Starting Pitching is a Bright Spot in a Slow Start for the Oakland Athletics

When you win 97 games and make the playoffs, you don’t expect to come out of the gate the ensuing season in third place in your division, let alone 25-25. Without a doubt, it’s a highly disappointing start for a supposed team on the rise. With that said, the Oakland Athletics’ lowly start to 2019 has seen some unexpected starters shine.

Collectively, the A’s starting rotation is in the middle of the pack right now, but that’s a result of some pitchers having epic lows and others performing at a high level. Put together some heroic and nightmare outings, and you get mediocre production. Plus, the departures of Trevor Cahill and Edwin Jackson, as well as the shoulder injury to Sean Manaea did the A’s pitching staff no favors.

Frankie Montas, who has spent time in both the starting rotation and bullpen in his two and a half years with the A’s, has thrived as a full-time starter this season. In 10 starts, Montas has recorded a 2.40 ERA, is pitching deep into games (Montas is averaging six innings a start), and hasn’t surrendered over three earned runs in a start. In doing so, he continues to rely on his fastball, which clocks out in the high 90s, and slider, but has incorporated a split-fingered fastball into his arsenal.

Montas has already totaled a career-high in strikeouts (61) in fewer innings than he pitched last season (60:65). The right-hander is healthy, pitching with confidence, working out of trouble, and is the A’s best starting pitcher — though he’s not the only pitcher finding success.

The Oakland @Athletics have had a disappointing start to the 2019 season, but their impressive starting pitching is giving them a reason to be optimistic.Click To Tweet

Injuries and inconsistency have always plagued Chris Bassitt‘s career, but in the six starts he has made this season, the right-hander is showing what’s he’s capable of. He currently owns a 2.48 ERA and 1.07 WHIP while totaling 44 strikeouts in 36.1 innings. He’s providing length, keeping runners off base, and filling a void. All four of his pitches (fastball, slider, curveball, changeup) have been effective.

Now, home runs have been a serious issue, as Bassitt has surrendered seven thus far. He will need to limit the long balls, by means of being more decisive with his pitch selection, but him finding sustained success is extremely encouraging for the A’s. Meanwhile, in the two starts he has made this season, Daniel Mengden, who has been expected to become a fixture in the team’s starting rotation, owns a 3.65 ERA. Time will tell whether he can stick around.

Granted he has performed nowhere near the likes of Montas or Bassitt, left-hander Brett Anderson has been able to maneuver his way out of trouble and owns a respectable 4.14 ERA. The issue with the A’s rotation is Mike Fiers and, before he suffered a back injury, Marco Estrada.

The A’s acquired Fiers last season to add depth to their pitching staff, as they were chasing a playoff spot, and it payed dividends. He became one of their most reliable pitchers and re-upped in Oakland on a two-year, $14 million deal in the offseason. However, this season he hasn’t thrown like the right-hander they acquired and re-signed him to be.

Fiers owns a 5.05 ERA and has surrendered 10 home runs in the 11 starts he has made. At the same time, he has pitched much better in May. He owns a 2.52 ERA in the month and threw a no-hitter at the Oakland Coliseum against the Cincinnati Reds on May 7. On the other hand, it’s difficult to find positives with Estrada.

In the five starts he made before hitting the injured list, the 35-year-old recorded a 6.85 ERA, surrendered seven home runs, and never pitched past six innings. Beforehand, Estrada severely struggled from 2017-18 with the Toronto Blue Jays, whether it be getting into a rhythm, or simply getting batters out. But continued success from Montas and Bassitt, as well as a reliable Fiers would offset the veteran’s continued struggles.

Last season the A’s had a two-headed identity: their balanced lineup and deep bullpen. Matt Chapman and Matt Olson were one of the best corner infield duos in Major League Baseball, both at the plate and in the field; Jed Lowrie, Khris Davis, and Stephen Piscotty had monster years at the plate; Marcus Semien was his steady-hitting self; while they lost Lowrie to free agency, the A’s pulled off a trade with the division rival Texas Rangers for the versatile Jurickson Profar. The problem is the A’s have been an inconsistent bunch this season.

They’re driving in runs, but few players, if any, are getting on base at the same rate they did in 2018. Chapman is hitting .259; Piscotty is hitting .253; Olson missed a large chunk of time due to a hand injury and is hitting just .254 since his return; Ramon Laureano, who has taken the bulk of the center field reps, is hitting .230; Mark Canha is hitting .224; Profar is hitting .199. Josh Phegley, who took over for Jonathan Lucroy behind the plate after his free-agent departure to the Los Angeles Angels, has been arguably the A’s most dangerous hitter, as he has totaled five home runs and 28 RBIs while hitting a team-best .281; premier designated hitter Khris Davis was recently placed on the injured list.

When it comes to manager Bob Melvin‘s bullpen, the bulk of their core remains intact and is firing on all cylinders. Blake Treinen, Lou Trivino, Liam Hendriks, Yusmeiro Petit, and, while he has been shaky this season, Joakim Soria form a potent bullpen.

If the A’s bats produce at a higher level, they have a real chance at being a Wild Card team in the American League. Now, that would involve them rapidly breaking out at the plate, but the Tampa Bay Rays have gone off course a bit over the last couple of weeks, and the Boston Red Sox are yet to gain consciousness from their World Series hangover. Simultaneously, the Cleveland Indians, who the A’s just swept in a three-game series at Progressive Field, have been inconsistent and are a slightly above-average ballclub.

It’s going to be an uphill climb for the A’s, but their starting pitching gives them reason to believe. Isn’t that what this organization is built on?

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