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The Oakland Athletics Might Have the Most Fascinating Rotation in Baseball

With Sonny Gray out of action, there aren’t really a lot of names in the Oakland A’s rotation that really jump out to the common fan. I’ll go out on a limb and say there aren’t many kids out there who have a Kendall Graveman poster hanging over their beds. Names like Andrew Triggs and Jesse Hahn aren’t going to sell tickets.

It’s safe to say the A’s probably won’t have the best rotation in baseball. But top-to-bottom, this might be the most intriguing rotation in baseball. Every pitcher here either has a chance to be, or already is, absolutely enthralling. Allow me to explain the intrigue with each pitcher individually:

Kendall Graveman

We’ll start with the A’s opening day starter and their de facto “ace” at the moment. In two seasons, Graveman has been roughly a league-average starter. He’s never gotten many strikeouts, but has used solid control and home run management to ERAs in the low fours and FIPs in the mid-fours in both years. That’s not great; not even that good, but it’ll certainly get you an MLB job.

However, this year there’s a lot more reason to pay attention to Graveman. Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs has gone into this a couple times already, but his sinker velocity has rocketed up two full ticks this year, and it now resembles some of the better sinkers in the league. And to that point: he’s thrown it more often early this season than he ever has. According to Brooks Baseball, Graveman threw his sinker about 56% of the time last year. In his first two starts this year, he’s featured that sinker 87% of the time.

Of course, sample size disclaimers should be shouted down from mountain tops at this point. Maybe the velocity and usage differences are anomalies. But in his last start on Saturday, Graveman threw sinkers 90 percent of the time. He never threw 90 percent sinkers any game in either of the last two years. And the results with this new approach so far have been great, with Graveman having two solid starts under his belt this season, with better strikeout rates than he usually has.

These developments are  not a guarantee of success by any means, but they’re a real reason to pay attention to Graveman this year.

Sean Manaea

Manaea is the name people recognize for his after appearing in the top-20 on some prospect lists last year. Then when he reached the majors, he struggled at times, but pitched to a decent 3.86 ERA. But Manaea is not someone to forget about. He showed clear improvements last year as he became more accustomed to the big leagues—walking fewer, striking out more, and allowing fewer homers—and induced quite a few swinging strikes, which means more strikeouts could come as he goes on.

The results early this year haven’t been great, but we shouldn’t pay too much attention to that. While the other names in this rotation are interesting, they don’t necessarily have ace-starter upside; Manaea does. He’s already a solid pitcher, and he’s only a few adjustments away from becoming that ace.

Sonny Gray

Gray was the A’s ace in 2014 and 2015, and was one of the better pitchers in the American League in those seasons. But last year, Gray fell off completely, exploding for an ERA over five and a 4.67 FIP. He dealt with arm injuries that severely hampered him, and it was just an ugly sight all-around. Gray may never again reach his 2014-2015 heights, but if he successfully comes back from this lat issue, he still could bounce back and become a solid number two or three starter.

Jharel Cotton

On Tuesday, Pedro Martinez sent out this tweet:


That’s quite high praise from one of the best pitchers ever. But Cotton is so much more than just a Pedro Martinez tweet and an awesome name. He started out in the minors and was dominant there, striking out batters left and right paired with good control. He was a top-100 prospect on many lists this year, but was towards the bottom of most lists due to his size and low-90s velocity.

But in his brief time in the majors, Cotton’s changeup has set the world ablaze. It’s already gotten praise as one of the best changeups in the major leagues. Pair that with a mid-90s fastball and cutter, and Cotton is tough to hit. He’s pitched to a 2.66 ERA in seven big league starts so far, and while he’s probably not that good, if Pedro sees something in him, maybe we should too. He’s worth keeping an eye on.

Jesse Hahn

Hahn was recently handed the fifth starter spot with Gray out. In 2014 and 2015, Hahn was very good, but was limited with injuries. In 2016, he was very bad, and was limited with injuries. Utilizing a different arm angle, Hahn found less success with his fastball in 2016. He’s back to his old arm angle now, and that fastball could be back. He still has the velocity and the curveball movement to have success, so if Hahn is on the field, he could see his 2014-15 levels of success again. If that’s the case, the A’s might still have a solid pitcher on their hands.

Andrew Triggs

Everything about Triggs is just so interesting. The A’s claimed him off waivers at the beginning of 2016 to pitch out of the bullpen, pitching about as well as you’d expect any 28-year-old rookie. Thought to be a “Quad-A” innings eater at best, the righty managed to find his way into the A’s rotation by midseason. In four starts last August, Triggs posted a 2.78 ERA and struck out nearly a batter per inning while hardly walking anyone. And in his first start of the 2017 season, he delivered 5.2 shutout innings and got the win.

So how has he been successful? Because this is how he throws the ball:

He looks like a second baseman short-arming a ball to first base, but this unique release point is actually a factor of deception, and it has played up some of his pitches in a starting role.

So, all in all, it’s not really the upside that makes Andrew Triggs so fascinating. It’s the way he’s found success so far that is so enthralling. Will he keep it up? Will his true talent level show with more exposure? I have no clue, but I sure as hell want to find out.

So to recap, the A’s have a legitimate potential ace, a former ace looking to bounce back, an average starter who might be transforming himself before our eyes, a good prospect with a standout pitch, a high-upside flyer, and perhaps the most fascinating starting pitcher in baseball.

That’s a really intriguing group of pitchers. Most rotations are either just good, bad, or somewhere in between. I’m not sure there are many other rotations that has this kind of mix of tantalizing upside, interesting developments, and the potential for extremely compelling success stories. More people should really be paying attention to what is going on in Oakland.

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