August 31, 2012
Four of a Kind: Oakland's Aces
The success of the A's has been spearheaded by exceptional pitching throughout their tenure in Oakland, from the 1970s green machine led by Vida Blue and Catfish Hunter, to the Stew-and-Eck teams of the '80s-'90s, and perhaps most famously with last decade's Big Three of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder. The current A's might lack a traditional “ace” in their rotation, but the same staff that suffered the losses of Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill over the offseason now finds itself in a familiar position near the top of the run-prevention ranks, while the recent return of Brett Anderson from the disabled list has offered a brief glimpse of ace potential.
The current starters on the roster were not exactly trendy fantasy picks in March, and the pitchers who have logged most of the innings for Oakland this year have learned to survive on location and movement more than raw velocity. Yet the pitching staff has allowed the second-fewest runs per game in the American League, trailing only Tampa Bay’s. Four pitchers have tallied 100 or more innings for Oakland thus far in 2012, and though I hope that the readers will pardon the exclusion of the recently suspended Bartolo Colon, the other rotation-mates share some striking mechanical similarities.
(All stats through 8/29/12)
Milone came to the A's in the trade that sent Gonzalez to the Nationals, though he was the less-heralded prize in a deal that also brought right-handers A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock, and catcher Derek Norris to the Oakland organization. The rookie has exceeded expectations this year, boasting a respectable ERA while leading the staff in innings. He owes his success to a shrunken walk rate among otherwise league-average rate stats, traits that conspire to keep him hidden under the media radar. His fastball also fails to light up radar guns, with velocity parked under the 90-mph level. Milone uses the fastball and a cutter to set up a heavy change-up, with movement on el cambio that is more impressive than the change of speed. Milone tosses an occasional curve, but his best weapon is exceptional command of the fastball-changeup combination.
Mechanics Report Card
The first thing that jumps out is Milone's extremely closed stride, a technique that is preferred by LOOGYs everywhere, though the practice is discouraged for starting pitchers. The impetus for such a technique is understandable, as a low-velo lefty will be trained in the art of deception in order to survive in the majors. The downside to such a closed stride is that it can create a barrier to pitch command, as the extreme angle will often make it difficult for a lefty to run the ball inside to right-handed batters. However, Milone has demonstrated no ill effects from the closed stride, thanks in part to the natural cut on his fastball that can find the inner half of the zone without the need for over-rotation.
Milone is low on torque due to the closed hip-angle and the timing of trunk rotation after foot strike, a combination that limits his potential velocity ceiling. He lives on the edges of the strike zone, and his exceptional ability to repeat his delivery is the main reason that he’s staying afloat in the big leagues. Milone maintains his consistency from the stretch, with a leg lift and timing-sequence that is nearly the same as his wind-up, allowing him to avoid the pitfalls of learning multiple timing patterns. The distinction between command and control is crucial for a pitcher like Milone, as 89-mph fastballs that miss over the plate will get hammered in the show, while his incessant painting of the corners puts home-plate umpires to the test.
Parker was also acquired this winter, arriving via the Diamondbacks in the trade that sent Cahill and Craig Breslow to Phoenix. The right-handed Parker has the most impressive pedigree of the pitchers on the A's staff, as a former first-rounder who was chosen with the ninth overall pick in the 2007 draft, and his ceiling remains higher than those of his rotation-mates despite a Tommy John surgery in his past. Parker mixes four pitches within two velocity ranges, with a fastball-sinker combination that averages 92-93 mph and a slider-change-up combo confined to the low 80s. The strategy of throwing two pitches with similar speed but disparate movement can create a lot of weakly-hit balls, as batters correctly guess the timing yet just miss on the location. He has induced a high rate of grounders while allowing few homers, a combination that helps to offset a worse-than-average walk rate that is an anomaly in the Oakland pitching rotation.
Mechanics Report Card
Parker has the classic “easy” delivery that invokes scout-speak accolades such as “smooth” and “effortless,” and though I agree with the description, awarding him average-to-plus grades across the board, his mechanical profile also lacks an elite tool. Parker directs his energy with an early move toward the plate, though his use of a “drop-and-drive” technique lowers his center-of-mass to disrupt balance that is otherwise above average. He has a letter-high leg kick with good momentum that fuels a strong stride. Although the whole package is both effective and efficient, there is also room for growth for the 23-year-old.
