The A’s Pitching Staff Has Had a Terrible Start to the Season

Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

The Oakland Athletics entered the season with low expectations. After completing their two-year fire sale by trading Sean Murphy to Atlanta for a package that was generally agreed to be quite light and adding minimal talent in free agency, the Opening Day ZiPS projections forecasted them to win just 69 games; their playoff odds were just 2.9%. Still, that total would have tied them with Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Kansas City, while Colorado and Washington saved them from the honor of being projected for the league’s worst record. Two weeks later, the A’s sit at a miserable 3-13, below any of the other bottom feeders. While the team’s collective 94 wRC+ isn’t good by any means, it’s not the reason their run differential is 29 runs worse than anyone else’s. Instead, their pitching staff has been one of the worst in recent memory.

With 125 runs surrendered in 16 games, Oakland has pitched far worse than any other team in the league. The 29th-place White Sox are closer in runs allowed to the 12th-place Astros than they are to the last place A’s. The A’s 188 ERA- and 156 FIP- paint a similar picture. In fact, with a 7.60 ERA thus far, this Oakland squad has the third-worst staff ERA through 16 games of any team in the integration era, only outdone by the 1951 St. Louis Browns and the 1955 Kansas City A’s; those teams each went on to allow at least 5.7 runs per game across the entire season. A simple glance at each team’s 2023 strikeout and walk rates shows a clear gulf between Oakland and the field:

Many of these struggles have occurred in a handful of huge blowups, as the A’s have surrendered double digit runs in six games. On the second day of the season, fans excitedly watched the major league debut of Shintaro Fujinami, who showed flashes of both elite stuff and extreme wildness in NPB. After sitting down his first six batters and notching four strikeouts, Fujinami allowed eight baserunners, three via walk, while recording just one out before being lifted from the game. His second start also featured a blowup inning after cruising the first time through the order; he exited after 4.1 innings, with four walks and a hit batsman. On Saturday, in the A’s 15th game of the season, Fujinami recorded the team’s first quality start with six innings of one-run ball, but he still took the loss after coming out for a seventh inning and adding two more runs to his line.

Fujinami has walked nearly 15% of the batters he has faced in his three starts, but his control issues have been far from the worst on the team. In the series opener against the Mets, staff veteran James Kaprielian (with two years and change of service time) took the mound for Oakland. Kaprielian has always had below-average command, but his inability to draw out-of-zone chases against his fastball and sinker proved especially costly against the patient Mets, who swung at just a third of his offerings; he walked seven hitters in 3.2 innings of work.

With the A’s down 6-3 entering the fifth, they turned to new call-up Hogan Harris to make his major league debut. The 26-year-old rookie has had strike throwing issues during his time in the minors, and he was completely unable to fool the Mets hitters to any degree. They swung at just six of his 39 pitches and waited for him to throw four pitches out of the zone; he was able to record just one out before being removed, ending with six runs, five walks, and one HBP. Oakland would end up surrendering 17 runs in their worst pitching performance of the season, allowing a major-league record 19 free passes via the walk or beanball.

It’s important to note that while the Mets took their bases like candy in this game, only one Oakland pitcher recorded a zone rate below 40%, per Statcast. This blowout wasn’t a story of pitchers issuing constant four-ball walks with a clear inability to control the ball; the Mets just wouldn’t swing no matter what was thrown. Look at Kaprielian’s strike zone plot from the outing – his command wasn’t even bad! Sure, you’d like more competitive misses on the slider, but he had an easily discernible plan for the location of each pitch type that he executed decently:

The A’s complete dearth of out-of-zone swings has been a substantial contributor to their league-worst walk rate, and it’s no surprise that Statcast’s tracking puts them dead last in chases. They’re not too great in zone rate, either, but chase rate actually predicts walk rates far better than zone rate, largely because weak contact against an out-of-zone pitch can end a plate appearance on the spot. Furthermore, pitchers with higher chase rates are more likely to have better stuff, keeping batters on their feet, and getting more swings and misses when the ball is inside the strike zone.

