL ERA+ ALL < BIP
Leake 12.9% 67.7% 19.4% 0.0% 74 17.1% 6.1% 82
Cingrani 12.8% 41.0% 46.2% 22.2% 79 29.0% 13.0% 78 Y
Cashner 16.0% 60.0% 24.0% 8.3% 81 27.5% 8.8% 74 Y
Eovaldi 12.5% 51.8% 35.7% 10.0% 81 24.7% 1.3% 65 Y
McCarthy 18.8% 63.8% 17.4% 8.3% 82 13.1% 3.6% 93
Haren 13.2% 54.7% 32.1% 5.9% 83 20.8% 2.8% 77 Y
A.Simon 11.6% 51.2% 37.2% 6.3% 83 17.9% 3.6% 84
T.Ross 16.0% 56.0% 28.0% 7.1% 85 20.3% 12.7% 101
B.Anderson 18.5% 59.3% 22.2% 8.3% 85 7.7% 7.7% 118
Garza 14.8% 50.8% 34.4% 9.5% 86 20.0% 4.7% 85 Y
T.Wood 16.1% 51.6% 32.3% 10.0% 87 32.1% 7.6% 67 Y
T.Hudson 16.7% 54.5% 28.8% 5.3% 88 19.1% 0.0% 79 Y

For each qualifying major league starting pitcher, actual average 2013 MLB production by BIP type was applied to actual 2014 BIP totals, and then translated into run values, compared to MLB averages, and scaled to 100. It is way too early to put too much stock into actual batted ball authority data, but general batted-ball mix tendencies are already beginning to take shape. Many of the pitchers above, as you might expect, have kept line drive rates down to levels that will prove to be unsustainable, but many are also beginning to show the ground ball and pop up tendencies that make them who they are. The 24 pitchers above – 12 from each league – have allowed standard production on all BIP of 90 or better thus far in 2014. We’ll call that number their “contact management score”. The lower the number, the better the batted-ball mix, the lower the overall risk level of the pitcher. Of these 24, half of them have K and BB rates good enough to drive their standard relative ERA based on all batters faced even lower than their contact management score. These players are marked with a “Y” in the right-most column above. Three of those 12 pitchers are Oakland A’s – Dan Straily, Scott Kazmir and Jesse Chavez.

Are these guys the best pitchers in baseball thus far in 2014? Hell, no. Felix Hernandez and Yu Darvish, to name just two, say hi. Those 12 are simply the pitchers who have excelled at both contact management and K/BB ratio maximization thus far – they receive the best “technical merit” scores so far, while Felix, Darvish and a few others ride their superior “artistic impression” scores to the top of the overall pile. Darvish’s 2014 contact management score based on batted-ball mix alone is 99, while Felix’s is 109 – but the latter’s 30/2 K/BB ratio drives his overall standard ERA+ to 64, better than all but one of the pitchers listed above.

Let’s look at these same numbers on a team-wide basis to date:

NL TEAM LD% GB% FB% IFFB% STD BIP ERA+ K% BB% STD ALL ERA+
Reds 17.7% 50.7% 31.6% 10.1% 89 21.4% 9.4% 93
Brewers 18.0% 49.1% 32.8% 9.9% 91 24.4% 6.4% 82
Diamondbacks 20.0% 48.3% 31.6% 10.0% 94 18.7% 9.5% 105
Dodgers 19.1% 48.4% 32.5% 4.5% 97 25.5% 8.8% 89
Marlins 19.9% 47.4% 32.7% 6.3% 97 20.2% 8.8% 102
Pirates 21.5% 49.4% 29.0% 6.7% 98 21.3% 8.0% 98
Nationals 19.3% 39.2% 41.6% 11.6% 99 27.5% 8.1% 85
Giants 22.3% 45.9% 31.8% 9.2% 100 21.9% 4.9% 93
Padres 21.4% 45.9% 32.8% 6.1% 101 20.9% 9.2% 105
Rockies 23.1% 48.7% 28.1% 4.5% 102 18.3% 7.7% 109
Mets 21.6% 43.7% 34.7% 7.2% 103 19.5% 8.5% 108
Cubs 23.9% 44.0% 32.1% 10.5% 104 20.4% 10.1% 110
Phillies 24.0% 46.7% 29.3% 4.7% 105 18.7% 9.5% 115
Cardinals 25.8% 40.5% 33.7% 10.4% 110 23.1% 7.3% 102
Braves 25.7% 39.7% 34.7% 5.8% 114 24.7% 8.9% 105
AL TEAM LD% GB% FB% IFFB% STD BIP ERA+ K% BB% STD ALL ERA+
Rangers 17.4% 51.9% 30.6% 15.3% 88 17.6% 8.5% 96
Twins 18.2% 44.4% 37.4% 14.3% 95 16.3% 9.8% 109
Athletics 17.3% 45.1% 37.6% 11.5% 95 23.1% 7.0% 87
Astros 20.7% 49.9% 29.4% 10.7% 97 18.7% 10.0% 106
Indians 19.2% 43.9% 36.9% 13.0% 98 25.2% 10.6% 92
Red Sox 19.5% 45.8% 34.8% 10.2% 99 21.8% 6.5% 92
Yankees 19.3% 45.7% 35.0% 9.6% 99 23.8% 6.1% 87
White Sox 21.3% 47.3% 31.4% 11.6% 100 18.6% 10.7% 110
Rays 20.5% 46.0% 33.5% 9.1% 101 19.0% 8.0% 104
Angels 18.8% 43.1% 38.1% 8.1% 102 24.3% 9.4% 95
Blue Jays 21.5% 41.8% 36.7% 13.8% 103 22.6% 9.3% 99
Mariners 19.7% 41.4% 38.9% 7.4% 105 22.8% 8.9% 100
Tigers 21.6% 41.3% 37.2% 11.0% 106 21.2% 6.4% 99
Royals 21.4% 43.1% 35.5% 8.3% 106 20.5% 8.2% 105
Orioles 23.1% 40.9% 36.0% 8.0% 111 15.5% 6.9% 120