The one trace of “violence” is his use of spine-flexion into release point, which adds a forward head-jerk to go along with his spine tilt at release point, though the use of flexion does not necessarily increase his injury risk. Parker utilizes an extra delay before firing the shoulders, allowing his hips to open and increasing torque to reap benefits on the radar gun. Parker avoids the slide step from the stretch, though he does lower his leg lift with men on base to hasten the delivery, which causes issues with timing and consistency. The need for a quick motion is lessened by his excellent pick-off move, with rapid footwork and a quick throw to the bag.
Joining the patchwork rotation of hired hands is McCarthy, the former Ranger prospect whose early career was riddled with injury. The 101 innings that he pitched in 2007 were his high-water mark before he joined the A's in 2011, but McCarthy stayed on the mound for 173 innings last year while more than tripling his previous high in WARP. Shoulder woes put McCarthy on the shelf for two months this summer, but he has already hit the 100-inning mark for just the third time in his career and is now back in the rotation for the stretch run. McCarthy has ditched the four-seam fastball that dominated his arsenal early in his career, and he now throws a heavy dose of sinkers and cutters in the low 90s. The right-hander will toss his breaking ball as a change of pace, but his ability to manipulate the movement on his hard stuff is what prevents batters from squaring up on the ball, an effort that is led by his money pitch, sinker with devastating arm-side run.
Mechanics Report Card
McCarthy's report card is eerily similar to that of Parker, with one glaring exception at the bottom of the list. Like Parker, McCarthy combines plus momentum with a big leg lift to increase his release distance and maximize his pitch effectiveness. McCarthy takes advantage of a straight-line stride to carve an efficient route to the plate, though his drop-and-drive dings the grade for balance. The motion is quick and efficient, with aggressive movements and momentum that finishes with his energy flowing toward the target.
Once a detriment, McCarthy's posture has improved to become a point of pride. The only knock against him is late hip rotation that limits his maximum torque, though the right-hander's extra load with the shoulders contributes to plus arm-speed overall. Repetition is the most crucial grade on the report card, and once again McCarthy comes out ahead of the curve, while the overall grades for the A's pitchers reflect an organizational appreciation for timing and the kinetic chain. McCarthy is another Athletic pitcher who eschews the slide step in favor of a lowered leg lift, preserving a similar timing pattern that requires less of an adjustment from the windup.
Rookie Dan Straily is a shining example of the pitching methodology of the Athletics. Whereas the other hurlers were brought in from outside the organization, Straily was selected by the A's in the 24th round of the 2009 draft, and his rapid ascension has been rooted in the philosophies of the Oakland coaching staff. He was essentially a non-prospect entering the year, but he exploded onto the Double-A scene in April and never looked back. He earned his call-up to the big leagues with 181 strikeouts in 146 innings across two minor-league levels, and though he was sent back down to make room for Anderson, Straily flashed signs of brilliance with two very quality starts sandwiched around one disaster among his three turns on the hill.
Mechanics Report Card
Straily follows the path set forth by his predecessors, with a simple motion that is efficient as well as repeatable, yet his overall mechanical GPA actually surpasses that of the veterans. His momentum is direct and deliberate, leading with the hip into maximum lift before shifting into foot strike. The kinetic energy reaches another level once the rotational elements kick into gear, as a heavy delay precipitates excellent arm speed, followed by some head movement as the arm comes through the hitter's visual window. Incredible balance leads to plus posture, and the extra flexion that he invokes near pitch-release gives the faulty impression of exaggerated spine tilt.
The right-hander contains his delivery well, considering the high-energy phases near release point, as he avoids the flailing limbs and imbalanced follow-through that often accompany such heavy rotation and finishes with his momentum flowing on a line toward the target. Straily follows his teammates' lead from the stretch as well, avoiding the slide step yet shrinking his leg lift to find a middle ground in terms of the necessary timing adjustment. His pick-off move is the one thing that lags behind his Oakland brethren, with exaggerated footwork and a long throw that underscores the need for Straily to find a delivery that he can consistently harness from the stretch.