Continuing from our season preview of the Athletics earlier today…
Will the A's pitching staff be able to replicate their awesome 2012?
In 2012, the A's pitching staff had a 3.50 ERA, the sixth best mark in baseball and second best mark in the American League. Four of their five starting pitchers (with Brandon McCarthy being the lone exception) return, and five of their top six relievers from 2012 also return (with Jim Miller as the exception). But yet, there seems to be some apprehension that Oakland's pitching staff will be able to be as good as they were in 2012. Is that a justified concern?
Oakland's 2012 rotation consists of Brett Anderson, Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone, AJ Griffin, and Dan Straily, with one of those five (presumably Straily) losing their job when Bartolo Colon's PED suspension ends. Of those five, the only one who wasn't a rookie in 2012 was Anderson, who made just six starts as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. So obviously when looking at rookies, there's reason to be apprehensive about repeating an excellent performance during their sophomore season. But here's the thing: aside from Straily, none of the pitchers vastly outperformed their peripherals. The three rookies all kept their FIP (as well as their ERA) under 4.00 for the season, and Griffin's gap of 0.79 was the largest of the trio.
Straily is a different case, due to his relatively small sample size of seven starts in the majors. Despite a 3.89 ERA, his FIP was 6.48, due in part to an absurd homer rate of 2.25. Homers were clearly an issue for Straily, but they never had been at any point during his minor league career, and the O.co Coliseum is such a fantastic pitchers park that keeping his homer total that high over the course of a full season would be nearly impossible.
While the A's do lose McCarthy from the rotation, they make up for it by gaining Anderson, who is a much better pitcher at the end of the day. While health has always been an issue for Anderson, it's been just as much of an issue for McCarthy, so at worst it's a lateral move. Considering how great Anderson looked in his return to the Oakland rotation, it's not a stretch to think he'll outperform every other member of Oakland's rotation.
The bullpen is the key question though, if only because of the erratic nature of relief pitchers. Hell, the only returning A's reliever to outperform his peripherals was Sean Doolittle, who had a FIP nearly a run lower than his ERA. Ryan Cook, Jordan Norberto, and Jerry Blevins benefited from strand rates north of 80% and extremely low BABIPs, while Grant Balfour's BABIP was ridiculously low. Even Pat Neshek, the righty specialist, had an unreal year thanks to a 100% strand rate and a .137 BABIP.
I have little doubt that the A's rotation will continue to be one of the best in the American League in 2013. But the bullpen is a completely different story, and there is a lot of room for things to go wrong there. While Oakland's 2.94 relief ERA was fourth best in baseball, their 3.74 FIP was tied for 15th, and their 4.20 xFIP was fourth worst in the majors. There's a lot that can go wrong with that crew, and if Oakland's pitching regresses in 2013, you can be relatively confident that the regression will be on the bullpen.