Oakland’s Young & Unique Arms

On May 24, the Oakland Athletics gave the final inning of a 5-2 loss in Toronto to Jeff Francis, a 33-year-old veteran of 10 big league seasons who had been claimed off of waivers from the Cincinnati Reds six days earlier.

That lone inning was just one of thousands in a major league season, one that no one other than Francis himself likely remembers anything about. It’s less notable for the impact it had on the game than for what it says about the structure of the Athletics, the American League’s best team: It’s the only inning pitched all season by an Oakland pitcher beyond his age-31 season. (And, since 30-year-old Jim Johnson’s June 27 birthday falls just before the traditional July 1 cutoff for what defines a player’s seasonal age, Francis is, for the moment, the only Oakland pitcher to have seen his 31st birthday.)

The A’s don’t have the youngest pitching staff in baseball — their average of 27.8 years is older than that of Miami, St. Louis and Atlanta, and is essentially even with those in Cleveland, Anaheim and Houston — but they do have one of the best. Oakland has the lowest ERA in the game and the seventh-best fielding independent pitching (FIP). And, as usual, the A’s are doing things their own way.

Oh, to be young again

It’s a bit overly simplistic to say that youth equals success; after all, the A’s surely didn’t mind the 342.2 quality innings that Bartolo Colon gave them at age 39 and 40 over the past two seasons.Tim Hudson, at 38 years old, is one of the better starters in baseball this year, while 28-year-oldFranklin Morales is among the worst. It’s not an irrefutable, straight-line relationship. This isn’t Logan’s Run.

Still, we know enough about pitchers to know there’s a reason that youth is valued, and the math there is a pretty simple two-part process. The first part is that younger pitchers generally throw harder, as Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman went into great detail about in 2012 at FanGraphs. As a generic pitcher reaches his mid-20s, he’ll start to lose velocity at approximately a mile per hour per season. That’s important because of the second part, which is that research done by Mike Fast (now in the Astros’ front office) showed that lessened velocity has a real and tangible effect on a pitcher’s ability to prevent runs.

Intuitively, this all makes sense. If we’ve learned anything about pitching during the recent onslaught of arm injuries, it’s that the only safe pitching is not to pitch at all. As continued innings build up on a pitcher’s arm, it’s only natural that the ability to throw at great velocity is going to falter and often the ability to get outs with it — just look at what’s happened to former hard-throwing studs CC Sabathia and Josh Beckett over the past several seasons as they’ve aged.

To be clear, no one is saying that older, soft-tossing pitchers are totally unable to succeed, especially not with what Mark Buehrle is doing in Toronto right now. There’s more than one way to be a quality pitcher. But Buehrle is an extreme outlier, and youth — along with the higher likelihood of health and velocity — is still a selling point. There’s a reason that the Yankees dropped $175 million to get 25-year-old Masahiro Tanaka, while the Giants were able to bring in Hudson for a mere $23 million over two seasons.

Back to the A’s. They have given more innings to pitchers under the age of 31 than anyone else in baseball, and they have found great success while doing so. That being the case, it stands to reason that the Oakland staff is full of young flamethrowers, right? Of course not. These are the A’s. Nothing is ever as it seems.

Not your typical kids

According to PITCHf/x, Oakland’s 31-and-under crew throws, on average, more softly than every other team in baseball other than the Giants. The A’s have collected a large amount of young pitchers, but they’ve generally found the ones who don’t have outstanding velocity.

Part of this youth movement is the simple timeline of economics. The A’s have never been big players on the free-agent market, and by the time a pitcher becomes a free agent, he has six seasons under his belt and is likely into his late 20s or early 30s. Building your team via free agency almost by definition adds age; that’s why it’s not surprising that the top five teams with the most innings from pitchers older than 32 over the past decade are the Yankees, Dodgers, Phillies,Mets and Red Sox, all traditionally big-market spenders. The A’s have only 1,417 innings from those pitchers since 2005, lowest in baseball and more than 300 behind the next-to-last Rays and more than 4,600 behind the Yankees.

But it’s also because, without using the “M” word, the A’s think differently, looking past pure, shiny velocity to focus on outs and attainability. Perhaps that’s the new market inefficiency here: teams might overvalue hard throwers, leaving the A’s to fight over what’s left.

What’s left, however, has worked out well. Tommy Milone was a 10th-round pick in 2008 and either the third- or fourth-most notable name in the package the Washington Nationals sent for left-hander Gio Gonzalez in 2011, partially because his 86 mph fastball is slower than just about anyone else in baseball other than Buehrle and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. In three years with Oakland, he’s contributed 432.1 innings, a 3.87 ERA and 5.1 wins above replacement (WAR).Jesse Chavez, who had been with six organizations before the A’s after being drafted in 2002 and has seen his velocity steadily drop from more than 95 to near 92, has been a breakout success as a starter this year, de-emphasizing his faltering fastball in favor of a cutter he picked up in Oakland.

Really, the entire staff has a story. Scott Kazmir doesn’t throw nearly as hard as he did as a young Devil Ray, but now he throws six pitches and is well into his second year of a career rebirth. Reliever Luke Gregerson, who rarely tops 90, was acquired for a platoon outfielder the A’s didn’t need and has been a reliable contributor. Even the hardest-throwing Athletic, closerSean Doolittle, didn’t come via traditional methods — though he was a first-round pick in 2007, it was as a first baseman, where he attempted to stick through three minor league seasons before converting to the mound after two years missed to knee injuries.

Youth doesn’t guarantee success, and it doesn’t even guarantee health, as the A’s found out when 26-year-old A.J. Griffin and 25-year-old Jarrod Parker both went down with elbow injuries in the spring. But it can generally be acquired at reasonable prices, and if you know what to look for — as the A’s seemingly do — it can offer huge returns.

Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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