The Oakland A’s and Winning Without Good Starting Pitching

The Oakland Athletics starting pitchers have posted a 106 xFIP-, and accumulated 9.5 WAR, figures that are 23rd and 19th in the MLB, respectively. As the below table shows, pitching independent stats do not show much love for the Athletics starting pitchers, with their walk rate being the only number not around the bottom third of the league.

 Stat xFIP- K% BB% GB% WAR
 Number 106 17.8 6.7 38.8 9.5
Rank      T-23rd         21st         T-7th          30th       T-19th

However, the A’s starting pitchers fare better in terms of defense-dependent stats, and with the exception of Brett Anderson, they have managed to stay healthy.

 Number            97        0.273          73.7            9.7          12.0        862.2
Rank        T-7th            1st         T-6th            7th           8th            5th

Finally, to give you an idea of how pedestrian their staff has been (at least in terms of sabermetric numbers, more on that later), I prepared a table of the A’s starting pitchers this year.

Pitcher Innings xFIP- K% BB% BABIP LOB% HR/FB WAR Fbv
Bartolo Colon 164.1 104 13.0 3.8 0.297 77.8 5.8 3.0 89.7
Jarrod Parker 176.1 110 16.8 7.9 0.256 75.4 9.0 1.7 91.7
Dan Straily 134.1 110 19.4 8.5 0.271 71.2 9.2 1.4 90.4
Tommy Milone 143.0 109 17.7 6.1 0.283 71.7 11.1 1.0 87.1
A.J. Griffin 182.0 107 19.8 6.6 0.250 77.2 12.3 1.2 88.9
Sonny Gray 39.0 73 24.4 6.4 0.264 67.2 6.7 1.1 92.9
Brett Anderson 23.2 91 21.3 11.7 0.366 55.6 17.6 0.1 91.2

The Coliseum is the 8th-most difficult park in terms of hitting home runs, and the A’s fly ball rate of 42.0% leads the MLB (no other team gets a higher percentage of fly balls than groundballs). Gray has been excellent in the six starts he has made, with a 53.7 GB%. Other than Anderson and Gray, no A’s starting pitcher has a GB% above 42.3%. Put a team full of fly ball pitchers in a big ballpark with a good outfield defense, and you have a recipe for overachieving peripherals. This helps explain how the A’s starting pitchers have managed to put together a 3.79 ERA despite a 4.25 xFIP, easily the biggest positive gap of any team.

Except for newcomer Gray (18th overall in 2011), the A’s have not used high draft picks to get these pitchers. In fact, since 2003, the A’s have only selected four pitchers out of their nineteen first round picks. Colon was an inexpensive free-agent signing. Parker and Anderson were acquired in trades with the Diamondbacks where the A’s gave up Haren and Trevor Cahill after getting some solid years out of those arms. Milone, a former 10th-round pick, was acquired as part of the Gio Gonzalez trade. Straily was a 24th-round pick in 2009. Griffin was a 13th-round pick in 2010. If you click on the links, (or just keep reading) you will find out that one other player from those two rounds has reached the majors. (Keith Butler, who managed a 5.44 xFIP in 20 innings with the Cardinals this year). Most players drafted in those rounds are no longer playing affiliated baseball, not starting games for a playoff-bound team.

As the A’s starting pitchers are currently 23rd in the MLB in xFIP- and CoolStandings puts their playoff odds at 98 percent, I thought it would be interesting to see how many teams had made the playoffs with their starting pitchers possessing a cumulative xFIP- of 106 or worse. As xFIP- only goes back to 2002, the search was restricted to the 2002-2013 era.

