Note: This is the 13th article in a multi-part series assessing the Oakland A’s 2010 season. Read the 12th installment here.
There’s little to explore about the Oakland Athletics starting pitching in 2010 that hasn’t been noted already.
They led the major leagues in starters’ ERA (3.47) and paced the A’s to the best staff ERA in the American League. Other highlights include posting the most quality starts of any staff in the majors (103), while also throwing more complete games than the San Francisco Giants vaunted starters.
If it wasn’t for the lack of offensive support, the A’s might have won more than 81 games with this kind of starting pitching. And to think, as well, there is plenty of room for improvement from this starting staff is an encouraging thought for 2011.
Trevor Cahill probably can’t replicate his stellar season (18-8, 2.97 ERA), as he still walks too many batters (63 in 196 2/3 innings) and doesn’t strike out enough hitters (only 118). But his improvement from 2009 was astounding in terms of hits allowed — some of that may have been luck, however. Only time will tell.
Gio Gonzalez made progress, too, and chances are he’ll keep improving. With a 15-9 record to go with a 3.23 ERA, the lefty finally turned the corner — and the sky is the limit. His walks are still too plentiful as well, however: walking 92 batters in 200 2/3 innings is way too many. Gonzalez also needs to focus on avoiding those big innings where the opposing batters light him up.
Brett Anderson probably is the best of these three young hurlers, but injuries derailed his 2010 season. Still, he posted a 7-6 record and a 2.80 ERA in only 19 starts. Fighting through the rust frequently, his location wasn’t very good at times, so he’ll have to cut down on his hits-per-nine mark to keep moving forward.
With this core in place, the A’s starting staff should be very good for the next few years, perhaps almost as good as the Big Three from ten years ago turned out to be. These new three were pretty good in 2010, and they’re only going to get better as they mature.
Beyond this trio, however, 2010 was an interesting proposition for Oakland’s starting pitching. It says a lot about the young arms that they were able to provide the basis for the strong overall staff performance.
Perhaps the biggest story of the year for the A’s starters was Dallas Braden and his perfect game on Mother’s Day. It certainly dominated the headlines for awhile, and it gave Oakland some much-needed and -deserved attention for its accomplishments. Braden had an up-and-down season, for sure, but he was a solid contributor to the league-leading numbers above.
Although he posted a 3.50 ERA overall, Braden suffered from a lot of offensive absenteeism, going only 11-14 in the win-loss column. In fact, for several starts after the perfect game, his teammates just couldn’t score runs for him — notching just a few runs over Braden’s next 30+ innings on the mound. It was almost two months before he won another game after the perfecto.
With the young guns firing and Braden’s veteran influence stabilizing, there wasn’t much left to choose from for the Oakland organization in 2010. Injuries and ineffectiveness took their toll in the remaining 50 games started by pitchers other than Cahill, Gonzalez, Anderson and Braden.
To wit, former two-time All-Star Justin Duchscherer managed only five starts before being shut down for the year. After missing all of 2009, he pitched well enough in those few starts (2-1, 2.89) — but he was done by the end of April. Ben Sheets also missed all of 2009 with injuries, and he grinded out 20 starts of his own before being shut down. His 4-9 record (with a 4.53 ERA) was damaged by a few horrible starts, yet he never really seemed to get in a groove while working his way back into form.
The two injured veterans combined for 25 starts and almost $12M in salary — a lot of dough for so little production, although they weren’t horrible pitchers when they were healthy enough to play.
The bulk of the remaining 25 starts for the team were taken by the now-departed Vin Mazzaro, who started 18 games with mixed success. Sometimes, Mazzaro looked very lucky with his junkballing — and other times, he looked very bad. That inconsistency resulted in a 6-8 record with a 4.27 ERA — solid numbers, but not enough for the team to keep him around for 2011.
So any outside observer can see that even the A’s “bad” starters were still somewhat average at worst — and that’s why they led the majors in starters’ ERA, posting better numbers than the more-famous staffs in cities like New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
One major flaw for the A’s starters, overall, is the lack of strikeouts. The staff as a whole finished 21st in the majors in strikeouts, which means they rely a lot on control and placement. And when the control isn’t there (see Cahill and Gonzalez above), it creates problems.
While the World Series champs across the Bay led the majors with 1331 strikeouts overall, Oakland’s entire staff registered only 1070 strikeouts. Putting those extra balls in play creates more chances for opposing offenses, even if the A’s fielded a solid defense for most of the season.
The numbers are worse when just the starters’ strikeouts are isolated: 24th in the majors for the A’s starting staff, meaning that majors-best ERA could be an illusion if Oakland’s starters can’t learn to miss the bats the old-fashioned way more often.