With the new Stuff+ and PitchingBot metrics available on the site, we can get a good understanding of a pitcher’s results-independent skill even in small samples, especially when it comes to stuff. A hurler’s ERA could take hundreds of innings to stabilize, but just one inning in front of a Hawkeye unit can tell us a great deal about them. By PitchingBot’s stuff grades, the only pitch type the A’s staff has thrown with above-average stuff is the splitter (thanks to Fujinami), while every other team has at least two offerings that earned at least a 50 grade. In terms of overall score, even the Rockies, hampered by the atmosphere in their home ballpark, are a full half-grade better than Oakland. This is all to say that the walk issues plaguing the team aren’t just a consequence of poor control, but also a staff-wide inability to miss bats.

While it was understood that there likely wouldn’t be any aces emerging from a season with such low expectations, there was certainly the hope that one of Oakland’s young pitchers would take the step forward and develop into a mid-rotation starter. While we’re just three starts into the season, that leap has yet to really occur. Their trio of young lefties acquired in the Murphy and Frankie Montas deals — JP Sears, Kyle Muller, and Ken Waldichuk — has been rather lackluster. None have strikeout rates even approaching league average, while each has shown a problem with walks, homers, or both:

The A’s Young Lefties
Name K-BB% HR/9 FIP Stuff+
Kyle Muller 6% 0.61 4.35 89
JP Sears 15.9% 2.87 6.52 100
Ken Waldichuk 5.5% 4.20 9.52 91

While this pitching staff has nearly nothing to show for itself in terms of results, a few players have still performed well in this small sample. Reliever Zach Jackson is the only arm of the group with an above-average strikeout rate. He’s continuing the profile he showed in his rookie year, with a high-strikeout, high-popup statline despite a lot of walks. Adrián Martínez, who was moved to long relief given the available rotation arms, has a 2.96 FIP through four appearances in which he’s averaged 2.8 innings per game. Sinker/slider guy Chad Smith has kept the ball on the ground and had a couple of good, low-leverage appearances where he was able to go multiple innings, a potentially valuable skill with a shaky rotation.

One prospect who may appear in a big league uniform quite soon is Mason Miller. While he’s pitched just 28.2 minor league innings since being drafted in 2021, the big time stuff he showed in last year’s Arizona Fall League earned him a 50 FV grade and the 98th spot on our preseason Top 100. While a string of injuries has limited his professional experience, he likely already has the best stuff in Oakland’s entire organization. In his Triple-A start on Friday, Miller struck out 11 hitters across five near-perfect innings (his only baserunner reached on a strikeout wild pitch). His fastball averaged 100 mph and topped out at 101.8, earning a 70 stuff grade from PitchingBot (using estimations for his release point). Twenty of his 64 pitches were swung on and missed, and to ease concerns about his command, he landed 45% of pitches in the strike zone with a 67% strike rate, above the league average. I don’t want to overreact to a single minor league appearance, but it’s clear that Miller’s stuff isn’t just big league-caliber, but the best option the A’s can currently put on the field.

This is the beginning of a long slog of a season for the A’s, who currently don’t have any players on the roster earning north of $8 million. With an inexperienced roster gutted by the front office and ownership group, manager Mark Kotsay described the team as an “uncompetitive environment” after their 17-6 loss to the Mets. There are still many months left in the season for someone like Fujinami, Waldichuk, or Sears to help right the ship, but for now, Oakland’s pitching staff doesn’t appear to have much going for it.

Kyle is a FanGraphs contributor who likes to write about unique players who aren't superstars. He likes multipositional catchers, dislikes fastballs, and wants to see the return of the 100-inning reliever. He's currently a college student studying math education, and wants to apply that experience to his writing by making sabermetrics more accessible to learn about. Previously, he's written for PitcherList using pitch data to bring analytical insight to pitcher GIFs and on his personal blog about the Angels.

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David Klein
1 year ago

John Fisher is pretty much the real life Rachel Phelps and if you think he’ll spend if or when to Vegas you’ll be sadly mistaken.