Will A's pitchers like Milone suffer through sophomore jinx?
The strength of the Oakland A's is in their pitching. They have a very good bullpen that has been fortified in the offseason and it is expected to anchor the team in 2013. But as spring training approaches, the unit with the most room for growth and with the biggest potential to move the A's closer towards a World Series championship is their starting pitching.
Last year, the A's ranked ninth in starter's earned run average (ERA) at 3.80 in spite of many obstacles. The biggest by far was the prolonged absence of staff ace Brett Anderson, who did not return until August 21st. Six total starts from the best starter in the rotation and the 2012 A's still made the playoffs.
How? Because they were bolstered by a poised and talented crop of rookies. Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone, A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily and Travis Blackley helped make last year's A's team the first in Major League history to reach the postseason with more than 70 total starts from rookie pitching (90).
But while they were good, there is reason to believe this year's rotation could be even better. Gone are Tyson Ross and Graham Godfrey, who both struggled mightily in 2012. A full season of Anderson with the experience of 2012 should only serve to benefit the five rookies vying for four rotation spots. And yes, the return of Bartolo Colon should be a benefit in the event there is some recession from the young arms.
So the thinking is the A's starting pitching will be better. The question is, how much so? Well, the answers lie inside. Let's start with the ace of the staff, Brett Anderson.
Anderson's last start of 2012 was a postseason gem vs. Detroit
For the A's, the lead dog of the pitching staff is Brett Anderson. The lefty posted a 2.57 ERA in his six starts in August and September. Then after a setback in his last start against the Detroit Tigers in September, Anderson returned to throw six shutout innings in the ALDS to extend Oakland's season.
In 2013, the key will be staying healthy. Anderson has not thrown more than 176 innings in a year and has thrown a total of 230.2 innings in the last three seasons. The big lefty also has a bit of Bret Saberhagen syndrome. Saberhagen alternated very good seasons with mediocre ones his first five full seasons in the big leagues.
So has Anderson. And odd years have been less than spectacular. In 2009, Anderson posted a 4.06 ERA and in 2011, his ERA was exactly 4.00. That means his 2013 ERA is going to be 3.94 right?
Well, no. While it is true that Anderson has missed 402 days on the disabled list during his career, 276 of them were due to his Tommy John surgery in 2011. Instead of being a younger pitcher who started to show early erosion due to overuse (i.e. Doc Gooden), Anderson seems ready to approach his prime at maximum capacity as a pitcher.
Furthermore, there are a couple of things that bode well for the Oakland ace. One, he boasts an impressive 3.14/1 career strikeout-to-walk ratio. And his 7.5 hits per 9 innings, even in a small sample, was the best of his career. A plus slider, better than average control and the cavernous Coliseum add up to an All-Star year for Anderson in 2013.
Projections: 213 innings pitched, 17-9 record, 3.08 ERA, 168 strikeouts, 71 walks
Parker may be the key to the rotation
Jarrod Parker is the likely No. 2 starter and for good reason. The native of Fort Wayne, Indiana finished fifth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2012 with a 13-win season that saw him post a 3.47 ERA in 29 starts.
To improve on those numbers, Parker has to address two issues he had last year. First, while Parker was fantastic in Oakland, his numbers took a big dip on the road:
2012 home: 15 starts, 6-5 record, 2.92 ERA, 1.180 WHIP
2012 away: 14 starts, 7-3 record, 4.54 ERA, 1.365 WHIP
As you can see, while Parker's win-loss record was ironically better, his own numbers were much worse on the road. That will have to improve. Second, the A's right-hander has to maintain his level of production in the second half. In the first half of 2012, Parker's ERA was 2.96. The second half saw Parker at 3.92. The fatigue of extending himself beyond his previous career high (130 2/3 innings at Double-A in 2011) showed itself.
So heading into 2013, the key will be how well Parker sustains his stamina throughout 30+ expected starts. I can see Parker having another solid year, but as hitters make adjustments, there could be a rough patch or two during the year. But overall, the ability to keep the ball in the park (just 11 home runs in 2012 in 181 1/3 innings) and potential for a higher strikeout year should allow for another solid performance.
Projections: 194 innings, 15-12 record, 3.64 ERA, 166 strikeouts, 81 walks
Milone is the pitcher I expect to make the most strides
Tommy Milone is the No. 3 starter for the A's in 2013. Not as heralded as Parker going in to 2012, Milone showed himself to be a very valuable cog in the rotation. Winning 13 games, Milone posted a very respectable 3.74 ERA in 2012.
And while Milone does not have the pure stuff of Parker or Anderson, it is definitely nothing to sneeze at. The reason his record was so good in 2012 was very good control, with just 35 walks in 190 innings pitched. That helped to offset a team-high 207 hits and 24 home runs allowed.
To improve in 2013, Milone has to improve on the road. Over 16 starts, the lefty posted a 4.83 ERA and gave up more hits, home runs and walks in fewer innings (98 2/3 innings at home vs. 91 1/3 innings on road). That discrepancy was so profound, I wondered if Bob Melvin wouldn't be better suited simply starting Milone at home exclusively.
But if there is a silver lining in this, Milone's road numbers did improve in his last four road starts. Against Seattle, Cleveland, Detroit and Texas Milone pitched 22.2 innings allowing just five earned runs (a 2.04 ERA). That success carried into his lone playoff start, as he gave up just one run on five hits in six innings against Detroit in Game 2 of the ALDS.
