2011 season preview -- starting pitchers

By Jason Wojciechowski on April 2, 2011 at 3:30 PM

I promised you a season preview for the pitchers to match the hitters preview I posted earlier in the week. We're in the third day of the season, and the A's have already played one game, but that kind of thing has never stopped me before.

I am, however, not going to actually discuss the entire pitching staff. You'll call this laziness and I'll explain myself in a second, but you'll still be right. My reasoning: trying to say anything about a relief pitching staff is foolhardy. They get hurt, they blow up, roles change, weird things happen. Andrew Bailey is already on the DL for the A's. Rich Harden could pitch out of the pen. Bobby Cramer could leave the pen to start. Tyson Ross, nominally a starter in AAA, could end up pitching in relief. Let me just sum up how I feel about the A's pen as a whole: I like it. They miss bats, they can match up, and they run a legit six deep.

On, then, to the important pitchers: the starters.

Trevor Cahill started "Opening Day"1 for the A's and looked more like Rich Harden than the Cahill we all know: 100+ pitches in just 4 2/3 innings, eight strikeouts, four walks, one run allowed. Everyone and their mother wrote profiles of Cahill this off-season, focusing on whether he'd be able to maintain his BABIP magic, whether he'd go back to his minor-league strikeout ways, and generally trying to make predictions about where on the starting pitcher scale he falls. I will venture no guesses myself, because I have no special insight. I'm not sure anyone does. I am willing to say that he'll be fine as long as he keeps inducing grounders into the teeth of the A's excellent infield, though.

Brett Anderson is the guy that Keith Law thinks has the most upside in the A's rotation, and I agree with him. He brings more velocity than you realize from the left side, shows very good control, can miss bats, and keeps the ball on the ground. He turned 23 this off-season. What else is there to ask?

The answer to that is easy, actually: you can ask for health. Anderson had two different stints on the DL last year with trouble in his pitching elbow, limiting him to just 112 innings. I can't find a record of any injury in 2008, but he only threw 105 innings that year in the minors. It's possible the A's were simply conservative with him. He also suffered a concussion in 2007 that "effectively ended his season"2 in July. If Anderson can pitch basically a full season, he should be a four-win player with some ease.

Gio Gonzalez was the story of the rotation last year, supposedly harnessing his ample talents en route to a 3.23 ERA and fifteen wins. My initial reaction is skepticism. While Gonzalez cut his walk rate by a full man (5.11 to 4.13) compared to 2010, he also dropped his strikeouts from nearly 10 per nine to "just" 7.67.3 His BABIP also fell from .360 to .274, and his HR/FB from 13.9% to 7.4%.4

Here's the thing, though -- if Gio's BABIP fell by almost 100 points with no other changes, we should be skeptical. But that's not the case. Nor is it the case that his HR/FB fell by itself. Instead, his entire statistical profile changed -- way fewer strikeouts, way fewer walks, way fewer homers, and way fewer hits on balls in play. Also, his ground ball rate crept up to nearly 50%, compared to 46% the year before. His pitch profile, according to the PitchF/X aggregate stats on Fangraphs, did not change, however: 62% fastballs at 92 mph; 30% curves at 78 mph, and some changeups making up the rest. Batters didn't swing any more often than they had in the past, and he didn't throw first pitches any more often.

What does this all mean? I have no goddamn idea. Any outsider prediction of what Gonzalez is going to be this year is just guesswork, much less how good he'll be.

Dallas Braden is, unfortunately, a polarizing figure because of The A-Rod Incident last year. If not that for that outburst, who wouldn't love the guy? He threw a perfect game as a soft-tossing lefty with a great changeup and little else, his back-story is compelling, and he's generally that sort of moxie-and-scrap white guy everyone likes.5

Either way, Braden is perfectly suited to this team -- he's a fly-ball pitcher in a park where homers go to die, and he's a low-whiff pitcher on a team of fleet-footed, sure-armed defenders. He's dropped his walk rate all the way down to just two batters per nine, low enough that even with his mediocre strikeout rate, his FIPs clock in around the 3.7, 3.8 range. He's an above-average pitcher, and as such, is a real bonus in the fourth starter spot.

Brandon McCarthy is pretty unknown to me. He's got the best Twitter account around, he's really tall, and he's already pitched in parts of five different seasons in the major leagues. He probably won't stay healthy, but ZiPS has him down for a 4.49 FIP for as long as he's on the field, which sounds fine to me.

Tyson Ross is probably the next guy up, assuming Rich Harden is never healthy again, and that's also fine. ZiPS pegs him for a 4.75 FIP, which also sounds about right. A's fans seem to love the guy beyond all reason. His stuff good, but he generally seems to have no idea where the ball is going on any given pitch. He seems to pitch the way I did in Little League -- you don't call a side of the plate or high or low, you just call fastball or slider and he throws it, hoping and praying something good happens.

  1. Baseball's split Opening Day is weird, and I'm not sure I see the point. Do the TV partners demand it? It just makes the terminology entirely weird -- what do we call all those first games on Friday when there were a handful of games on Thursday? Gotta admit, though, I think it's better than that silly "one game on Opening Day" thing I remember them doing a few years ago. 

  2. Baseball America 2009 at 322. 

  3. "Just" because while he fell from his Lincecumian heights, he still wound up with a better rate than noted moundsmen CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke, Phil Hughes, and Matt Garza. We won't talk about Gonzalez's walk rate compared to those guys, though. 

  4. All stats, of course, from his Fangraphs page. 

  5. The role of race in the perceptions of Braden are an interesting topic that I won't get deeply into now, and probably won't ever. Suffice it to say that I thought there was more skepticism of his proud shout-outs to The 208 and discussion of the life people lead there than there is for other ballplayers. (It's also possible, though, that it's not a race issue but a location one -- nobody's ever heard of Stockton, so they don't realize exactly what's going on in that city and that region in general. Many people have a conception of urban-and-rural poverty that doesn't apply to the west. Stockton's insane crime, poverty, education, and obesity rates belie the idea the the very poor/miserable live either in the South Bronx or the Ozarks.)