The A’s sold Arnold Leon on Tuesday, a fairly forgettable transaction involving a fairly forgettable (I’m so sorry, Leon family) pitcher. Few things are as unremarkable as the A’s letting another team have a marginal talent in exchange for some much-needed cash. I might not have taken note of this deal at all, but for the identity of the team taking on Leon: the Blue Jays. That makes this move stand out to me a little bit, for a simple reason: the Jays and A’s sure seem to like one another’s pitchers.
Prior to the sale of Leon, the Jays had already acquired two Oakland hurlers this winter. They traded Liam Hendriks to Oakland for Jesse Chavez on November 20th, a hair over a month after they’d claimed Pat Venditte on waivers. The A’s made a gesture toward replacing Chavez at the end of last month, when they signed Henderson Alvarez as a free agent. Hernandez was, of course, a Marlins castoff, but before that, he was a Blue Jays groundball machine, and then trade chip.
Last winter, the A’s appeared to accept a fairly light return from Toronto in exchange for Josh Donaldson. The package was led by Brett Lawrie and infield prospect Franklin Barreto, but rounded out by pitchers Sean Nolin and Kendall Graveman, who took 27 starts for Oakland in 2015. In July, Oakland purchased Felix Doubront directly from the Jays. A month earlier, it was Oakland who signed free agent Phil Coke, after the Blue Jays had scooped him up and then dropped him.
Every pitcher who goes to a new team must have an old team, of course, and it’s not an overwhelming coincidence that these nine pitchers (eight, really; Alvarez is a stretch, here, though not a total red herring) might happen to move between these particular clubs within a short time frame. Still, I can’t help but wonder: What do these two teams see in each other?
Don’t get too excited; I don’t have a concrete answer to that question right now. It’s still worth working through the question, though, to see if there are particular skills or attributes for which these two teams might share an affinity.
Let’s start with simple taxonomy. Of the nine pitchers in question:
Seven threw their fastball between 54 and 66 percent of the time in 2015, according to The Bill James Handbook 2016.
Five (all the starters, save Nolin) had an average fastball velocity between 90.7 and 91.7 miles per hour.
Six threw at least four pitches at least five percent of the time in 2015.
Seven threw at least three pitches at least 10 percent of the time, and the only exceptions were short relievers Venditte and Hendriks.
Eight threw a slider, and six threw it at least 10 percent of the time.
All nine threw some form of changeup, and six threw it at least 10 percent of the time.
Seven are listed as six-foot-one or six-foot-two, and one (Alvarez) is listed as exactly six feet.
Seven had a strike percentage between 60 and 63 percent.
Now, for some parsing: We need to carefully stop short of saying that any of these traits are things that these teams prize. Indeed, they must not be so in love with such pitchers as to be unwilling to let them go. Many of the pitchers who moved were on the small side (as today’s pitchers go), have average or below-average velocity, and are, to some extent, junkballers. They tend to have pretty varied arsenals, relying on an array of different offerings to keep hitters off-balance. They tend not to have exceptional command, even in those cases in which they have good control. Some of these things are the reasons the teams who acquired them wanted them; some are reasons the teams who traded them didn’t.
Maybe what these traits combine to say most clearly is that, when filling out their respective pitching staffs, these two organizations are realistic about the limitations they’ll have to accept. Oakland’s budget doesn’t allow them to spend big money on the back of their rotation or on organizational pitching depth. The Blue Jays have (wisely, in my opinion) so prioritized position players as to somewhat limit their available resources to use on pitching depth. Each team has developed a similar idea of which limitations they find least damaging, and of which strengths they think are undervalued. Thus, when they need to rearrange or increase their depth, they have a natural, mutual attraction.
This is worth keeping an eye on. Maybe other sets of teams have similar relationships. Maybe certain other teams have other heuristics for seeking out flawed but useful depth pieces. In any event, the A’s and the Jays keep shuttling pitchers back and forth, and if Toronto needs an arm or two to supplement a playoff push this summer, you can start your rumor-mongering in Oakland.
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