There’s nothing quite like watching a great starting pitcher at work. Across all three dimensions, he controls the action, without stopping for hours and hours on end. The starting pitcher affects the action more than any other athlete.
At the same time, the price of watching an exciting starting pitcher is the knowledge, somewhere, in the back of your mind, that any pitch could be the one that sends him to the disabled list for some undefined period of time, anywhere from 12 months to Until The Rapture. On some level, this is appropriate, since baseball is a sport built on failure and slathered with layers of weird, ancient norms and mythology. But it also just sucks sometimes, as we learned two weeks ago when Mariners left-hander James Paxton took the mound, threw 17 pitches, recorded two outs, allowed three runs, and left the game accompanied by the team’s trainer.
This sort of thing happens frequently enough that we know the rhythms—within 24 hours after the injury, the team announces that the pitcher had “forearm stiffness” or “elbow discomfort” and sends him out for scans. Within the next few days, it’s off to Dr. James Andrews or Dr. Neal ElAttrache (this happens so often we now know the surgeons are themselves minor sports celebrities) for a second opinion, then Tommy John surgery, then 12 to 18 months of recovery.
Fortunately for Paxton, the injury was not to his arm, but to his back, and he’ll likely return next week, rather than sometime in 2020. It’s a little macabre to be happy that a pitcher who didn’t find his stride until his late 20s, in large part because of injuries, would miss three weeks with a stiff back, but all things are relative. That fear-of-God moment with Paxton also led to another curious emotional response: I was angry that he got hurt.
I like watching Paxton, but he doesn’t give me the visceral thrill the young Yu Darvish or the young José Fernández did, so my anger wasn’t about not getting to watch him anymore. And while it’d be nice if the Mariners broke their 17-year playoff drought, the team most likely to catch Seattle—the Oakland A’s—is fun to write about, too. Plus, Seattle’s been absent from the playoffs for so long now it’s kind of funny to neutral observers when the streak to continues.
Rather, Paxton’s back injury led me to realize the extent to which the entire entertainment value of a playoff race could hinge on one player. The National League is a flurry of good but flawed teams locked in a rat king of playoff scenarios so complex they can’t help but be dramatic in the season’s final months. If the Phillies or Braves run away with the NL East, that only makes the wild-card race more exciting, while if the Rockies or Giants fall out of the wild-card race, it’ll still be a furious multiteam sprint to the finish. No one team’s absence could make it boring, let alone one player.
Not so the American League, where four teams—the Astros, Yankees, Red Sox, and Indians—are so far out in front they could all come down with mono and still make the playoffs. Even the one unanswered question, which of the Yankees or Red Sox would win the AL East, has developed an obvious answer over the past week as Boston’s pulled away in the standings. That leaves one playoff spot up for grabs, and two teams, Seattle and Oakland, left to contest it.
It’s tough to overstate how thin the margins in the AL wild-card race are right now. Seattle leads Oakland by a single game for the second wild card. The first wild-card spot belongs to the Yankees, 4.5 games up on Seattle, with the AL West–leading Astros another game and a half ahead. The closest team to Oakland is Tampa Bay, 7.5 games adrift of the A’s and 8.5 games back of Seattle. It’s possible, but incredibly unlikely, that both or neither of these teams will make the playoffs. They are in all likelihood fighting against each other for one berth.
And it’s an incredibly close fight. Baseball Prospectus has the A’s as slight favorites, while FanGraphs favors Seattle, though neither site projects either team as even a 60-40 favorite. This is essentially a coin flip. Each team’s chances rest disproportionately on the health and effectiveness of one gigantic left-handed pitcher: Paxton for Seattle and Sean Manaea for Oakland.
Paxton isn’t Seattle’s only good starting pitcher, but he’s the one who inspires the most confidence by far. His average fastball velocity, 96.1 miles per hour, is tops among Mariners starters by 5 miles an hour. He’s striking out 32.2 percent of the batters he faces, while Marco Gonzales is the only other Mariners starter at more than 20 percent.
Mariners starters, on the whole, have been about league-average: 12th in K-BB%, 14th in ERA- with an even 100, 15th in Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Average. But as well as they’ve pitched this year, there’s no guarantee that the non-Paxton soft-tossers won’t drop off a cliff. Their own recent track records are shaky: Gonzales and Mike Leake were castoffs from the Cardinals’ rotation a year ago, and the 33-year-old Wade LeBlanc is pitching effectively in a big league rotation basically for the first time ever. And while we’re going to have a serious Hall of Fame discussion about Félix Hernández, it won’t be because of anything he’s done since 2015.
Strikeouts and fastball velocity aren’t the only ways to be effective, but they also give pitchers like Paxton room for error against tough competition. If LeBlanc can’t locate, his starts turn into a night at Topgolf, while a pitcher with Paxton’s stuff can still just blow hitters away if he’s struggling with his command. The more looks opposing teams have at finesse pitchers over the course of a season, the more likely it is that they turn back into a pumpkin at the worst possible time. Kyle Hendricks, Dallas Keuchel, Gio González, and Rich Hill have all had their ups and downs over the past couple postseasons.