What does all of this data mean? Likely that Milone began to make the adjustments away from Oakland. And considering how well he pitched inside the Coliseum, I truly believe Milone is a very dark horse candidate for the Cy Young Award. That is how much I expect him to improve this year. Pitching against No.3 starters with what some consider the best changeup in the American League, there could easily be a big jump from year one to year two for Milone.
Projections: 201 innings, 18-12 record, 3.12 ERA, 126 strikeouts, 44 walks
How will Colon bounce back after his suspension ends?
The last we saw of ancient but ageless starter Bartolo Colon, he was disgracefully serving a 50-game suspension due to the use of testosterone. Even though he has to miss the first five games of the 2013 season, and as such his first start, Colon is still projected to be the No. 4 starter in the rotation.
Colon was having a bit of a renaissance in the East Bay up until mid-August and while admittedly, the use of performance enhancing drugs put a big stain on his 2012 numbers, but a deeper look suggests that Colon could still be relatively effective in 2013.
First and foremost, Colon displayed outstanding control in 2012. Allowing just 23 walks in 152.1 innings, Colon often forced hitters to put the ball in play. His 161 hits allowed was evidence of the fact that Colon was consistently around the plate last year.
Secondly, Colon allowed a .287 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). The league average was .293 in 2012, meaning Colon was not excessively lucky in terms of getting hitters out on balls that might normally have dropped for hits on average. Whether he was throwing 88 or 94, Colon's game was similar. That is not in any way to say that he did not benefit from his PED use, but to suggest that it did not tilt his numbers in a way that suggests an extreme drop in production.
However, Colon is a year older (he will be 40 in late May) and honestly, there is no way of knowing if he will duplicate his numbers. The best-case scenario may be for the A's to have him work as an innings eater that keeps the team in most games.
Projections: 182.2 innings, 10-11 record, 4.01 ERA, 102 strikeouts, 36 walks
Griffin may be the A's biggest enigma
One of the great symbols of the 2012 team was A.J. Griffin. When he debuted June 24th against the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants, the A's were 34-38.
Like the team itself, Griffin came out of nowhere to win seven games and post a 3.06 ERA in his 15 starts. Simply expected to be a spot starter for Brandon McCarthy, Griffin's performance not only entrenched him in the rotation, but earned him a start in the last game of the season and in Game 4 of the ALDS.
It is hard to make a projection on Griffin because while he was hit a bit in his last four starts, two came at Detroit and New York and another was on the final day of the season against Texas for the division.
On one hand, elite teams were making adjustments against Griffin. But on the other hand, how many elite teams will Griffin face in 2013? Probably no more than 10. So if you remove those starts, the rookie had an excellent 1.94 ERA in 11 starts (going 6-0 in the process).
Griffin's career minor league ERA was 3.15. But what is more impressive and a potential harbinger for future success is his career 1.024 WHIP. While I just can't see Griffin having the dominant start he had out of 2012, if his control stays as good as it was last year, he should be a solid fixture in the rotation. What he does not have in pure stuff (fastball only averages around 90 MPH), his mechanics and secondary pitches (changeup, slider, curveball) are good enough to get outs.
Projections: 168.1 Innings, 12-7 record, 3.76 ERA, 108 strikeouts, 49 walks
Straily may very well earn a rotation spot himself
Dan Straily is the odd man out on my list. Spring training could make this all moot however as Straily definitely is in the running for a rotation spot. Although he did not quite deliver on late-season potential I thought he could have in 2012, there was enough to show that Straily could be a solid major league starter.
To earn a spot in the 2013 rotation, Straily is going to have to cut down on the long balls. In just 39.1 innings, Straily allowed 11 home runs. To put that in perspective, Jarrod Parker allowed the same number in 142 more innings pitched.
Outside of the tendency to give up the home run, Straily actually didn't pitch that poorly in his brief tenure with the A's. The filthy slider he was scouted to have was frequently on display and while his control wasn't ideal, it was certainly not poor.
Whether he starts in Triple-A Sacramento or wrests the No. 5 spot from A.J. Griffin, you can expect that Straily will at some point have another opportunity. Spring training will go a long way towards showing how much Straily has cut down on the long ball, which in turn might determine if he starts with the big club. I just have the feeling that he starts down in the minors and makes his way back up at some point.
Projections: 68.1 innings, 4-4 record, 4.16 ERA, 59 strikeouts, 30 walks
Melvin should have another loaded rotation in 2013
Compared to some more refined projections, my outlook for the 2013 Oakland rotation is much more optimistic. Having watched 156 of 162 games from the 2012 season, I got a bird's eye view of what this team did and how they did it.
Does that mean I am more of an authority? Absolutely not. But I was able to see things that a computer can't account for. Like Jarrod Parker's ability to bear down with runners on base. Or Tommy Milone taking a bit more off his changeup to get a key strikeout. And most of all, the general poise and professionalism these young pitchers displayed.
It might not be fair to expect across the board improvements and I honestly don't. That said, it is not like the 2012 A's were taxed like say, Billy Martin's 1981 Oakland team that featured four young starters. Martin's excessive used of starters Steve McCatty, Mike Norris and Matt Keough adversely affected all three of their careers.
That is not the case here. While Parker and Milone set career highs in innings pitched, they were not pitching in games with wildly high pitch counts or extended innings. The rotation appears poised to be good not just this year, but for the next two or three years. And that will be key because as good as the A's offense was in the second half, it was just as bad in the first half.
So if there is another struggle out of the gate from the offense, it will be critical that the pitching enables the team to stay competitive early. My guess is that it won't be as dominant as 2012, but the offense will be better balancing each other out. If that happens, the A's will very much be in the mix again late in 2013.