Both tables are sorted by standard BIP ERA+ – the team contact management score allowed, based on each club’s actual batted ball mix, without adjustment for batted ball authority, 14 of the 30 clubs have a contact management score better than 100 – these are your relatively “low risk” pitching staffs. The identity of many of these clubs is not surprising at all, but the Marlins and Astros, to name two, are on the list. When you think about it, it’s less surprising, as Jarred Cosart and Scott Feldman‘s significant ground ball tendencies help the Astros, while Jose Fernandez and Nathan Eovaldi‘s contact management abilities aid the Marlins.

Of these 14 teams, however, only half possess strong K and BB rates that push their overall standard ERA+ on all batters faced even further in a positive direction – the Brewers, Dodgers and Nationals in the NL, and the A’s, Indians, Red Sox and Yankees in the AL. These then, would be your low-risk, potentially high-reward staffs. Others, like the Giants, barely miss meeting the criteria, but will likely do so soon. Among this group of seven, however, only possesses more than one starting pitcher who meets the contact management and K/BB criteria set forth in the first player table above – the Oakland Athletics, and they have three such pitchers.

It should be noted that this group of three A’s starters do not include Bartolo Colon, their 2013 ace, or either A.J. Griffin or Jarrod Parker, likely their second and third best starters last season. It doesn’t even include their most talented 2014 incumbent starter, Sonny Gray, who currently has a 112 contact management score thanks to his currently line drive-laden batted-ball mix. This group is composed of Dan Straily, Scott Kazmir and Jesse Chavez. What do these three – plus Gray – bring to the table, and should we expect them to continue to burnish their low-risk, high-reward credentials?

Straily, 24, made 27 starts for the A’s in 2013, and was far from a lock for the 2014 rotation before the spring training attrition set in. His stuff seems rather pedestrian – his fastball averaged 90 MPH in 2013, and is down a couple pegs to 88 MPH this season. His slider was his most effective pitch in 2013, and as a result he displayed a significant platoon split (120 OPS+ vs. LH, 80 vs. RH entering 2014). His changeup has been a more effective and more heavily utilized pitch in the early going this season, and he has tightened up his platoon split a bit as a result.

Straily’s most notable BIP frequency trait is his ability to generate popups (93 percentile rank in 2013). This is partially due to the ample amount of foul territory in Oakland, but this is a true skill that Straily carried through the minor leagues. He ranked near the bottom of MLB starters in ground ball rate (8 percentile rank in 2013), so fly ball authority management is pivotal for him moving forward. His K and BB rates were both higher than average in 2013 (56 and 79 percentile ranks), but his BB rate is down so far this season. Despite his relatively ordinary stuff, he has run consistently high swing-and-miss rates (11.1% in 2013, 13.2% thus far in 2014, 3rd among AL qualifiers) due to above average deception. His high-K, high-popup, improved command package qualifies him as a relatively low-risk, at least moderate reward pitcher going forward.

