Oakland’s Pitching Staff Is Cruising

Sean Manaea began his start Wednesday night by allowing a home run on his first pitch of the game, and things only briefly got better. After Shin-Soo Choo’s lead-off blast, Manaea retired nine of the next 11 hitters he faced only to have trouble return again in the fourth. He gave up a single to Todd Frazier and a walk to Robinson Chirinos, followed by run-scoring hits from Nick Solak and Isiah Kiner-Falefa, before finally getting his first out of the inning in the form of a sacrifice fly by Rob Refsnyder. With four runs already in on six hits and a walk through 3.2 innings, Oakland manager Bob Melvin moved to his bullpen early, asking right-hander Burch Smith to get his team back on track.

“If you’re Burch Smith, you would love to be able to hand the ball off to somebody in the eighth inning,” A’s analyst Dallas Braden said on the broadcast as Smith tossed his warm-up pitches. In the moment, it sounded optimistic, maybe even a tad foolhardy. Saying something like that is a nice way to remind Oakland fans watching at home that a bad start does not mean hope is lost, and that their team is very much still in the game. But expecting any reliever to go get 11 outs when the starter could only achieve 10 is a pretty tough ask, especially when it’s a 30-year-old journeyman who owns a career ERA north of 6.00.

In reality, Braden almost got it exactly right. Smith pitched two outs into the seventh inning, retiring all 10 hitters he faced on just 33 pitches before Melvin replaced him with T.J. McFarland. McFarland gave up one hit and got two more outs, then Joakim Soria came into the game and retired the final five Rangers hitters of the night. In that time, the A’s hammered a total of four homers and came back to win the game, 6-4. The bullpen was asked to do the heavy lifting, and it did a near-perfect job at it.

That kind of performance has become the norm for the A’s over the first couple weeks of the 2020 season. Here are the most valuable ‘pens in baseball through Wednesday:

Top Five Bullpen WARs, 2020
Team IP WAR
Athletics 52.0 1.3
Rays 53.0 1.2
Dodgers 55.0 1.2
White Sox 54.1 1.0
Indians 30.2 0.9

Manaea’s performance, meanwhile, was quite unusual for Oakland starters. Here are the most valuable rotations in baseball right now:

Top FIve Starter WARs, 2020
Team IP WAR
Reds 65.0 2.6
Cubs 74.0 2.4
Indians 83.1 1.8
Athletics 57.0 1.5
Rockies 61.1 1.5

The Cubs and Reds have stellar rotations that have been brought down by woeful bullpens, while the White Sox ‘pen has had to lift up its starters. The A’s, however, are getting the best of both. Their pitchers have been worth a combined 2.9 WAR through 12 games — the best mark in all of baseball, as well as a driving force in Oakland’s current five-game winning streak and their first-place spot in the AL West.

To call this hot start to the season a shock would be a bit misleading, as the team finished with the eighth-most valuable pitching staff in the majors a year ago. That being said, it was difficult to know exactly what we should expect from this staff entering 2020. Of the six pitchers who made at least 10 starts for Oakland last year, three — Brett Anderson, Homer Bailey, and Tanner Roark — left in the offseason. It didn’t take much brainpower to determine who might fill those spots, with Manaea set to rejoin the staff after missing most of last season with an injury and top prospects A.J. Puk and Jesús Luzardo ready to take on significant major league roles for the first time. But whether or not Manaea would return to form or the rookies would actually settle in quickly were entirely different questions.

Look no further than Wednesday’start for a microcosm of Manaea’s season so far. He struck out five batters in 3.1 innings while walking just one, and he got a total of nine whiffs on 73 pitches. His evening ended early, however, after five of the 10 balls in play against him fell for hits, and one of the two fly balls he allowed left the yard. That funky batted ball luck has affected Manaea for all three of his starts so far, leading to an 8.03 ERA in 12.1 innings but just a 3.39 FIP and 3.15 xFIP. As for the rookies, we have yet to see Puk in action this year due to a shoulder injury, but Luzardo is off to a good start, throwing five shutout innings against Texas on Tuesday and posting a 0.77 ERA and 2.21 FIP through his first 11.2 innings.

