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Which Free Agent Pitchers Could Help the A’s in 2020?

The A's need to sign another starting pitcher.

At the moment, the A’s have four starting pitchers listed on their 2020 depth chart. That is (checks notes) not ideal. Four-man rotations have been obsolete for decades now, and even if (hypothetically) the A’s decided to JUST DO IT and run with a four-man rotation in 2020, none of the pitchers listed (save perhaps Mike Fiers) are especially known for their durability. Sean Manaea sat out basically all of the 2019 season after undergoing arthroscopic shoulder surgery, and the A’s would do well to monitor prized youngster Frankie Montas‘s inning count. They also employ Chris Bassitt, who is definitely a pitcher.

So the eternally cheap Oakland A’s, whose most expensive signing ever would buy them less than three seasons’ worth of Bryce Harper, badly need starting pitching. And there are cheap (and risky) starting pitchers just sitting there on the free-agent market. Let’s matchmake!

Bachelor #1: The Crown Jhoulys

Free agent pitchers oakland 2020
Image courtesy of Keith Birmingham via Pasadena Star-News and the Orange County Register.

Jhoulys Chacín was one of the two-and-a-half reliable starting pitchers in the Milwaukee Brewers’ 2018 rotation. He logged an ERA of 3.50 over 190 innings thanks to a slider which (literally) ranked among baseball’s very best pitches that year (read Jeff Sullivan’s love letter to Chacín’s slider here). Chacín was a regular-season workhorse for a team that desperately needed one, and his six shutout innings against the Dodgers in the 2018 NLCS provided a convenient (and linkable) showcase of everything Chacín did well that year.

However, Chacín’s peripheral stats were not so enthused by his performance. His strikeouts were pretty low (7.29 per nine innings) and his walks were on the higher side (3.32/9) for a guy who couldn’t reliably strike anyone out. His BABIP of .250 was just begging to go up, and batters hit him harder than the average pitcher. In other less nerdy words, Chacín was the poorly-characterized guy in the monster movie who trips on a tree branch or something while everyone’s running away from the monster. He was doomed.

Free agent pitchers oakland 2020
Image courtesy of Kathryn Riley via Getty Images.

And the regression monster grabbed Chacín and swallowed him whole in 2019. He allowed a hard-hit rate of 46.9 percent (according to Statcast, a hard-hit ball leaves the bat at 95 MPH or more– league average sits around 35 percent) and his BABIP shot back up to league-average levels. His ERA was a ghastly 6.01, but some of his peripheral stats think he’ll do better in 2020. He walked more batters last year, but his strikeouts went way up (he K’d almost a batter per inning). Statcast’s fancy exit-velocity metrics think that Chacín allowed league-average results in 2019. The advanced stats on Fangraphs also think that some positive regression is heading Chacín’s way next year.

To summarize, Chacín is cheap, available and should be better than he was in 2019. At this stage of the offseason, that’s probably the best the A’s can ask for.

Bachelor #2: Making a Pitcher Out of a Cahill

Trevor Cahill was an All-Star for the A’s all the way back in 2010, and he was an above-average pitcher for Oakland as recently as 2018. He then signed with the Angels and promptly fell off a cliff, performance-wise. Cahill logged a no-good, very-bad ERA of 5.98 in 2019, with peripherals to match. Batters slapped him all up and down the diamond last year with a collective hard-hit rate of 45 percent and an eye-watering 25 homers over his 102 1/3 innings pitched.

Free agent pitchers oakland 2020
Image courtesy of Joe Camporeale via USA Today Sports.

So what’s the good news? Similarly to Chacín, Cahill’s more advanced stats see a better future in their crystal balls. Fancily acronym’d stats like SIERA and xFIP (which take into account things like whether a batter pops out, lines out or grounds out) think that Cahill should have had an ERA around five last season. Statcast’s exit velocity info thinks that Cahill deserved pretty much everything he got in 2019, but there are a couple of interesting little Statcast nuggets that point to a potential turnaround in 2020.

For starters, Cahill puts a ridiculous amount of spin on his curveball. By average curveball spin rate, he ranked seventh in all of MLB last season. Having a high spin rate on a breaking pitch is a plus, since it often results in very sharp, late movement. For a crash course on the benefits on high spin rates, watch this wonderful video about Justin Verlander being an absolute god.

However, simply putting good spin on a pitch does not automatically make it a good pitch, and Cahill’s curveball was whatever the opposite of good is. Thanks to data found on Fangraphs, the culprit behind the badness in Cahill’s curveball is glaringly obvious- he couldn’t spot the pitch at all. He either bounced it (not good) or hung it right down the middle (even worse). If he can iron out that glaring issue in his repertoire, Cahill has a chance to be an interesting bounce-back candidate in 2020.

Bachelor #3: Somewhat Super Nova

Free agent pitchers oakland 2020
Image courtesy of Jayne Goodwin via USA Today Sports.

Since the end of his rough tenure with the Yankees, Iván Nova‘s been working in almost total obscurity with the Pirates and White Sox. From 2016-2019, he’s tossed 697 innings of 4.31 ERA ball. His peripherals aren’t so hot since he doesn’t strike anyone out and gives up a little more hard contact than he’d probably like, but there are some positives around the edges of Nova’s profile. He doesn’t really walk anyone (2.2 walks per 9 innings) and his exit velocity allowed was basically league-average. He’s super durable, which would be a boon to an A’s staff that’s lost most of its starters to free agency. Nova’s projection of 1.3 WAR next season isn’t going to hype anyone up, but a steady presence at the back of the rotation is precisely what the A’s need in 2020.

Miscellaneous Other Bachelors

Free agent pitchers oakland 2020
Image courtesy of Frank Franklin II via the Associated Press.

There are some other long shots hanging around the fringes of the free-agent market. Felix Hernandez has made it clear that he’s not done pitching, and the A’s could sign him if they really wanted to rip the hearts out of Mariners fans once and for all. Aaron Sanchez is somehow only 27, and could be willing to accept a minor-league deal after a season riddled with injuries and ineffectiveness. The A’s could go after any number of buy-low free agents between now and Spring Training. Any way they look at it, signing an established starter to take the ball every fifth day would be a more advisable strategy than hoping no one gets hurt and leaning on bullpen games.

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