Kazmir, 30, qualifies as a big free agent splash for the usually cautious A’s, signing a two-year, $22M deal this past offseason. 2013 was obviously a massive comeback season for Kazmir, essentially a replacement-level pitcher since 2008. His average fastball last season was 92 MPH, and it’s been down a tick to 91 thus far in 2014. Though his fastball remains his most effective pitch, he has mixed in his changeup quite a bit more this season. He has always maintained a fairly substantial platoon split, but it must be noted that righties are only six for 50 against him so far this season, a breakthrough that, if sustained anywhere near that level, brings him to another plane as a pitcher.

Kazmir’s K and BB rates were both above average in 2013 (89 and 42 percentile ranks) and he is off to an even better start in that area this season. His swinging strike rate of 11.9% thus far in 2014 is up from an already strong 10.1% in 2013, and currently ranks seventh among AL qualifiers. In the past, Kazmir has been a fly ball pitcher adept at generating popups, with his percentile ranks in that category ranging from 66 to 88 going back to 2008. So far in 2014, however, his ground ball rate has spiked – though this may turn out to be nothing more than a blip, it does bear watching. He’s a little riskier than Straily, with a less clear path to contact management success, but his ceiling is certainly higher. Another attractive risk/reward balance.

Chavez, 30, was discussed at length by Carson Cistulli earlier this week. Chavez has basically been little more than a journeyman reliever to this point in his career, carrying a career 78 ERA+ into his next start. The A’s, however, appear to have carefully molded him into some sort of secret weapon. Once a mid-90’s guy who didn’t get anyone out, Chavez’ average fastball velocity declined to about 92 MPH in 2013 and is down another tick to 91.5 this season. He now relies heavily on a cutter averaging about 88 MPH, which has developed into a successful pitch for him. His changeup has been a breakthrough pitch this season, giving him an arsenal of weapons capable of navigating through opposing lineups multiple times. His swing-and-miss rate of 9.5% is respectable, and in line with career norms.

Chavez had never been much of a ground ball generator prior to this season, but he currently has the fifth highest ground ball rate among AL qualifiers. Last year, in limited work, he was a popup machine. And, oh, by the way, he currently has a 22/2 K/BB ratio. Chavez is evolving as we speak, and has a puncher’s chance to be really good. Even in a more likely mid-range scenario, he appears to be a low-risk type with sound contact management skills, with a moderate upside, possibly the AL version of Marco Estrada.

Then there’s Gray, 24, the most talented of the lot. He dazzled at Vanderbilt, with both a fastball and curve that flashed plus-plus. That fastball velocity is no longer there – it averaged 93 MPH in 2013, and 92 MPH thus far this season. The 80 MPH snapdragon curve ball is still around, and it’s his most effective pitch by far. He had a fairly significant normal platoon split in 2013 (111 OPS+ vs. LH, 82 vs. RH), but has been much better vs. lefties so far this season, so he possesses a diverse array of weapons. His swing-and-miss rates in 2013 and 2014 are identical at 9.5%, the same as Chavez.

Gray has displayed a pronounced ground ball tendency in both 2013 and 2014, but his line drive rate is a very high 30.8% through three starts this season, negatively impacting his contact management score. No matter – he has a shiny 0.95 ERA to date despite all those liners. There’s some good fortune in that ERA number, but there’s also some bad fortune in the liner rate. His upside is likely the highest of these A’s hurlers, and while there is some risk, it’s not as significant as his early contact management trends might suggest, and it’s perfectly acceptable given the potential reward.

All around the baseball world, pitching attrition continues unabated. UCL’s are tearing, shoulders are stiffening, and organizational pitching depth is being tested. The A’s have been affected as much as anyone, but they aren’t complaining – instead, they’re taking the talent they have, and are maximizing and optimizing it. The samples remain admittedly small, but the A’s appear to have developed a bottomless rotation that minimizes risk while still possessing solid upside. In this year’s Parity Gone Wild American League, superior roster construction, effective risk management, and efficient utilization of resources might be all that is necessary to propel a team from the middle of the pile to the top. The A’s just might have the field lapped in this regard.



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Michael
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Michael

It also includes recent ex A’s Tyson Ross, Brett Anderson, Brandon McCarthy and not so recent ones: Hudson, Haren.

You might be onto something.

here goes nothing
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here goes nothing

And, remember, Hudson was a target for the A’s this offseason.

Forrest Gumption
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Forrest Gumption

Yep, A’s finished 2nd for him, the Giants kept bettering their offer by $1M until it hit Beane’s plateau of how much he wanted to spend – the same 2/22 he gave Kazmir instead.

Rakesh
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Rakesh

Kazmir if healthy, gives A’s something they missed in the last playoffs, a solid leftie starter.

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