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Moneyball Comes in Threes

There isn’t much to get excited about in Oakland these days, and 2017 isn’t likely to go much better than 2016's 69-win season. But with Jharel Cotton, Andrew Triggs, and Sean Manaea, the franchise could have the foundation of its next great pitching staff.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Three seasons ago, the Chicago Cubs won 73 games. In 2015, that number jumped up to 97. And last year, well, you know what happened. In consecutive campaigns, Joe Maddon and Co. made the proverbial leap: from a mediocre team with potential to a bona fide mid-tier contender to a flexible juggernaut that looks set to dominate the sport for years to come. So this week, as part of The Ringer’s 2017 MLB Preview, we’ll be taking a look at what other teams and players — good, bad, and otherwise — are poised for some sudden improvement this season. It’s Make the Leap Week!

It’s a sorry time to be an Oakland Athletics fan. The franchise just suffered its worst two-season stretch since Charlie Finley’s fire-sale phase in the 1970s, and its lineup is so devoid of recognizable names that the team’s online store doesn’t sell a single jersey of a position player currently on the roster (though Josh Reddick, Coco Crisp, and Billy Butler, none of whom is still with the team, have ones available). Since July 2014, when the A’s held the best record in baseball, the team collapsed in its lone playoff game and transformed almost overnight from a contender for the pennant into a contender for the worst record in the league.

In that span, Billy Beane’s typically frenzied activity resulted in the loss via trade of All-Stars Addison Russell and Josh Donaldson, while two of his additions ended up fighting in the clubhouse. Sonny Gray, meanwhile, was one of the most promising pitchers in the sport, but he saw his ERA balloon to 5.69 last year and will start this season on the disabled list with a lat strain. Gray already missing time is a foreboding sign for a rotation that could use a piece of positive news, or five, after the strife it endured last season. Fourteen different Athletics pitchers started at least five games, tied for the most for any team in MLB history, and many of them failed in their efforts to prevent runs: Eight of those pitchers posted a park-adjusted ERA at least 30 percent worse than league average, which is the most for any team ever.

Beyond the persistent injury issues that necessitated 14 different pitchers, the most glaring concern with the rotation was its lack of strikeouts — a balls-in-play problem exacerbated by the club’s league-worst defense, as measured by both DRS and UZR. In 2014, Oakland starters ranked sixth in K rate, whiffing 20.7 percent of opposing hitters, but they plummeted to 29th last year, at just 17.4 percent. No other team experienced such a steep drop between 2014 and 2016; most staffs in that span were gaining strikeouts instead, as rates across the league continued to rise.

Overall, Athletics starters ranked in the league’s bottom third in ERA, FIP, and wins above replacement, but in 2017, some of Beane’s many moves might pay dividends. A trio of starters, none of whom has qualified for an ERA title in his career, could bring stability, strikes, and swing-and-miss stuff to the rotation. Jharel Cotton was part of a July 2016 trade, as Oakland shipped Rich Hill — whom Beane signed on a speculative one-year deal that worked wonders — and Josh Reddick to the Dodgers for Cotton and touted pitching prospects Frankie Montas and Grant Holmes; Andrew Triggs was a waiver claim from Baltimore before the 2016 season; and Sean Manaea joined the team at the 2015 deadline, coming from Kansas City in a trade for Ben Zobrist, whom Beane essentially stole in a prior trade with the Rays.

The three pitchers might not all make a leap this year, but for an Oakland team that hasn’t cracked 70 wins since the Donaldson trade and hasn’t won a playoff series in more than a decade, good, young pitching provides a beacon of hope for a turnaround. After all, even though Moneyball forgot to mention it, a trio of pitchers was at the forefront of the last sustained period of A’s success.

Jharel Cotton

Cotton is a favorite of the baseball blogosphere, and even a cursory look at his numbers reveals why. In five years of professional ball, the 5-foot-11 right-hander has struck out 9.9 batters per nine innings, versus just 2.6 BB/9, and he has maintained an impressive ratio at every step along the minor league ladder. Most recently, his 21.1 strikeout-minus-walk percentage in the minor leagues last season was the highest for any qualified Triple-A pitcher in five years, and he posted a 2.15 ERA in 29.1 innings in a short major league stint after moving to the A’s.

His success starts with his changeup, which FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen recently rated as a 70 on the 20–80 scouting scale; no other top-100 prospect received better than a 55 for the present value of his changeup. According to the PITCHf/x leaderboard, Cotton’s changeup was the most effective in the majors last year, as opposing hitters managed just one hit — a single — in 31 plate appearances ending in the pitch.