Since Paxton’s injury, the Mariners are 3-6, and their playoff odds, according to Baseball Prospectus, have dropped from 74.8 percent on July 11 to 40.4 percent on July 26. And that’s despite the All-Star break falling within their losing streak, not only reducing the number of starts Paxton missed but allowing the Mariners to start LeBlanc twice over a three-game stretch rather than leaning on replacement-level arms like Roenis Elias even more than they’ve had to in the week since the break. Paxton can’t come back a moment too soon.
However, things are even more precarious in Oakland, because they don’t even have a Paxton-type pitcher. Oakland’s best starter, Manaea, fits the same kind of finesse left-hander profile as Gonzales and LeBlanc. And past that, there’s not much depth.
BP’s ERA estimator, DRA, has Paxton 13th out of the 148 pitchers who have thrown at least 60 innings this year. But even though Gonzalez and LeBlanc don’t throw that hard or strike that many guys out, they’re doing enough other things well to end up 24th and 32nd on the list. Manaea is 51st in DRA. The only other Athletics starters to even throw 60 innings this year are Trevor Cahill (18th, in only 63.0 innings pitched) and the aggressively mustachioed Daniel Mengden (117th).
Manaea has been the one constant in Oakland’s rotation. He’s made a team-high 21 starts and thrown 130 1/3 innings, and apart from Mengden, who’s currently in the minor leagues, no other two Oakland pitchers put together have made 21 starts or thrown 130 innings. Manaea’s 16.9 percent strikeout rate is 70th out of 78 qualified starters, but he has the sixth-lowest walk rate. He’s outperforming his peripherals a little, even taking into account generating weak contact and other things FIP (Manaea’s FIP is 4.34) doesn’t measure, but the fact that he’s thrown 130 1/3 above-average innings makes him incredibly valuable to a team that’s had to improvise its rotation almost completely this year.
After Manaea and Mengden, the Athletics pitcher who’s thrown the most innings has been middle reliever Yusmeiro Petit. Then it’s Cahill and Frankie Montas, both of whom were also deployed as middle relievers a year ago.
Cahill was a good starting pitcher for Oakland nearly a decade ago, but after a series of trades and long periods of ineffectiveness, he reinvented himself as a setup man with a hard sinker, most notably for the Cubs in 2015 and 2016. He returned to the rotation last year with the Padres and Royals, with mixed results at best, but this year, he’s throwing harder than he ever had before as a starter, and he’s using his slider more than ever. Cahill’s DRA is 2.78. You don’t want to head into the playoffs with a no. 2 starter who’s made 11 good starts since 2013, but at least there’s some reason to believe Cahill, who’s somehow only 30 years old, can keep this up.
This is in contrast to Montas, who has a 3.54 ERA and a 3.73 FIP, but a DRA of 6.03. Beyond that, who knows? The team’s leader in strikeout rate, Andrew Triggs, is out until at least mid-August with strained triceps, while Jharel Cotton and his screwball-change-up hybrid are out of action for the year after Tommy John surgery. The team’s putative ace, Kendall Graveman, posted a 7.60 ERA in seven starts, hasn’t pitched at any level since May, and will soon undergo Tommy John surgery himself. After that, Oakland’s trotted out a mixture of anonymous quad-A innings-eaters (Daniel Gossett, Chris Bassitt) and guys you probably thought had been retired for years (Edwin Jackson, Brett Anderson).
Paxton is valuable to Seattle because he’s the only pitcher with exceptional stuff in a rotation of guys who are getting by on guile. Manaea is valuable to Oakland because he’s getting by on guile in a rotation of guys who might be out of baseball in a year or two.
So how is Oakland gaining on Seattle so rapidly?
Well, there might not be an easier place to pitch than Oakland. Most current MLB ballparks were designed to get the fans as close to the action as possible, while the Coliseum was designed to fit a football field inside the field of play. That means that when A’s pitchers give up contact—which is often, because Oakland’s starters have the collective third-lowest strikeout rate in baseball—they’re pitching into a ballpark the size of Wyoming, with expansive foul ground. And Oakland’s defense is pretty good, too—it turns balls in play into outs at the second-highest rate in baseball.
But the non-starting-pitcher parts of Oakland’s team are doing most of the heavy lifting. The Athletics have devoted more innings to their bullpen than all but two other AL teams: the Rays, who don’t have a starting rotation at all in the traditional sense, and the Angels. And what a bullpen Oakland has: Petit and closer Blake Treinen (1.02 ERA) are second and 10th among individual relievers in innings pitched, and rookie Lou Trivino (312 ERA+ in 48 ⅓ innings over 40 appearances) and new acquisition Jeurys Familia pick up some of the rest of the slack.
Finally, Oakland’s offense, despite playing in the aforementioned gigantic Coliseum, has hit the joint-second-most home runs in baseball, and has the fourth-highest OPS+ in the game, trailing only the Astros, Yankees, and Red Sox. In short, manager Bob Melvin can send a replacement-level pitcher out there and tell him that as long as he doesn’t walk every third batter, he’ll probably be OK thanks to the offense, ballpark, and bullpen.
Except, if something happened to Manaea, Melvin would have to do that almost literally every game, and that’s just not sustainable, even over two months. The A’s are on a hot streak right now, and they’re constructed differently from the Mariners, but their presence in the thick of the AL pennant race is just as much a tightrope act. Other teams could lose their best pitcher and still make it to October, but an extended absence for either Paxton or Manaea would probably spell the end of the American League pennant race altogether.