The returning members from last season’s rotation have impressed as well. Frankie Montas was dominating opponents to the tune of a 2.63 ERA and 3 WAR through his first 16 starts last season before an 80-game PED suspension stopped his breakout year in its tracks. He hasn’t missed a beat since returning, tossing seven innings of one-run ball with nine strikeouts on Sunday in the longest outing of the season for an Oakland pitcher, and he now holds a 2.25 ERA and 2.73 FIP through his first 16 frames. Chris Bassitt has also been impressive through 9.2 innings of work this year — allowing just one run and one walk while striking out 12 — after his own breakout in 2019.

The A’s rotation has been outstanding, but because the team has been methodical in stretching out its starters over the first couple weeks of the season, the bullpen has had to work an almost equal number of innings as starters have. So far, however, that hasn’t been an impediment. Look at the production the A’s are getting out of their relievers through the first 12 games of the year.

Oakland A’s Bullpen, First 12 Games of 2020
Name IP Runs Hits Walks Ks ERA FIP
Burch Smith 7.1 0 3 1 6 0.00 1.76
Joakim Soria 6.2 1 4 2 11 0.00 0.58
Jesús Luzardo 6.2 3 5 3 7 1.35 2.23
Yusmeiro Petit 5.2 2 4 0 4 3.18 3.87
Liam Hendriks 5.1 1 3 2 8 1.69 3.55
Jordan Weems 5.0 2 5 1 5 3.60 1.58
T.J. McFarland 4.2 0 3 0 2 0.00 2.13
Jake Diekman 4.2 0 1 4 7 0.00 2.56
J.B. Wendelken 3.0 0 2 1 5 0.00 0.65
Lou Trivino 3.0 3 3 1 4 9.00 1.32

I know it’s a 12-game sample, but those are some extremely low numbers! When nearly everyone in your bullpen is rocking a sub-3.00 FIP, you’re going to be in a really good position to have success. There’s going to be some home run regression at some point — the bullpen has allowed a grand total of two in 52 innings — and Luzardo is in the rotation now after making two relief appearances, which means a weaker pitcher will take his bullpen spot going forward. But it isn’t as if we didn’t expect Oakland’s bullpen to be good. They were the fourth-most valuable pen in the majors last year and notably had the lowest HR/FB rate in baseball too.

And after the first few games of the season, they’ve gone totally lights-out. Over the past six games, the A’s bullpen has thrown 22.2 innings and allowed two runs. Both of those have been given up by Yusmeiro Petit — remove him from the picture, and the rest of the relievers haven’t allowed a single run in their last 19.2 innings of work. That’s been instrumental in the team’s current win streak — three of Oakland’s last five wins have come via comeback efforts that were made possible through stingy relief work.

We’ve covered a few impressive individual pitchers this week who have started this season brilliantly, from Zach Plesac to Shane Bieber to Dustin May. When it comes to the A’s, however, there’s no single arm grabbing all the attention. Through the first 12 games of the year, the entire pitching staff is pulling the sled. Perhaps it’s time to take a cue from Dallas Braden and start expecting the best from them.

We hoped you liked reading Oakland’s Pitching Staff Is Cruising by Tony Wolfe!

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Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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Jolly Good Show
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Jolly Good Show

Nice article, but I thought that WAR wasn’t a good method to measure relievers? I was under the impression that Siera was better?

hahiggins
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Member
hahiggins

FWIW: WAR is a counting stat. SIERA is a rate stat. You could, I think, build a version of WAR that incorporates SIERA instead of FIP. cf. https://library.fangraphs.com/war/calculating-war-pitchers/ “FanGraphs uses Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), with a few adjustments, but you could use RA9, DRA, or any other metric related to pitcher performance. This post does not address the merits of choosing FIP for use in WAR.”

Sleepy
Member
Sleepy
ccctl
Member
ccctl

Sorting by SIERA, A’s bullpen is #5.
FIP #2
XFIP #3
ERA #5
LOB% #5
WHIP #3 (0.92)
HR/9 #4
K-BB% #5

Pretty much anyway you want to look at it, they’re good.