Saturday, August 2, 2014

The A's Amazing Rotation

A proven big-game pitcher, Lester will be central to Oakland's success
Going into this season, the two-time defending AL West champs appeared to have one of baseball's best rotations on paper. Then A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker, who together threw 397 innings of 3.90 ERA ball for Oakland in 2013, were lost for the season to Tommy John surgery before either one threw a pitch. Having 40 percent of the starting rotation evaporate before Opening Day would cripple most teams, but not the A's.

Through the Fourth of July, more than halfway through the season, Oakland was sporting the best record in baseball largely because of their pitching staff--the stingiest in the league. Then they shipped out a couple of top prospects to the Cubs for Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija, the former a quality arm and the latter a smoke-throwing borderline ace. The midseason additions fortified Oakland's already strong staff, making a great rotation even better.

Now, after dealing Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes, Oakland's rotation looks unbeatable. It has to be considered one of if not the best in baseball alongside the collection of aces in Los Angeles, where Clayton Kershaw, Zack Grienke, Josh Beckett, Dan Haren and Hyun-jin Ryu deal for the Dodgers, and now Detroit, which on the same day added David Price to a staff already headed by Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello. What Oakland's rotation lacks in flashy names and hardware--the Tigers own the past three AL Cy Young winners and the Dodgers boast a pair in Kershaw and Greinke--they make up for in superior results. Check it out:

Tigers 3.82 ERA 1.26 WHIP 2.84 K/BB ratio 6.24 IP/GS .707 OPS 95 tOPS+ 97 sOPS+
Dodgers 3.19 ERA 1.16 WHIP 4.10 K/BB ratio 6.1 IP/GS .682 OPS 100 tOPS+ 90 sOPS+
Athletics 3.30 ERA 1.19 WHIP 2.74 K/BB ratio 6.04 IP/GS .665 OPS 107 tOPS+ 86 sOPS+

That Oakland has the lowest opponent OPS (raw and adjusted) of the three is actually very impressive considering the A's play in the American League and must contend with designated hitters rather than feeble-hitting pitchers. The Dodgers have a slight edge in ERA and WHIP, but since they're a National League team with a pitcher's haven for a home park that advantage must be discounted.

What's scary is that most of those numbers were compiled without Lester, Samardzija, and Hammel. Going forward, Oakland should be even better with a rotation that is quite literally overflowing with talent. In Lester and Sonny Gray the A's have a potent 1-2 punch with a pair of legit aces. Scott Kazmir and Samardzija--number ones on half the teams in baseball and strong number twos on the others--are mid-rotation guys in Oakland. The fifth starter is Hammel, who had a 2.98 ERA with the Cubs but has struggled since rejoining the American League.

Oakland's rotation is so loaded that there's no room for Tommy Milone or Jesse Chavez, both of whom excelled in the first half. Milone boasted  3.55 ERA and was 10-for-16 in quality starts before his demotion and subsequent trade following the Samardzija/Hammel acquisitions. With Lester on board, Chavez has been forced back to the bullpen despite strong numbers--3.44 ERA, 3.66 FIP and 2.90 K/BB ratio--in his first season as a regular starting pitcher. With Chavez having proved himself in the rotation and available to return should injury strike, Oakland has more than enough depth to last the next three months.

And with such a stacked rotation, the A's are well-positioned to hold off the Angels down the stretch and cinch their third straight division title. All those arms will make for a formidable opponent come October, when Bob Melvin can shorten the rotation and rely on his four excellent starters to get him through the postseason. Healthy and effective starting pitching is key to surviving a long regular season, but in short playoff series having elite starters is essential. Thanks to Billy Beane's wheeling and dealing, the A's now have four of them.

It's always impossible to predict who will emerge from the postseason crapshoot victorious, but the A's are as good a bet as any. 25 years removed from their most recent World Series title, they have the arms to win it all. Considering the talent Beane gave up to acquire them, they better.

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