The Atlanta Braves’ starting pitchers have posted the lowest ERA (1.90) in the National League. The Oakland Athletics’ starting pitchers have posted the lowest ERA (2.97) in the American League.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
Brandon Beachy was supposed to start for the Braves this year. Tommy John surgery. Kris Medlen was supposed to start for the Braves this year. Tommy John surgery. Mike Minor was supposed to start for the Braves this year. Shoulder injury; he’ll finally make his 2014 debut later this week.
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There are 10 starting slots between two teams. Five of them were reassigned this spring to supposedly lesser men. And yet here we are, with the Braves and the A’s pacing their loops.
Of course it’s tempting to believe both teams can keep doing this indefinitely. After all, it’s nearly May! But just in case it’s still only April, let’s see who these guys are …
The Braves have a couple of veterans, signed just before the season, and both – Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang – have pitched brilliantly. Santana’s 3-0 with a 1.95 and a tremendous strikeout-to-walk ratio, while Harang’s 3-1 with a 0.85 ERA. Santana seems to have found a lifespring upon joining the Royals last season, and maybe this is just his new normal. But let’s be honest: Aaron Harang has a long history of being Aaron Harang, and he’s probably going to finish the season with an ERA much closer to 4.00 than 3.00. Which would still make him quite valuable, and the Braves were wise to sign him for a ridiculous pittance.
They’ve also got three home-grown starters, led by 23-year-olds Julio Teheran (1.47 ERA) and Alex Wood (2.93). Wood was impressive last season, mostly in the bullpen — whether because, or in spite of, his unorthodox mechanics — with a 2.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Could he maintain that performance while taking a regular turn in the rotation? So far, he’s got a 4.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is basically all he needs. Teheran established himself last season as a fine major-league starter, although we might be just slightly concerned with the early drop in his strikeout rate, and his just slightly slower fastball (which wasn’t all that fast to begin with).
Essentially, what we’ve seen is a good group pitching excellently; Minor makes the group even better, but it’s an excellent bet that all four of his rotation-mates will see their ERAs rise, and most of them significantly. Which is why Minor’s teammates who don’t pitch need to start scoring a lot more runs; right now they’re next-to-last in the National League, which makes the Braves’ 17-8 record all the more surprising.
Like the Braves, the A’s lead their league in both starting and overall ERA. But their starters haven’t actually been nearly as impressive, as Oakland’s rotation includes both Dan Straily (5.14 ERA) an Tommy Milone (4.56). Milone’s strikeout rate is ridiculously low (for this era), while Straily’s given up seven homers in five starts.
The slack’s been picked up by Sonny Gray (4-1, 1.76), Scott Kazmir (4-0, 2.11) and Jesse Chavez (2.32).
Before last season, Gray was a fringe prospect, but he found himself in Triple-A and finished the campaign with two fine postseason starts. He’s short but his stuff is long, and seems a good bet for a good season.
The Scott Kazmir story just keeps getting better. He was pitching indy ball in 2012, looked good with the Indians in 2013, and in 2014 he’s pitching better than ever before … and before he was really good.
But Kazmir’s got nothing on fellow 30-year-old Chavez. He entered last season with a 5.99 career ERA over five seasons, nearly all of his action coming as a reliever. He did pitch decently for the A’s last year, but exclusively in relief. And now, pressed into service as an emergency starter … he’s striking out five times more than he’s walked? How many replacement-level relief pitchers have become good starters in their early 30s? If you know, please send me a registered letter. But not many, I’ll wager. So if nobody gets hurt — these days more than ever, an unrealistic expectation — Chavez might lose his spot when Griffin returns, though Milone’s currently the best candidate.
Yes, both the Braves and the A’s have benefited from abnormally good luck. The ERAs are mirages, which doesn’t mean the pitchers aren’t good. They just aren’t all great, and it’s actually quite possible that neither staff will feature even a single Cy Young candidate by season’s end. What’s more, there’s little or no obvious help in the minors, as both teams’ top pitching prospects are still at least a year away from doing much in the majors.
Both teams are solid, coming off first-place finishes last season. At the moment, both are favorites to repeat. But while the starting pitchers can’t be expected to keep doing what they’ve done, they do need to stay healthy. And the hitters will need to either keep hitting (A’s) or start (Braves).