The 2011 Diamondbacks finished 94-68, winning the NL West.  Diamondbacks starting pitchers posted a 107 xFIP, good for 25th in MLB. Thanks to some innings eaters, they tallied 12.0 WAR, 15th in the MLB. Like the A’s, the Diamondbacks had a staff of fly ball pitchers, as they posted the lowest groundball percentage in the league. Despite playing at cozy Chase Field, their HR/FB ratio was only 9.8%, due in part to their rotation getting the fourth-highest infield-fly rate. They also had the third-lowest walk rate in the MLB. Featuring an outfield of Chris Young, Gerardo Parra, and Justin Upton, the Diamondbacks led the MLB in UZR. The rotation featured excellent seasons from Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, with a side of Josh Collmenter. Nobody else reached +1 WAR. The Diamondbacks beat their Pythagorean record by +6 wins. Their 28-16 record in 1-run games was the best in the MLB.

Okay, so only one team has made the playoffs with an xFIP- of 106 or worse, and the 2011 Diamondbacks were knocked out in five games by the Brewers. So, to see if I could include some more teams, I expanded the search to include teams whose starting pitchers finished 23rd or worse in xFIP-.

The 2006 Mets won the NL East, going 97-65. Their starting rotation  featured a 104 xFIP-, which was 24th in the MLB. Like the A’s and Diamondbacks, this was a staff of flyball pitchers, which finished 28th in groundball percentage. Outfielders Carlos Beltran and Endy Chavez ran down many of those flyballs. Unlike the A’s and Diamondbacks, the 2006 Mets were heavy on strikeouts and walks. The staff finished 8th in strikeouts and 7th in walks. Overall, the starting rotation was 26th in WAR, with a 40-year-old Tom Glavine leading the team at +2.5, followed by 34 year-old Pedro Martinez and 36 year-old Orlando Hernandez at +2.0 and +1.7, respectively. Headed by Billy Wagner and Aaron Heilman, the Mets bullpen finished 2nd in WAR and xFIP, and 4th in innings. Mets hitters also finished 7th in wRC+. Furthermore, the Mets beat their Pythagorean record by +9 wins, going an MLB-best 31-16 in 1-run games.

The 2006 Oakland A’s won the AL west at 93-69 with a starting rotation that had a 104 xFIP, 23rd in the MLB. That staff featured strong years from Barry Zito and Dan Haren, who helped the A’s rotation throw the 4th most innings in the MLB, which allowed them to accumulate a more respectable 11.9 WAR, 17th in the MLB. Unlike this year’s version of the A’s, the 2006 staff was middle of the pack in groundball percentage. The bullpen featured contributions from a bevy of relievers, finishing 5th in relief WAR, despite throwing the 7th fewest innings. The hitters were patient but generally lacked power, as they finished 2nd in walk rate and 25th in ISO. An old Frank Thomas and a young Nick Swisher combined to hit over 40 percent of the team’s home runs. The fielding was solid but far from spectacular. Like the Diamondbacks and Mets, they beat their Pythagorean record by a substantial margin.  Their 32-22 record in 1-run games helped them finish with +8 wins.

And that’s it. No other team has made the playoffs since 2002 after having their starting pitchers finish 23rd or lower in xFIP-. To tally it up, that’s one team that has made the playoffs with a starting rotation that posted an xFIP- of 106 or worse, and only two more that made the playoffs while finishing 23rd or worse in xFIP-, one of those being the A’s. The A’s success this year isn’t quite unprecedented, but it’s close. Unlike the other teams mentioned, the A’s have played to their Pythagorean record. Rather than emphasizing velocity (A’s starters are 28th in fastball velocity) Billy Beane has sought out young strike throwers who can stay healthy (and Colon, an old strike thrower). By putting them in a big ballpark with good outfielders, the A’s have managed to make below-average starting pitchers look solid. Billy Beane and the A’s are finding a way to beat sabermetric pitching stats such as xFIP and FIP.  By drafting pitchers later and making the most out of less than electric arms they have managed to insure themselves against the risks associated with young pitchers.

Chris Moran is a second-year law student, former college baseball player and assistant baseball coach at Washington University in St. Louis. He writes for Beyond the Box Score, Prospect Insider, DRaysBay, and sometimes other sites as well. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves

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