Cotton’s changeup is so tough to hit in part because of how it interacts with his four-seamer, which is already sitting in the 93-mph range in spring training. No other starter had as large a velocity difference between his fastball and changeup last season, and Cotton’s 12.5 percent swinging-strike rate across all pitches — meaning that one out of every eight swings against him resulted in a whiff — placed him in the Corey Kluber–Yu Darvish range. He performed well against top competition, too: In consecutive starts against Houston and Texas last September, he pitched 13 innings and allowed two runs on five hits, while striking out 11 and walking none.

If anything, Cotton has appeared on so many preseason sleeper lists that he might no longer qualify as one. The hype is real, but founded. Strikeout rates are one of the few spring training statistics that matter, and Cotton has 12 Ks in 11 innings this spring; he’ll enter the 2017 regular season with a full head of steam.

Andrew Triggs

Before last August, Triggs would have seemed a curious choice to start. In his minor league career, he started just once while relieving 167 times; with Oakland in 2016, he made only one short start while relieving 18 times before August 11. But on that date, he moved to the rotation, and the A’s discovered a hidden gem.

In six total starts last season, Triggs tallied 22 strikeouts and just one walk for a tidy 2.81 ERA. Sample-size caveats abound with any stat line of that volume, but they apply especially to Triggs: One of his starts lasted just one inning, and none lasted longer than six frames and 89 pitches.

The underlying numbers are tantalizing, though. Even discounting some unsustainable BABIP luck (.225 as a starter), Triggs fared well by fielding-independent metrics, with his 2.68 FIP ranking seventh and his 21.7 percent K-BB rate ranking ninth among pitchers with as many innings as a starter. The latter stat is a particularly compelling indicator, as the other arms in the top 10 were all aces: Clayton Kershaw, José Fernández, Max Scherzer, Yu Darvish, Noah Syndergaard, Stephen Strasburg, Rich Hill, Justin Verlander, and Madison Bumgarner.

Against Triggs’s pseudo-sidearm delivery, hitters simply didn’t know when to swing. PITCHf/x tracks how often batters offer at pitches both outside and inside the strike zone, and, among starters, only Aaron Nola had a smaller gap between those two rates. This means, as FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan wrote about Nola last year, that the pitcher “gets a good number of swings at would-be balls, but he also manages to avoid swings at strikes … [he] is up there just confusing all his opponents.”

Like with most three-quarters and sidearm pitchers, Triggs is liable to struggle against lefties, but not so much that he’s unplayable. A pitcher who limits walks and home runs is a valuable commodity, and Triggs has allowed just 12 home runs in 312.1 professional innings, for a career rate of 0.3 homers per nine. It’s hard to fault them for not realizing what they had at the time, but the Orioles might have lost another valuable pitcher from their system.

Sean Manaea

Manaea has the most prominent prospect pedigree of the trio. A first-round pick for the Royals in 2013, he was named to Baseball Prospectus’s top-100 prospect list twice before Kansas City traded him to Oakland, and then again with the A’s before the 2016 season. In his first exposure in the majors last year, he was a solid starter, posting a 3.86 ERA (versus an AL average of 4.21) in 144.2 innings.

Like his teammates, Manaea boasts impressive strikeout credentials, with an 11.8-percent swinging-strike rate last year placing him next to Justin Verlander and David Price near the top of the MLB leaderboard. Only a handful of pitchers induced more swings at pitches outside the strike zone — he’s right behind Syndergaard in that stat — and both his slider and changeup worked as effective complements to a fastball that features good speed for a lefty.

As Oakland hopes Manaea takes another step forward in 2017, his adjustments last year are encouraging. After running a 5.24 ERA in the first half, he cut that number in half after the All-Star break, to 2.67. An improved BABIP helped, but so did improvements from Manaea, who boosted his strikeouts, decreased his walks, and increased his ground ball rate in the second half. The next step for Manaea is to improve against right-handed hitters, after he allowed 17 of his 20 home runs and an OPS more than 200 points higher against opposite-side batters.

Unfortunately for Manaea and his rotation mates, the roster surrounding him could limit some of his personal gains. Behind the plate, Baseball Prospectus has rated Oakland as one of the worst pitch-framing teams in baseball for the last several years, as backstop Stephen Vogt handles the strike zone better on offense than defense. The A’s were also the majors’ worst-fielding team last year, and despite offloading the two worst offenders in trades (Danny Valencia and Crisp), FanGraphs still projects them to finish last this season. Free-agent bargain Matt Joyce should add pop and on-base skills on offense from right field, but he has never been confused with a Gold Glove candidate, and an infield of Trevor Plouffe, Jed Lowrie, and error-prone Marcus Semien will make defense look incredibly hard.

With ground ball pitchers populating the rotation — both Gray and Kendall Graveman, who led the staff in innings last year, rank among the top 10 starters in grounder rate since 2015 — the infield is of particular concern. But that disadvantage is what makes Cotton, Triggs, and Manaea such intriguing fits in Oakland: They throw strikes and can get through innings without allowing those pesky balls in play. The A’s might not be lost for much longer.