The Oakland Athletics won the bidding for Japanese right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma earlier this month, but reports Sunday indicated that the team and pitcher are at a negotiating standstill, with Iwakuma's group looking for a contract worth comparable to Barry Zito's $18 million per year.
Given that the Athletics boasted one of the best rotations in baseball last season and are on a strict budget, the question that comes to mind is why the need is so great for the team to sign Iwakuma.
Perhaps because it would be wise to expect some regression from the Athletics starters in 2011.
There are several indicators that suggest that the performance of the Athletics rotation in 2010 was not statistically sustainable. While the rotation ranked fourth in baseball in ERA at 3.47, it ranked a much more average 17th in Fielding Independent Pitching at 4.10 (according to Fangraphs.com).
Fielding Independent Pitching is an ERA estimator based around strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed, helping to understand how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of how well his fielders fielded. This gap between the team’s ERA and FIP suggests that the team could experience some regression in 2011.
Further supplementing that point is that the team also posted the lowest Batting Average on Balls In Play in the Majors at .275, while the percentage of runners that were left on base by the team’s pitchers was the fifth-best in baseball at 74.7 percent. While a strong defense is certainly at least partly responsible for the low BABiP, history says that it's a tough level of performance to maintain.
While the team might boast a frontline rotation at first glance, there are reasons why stockpiling pitching depth might actually be a good use of resources. Three of the team’s primary rotation pieces from 2010 had significant gaps between their ERA and FIP, most notably Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Vin Mazzaro, the latter of whom was traded to the Royals already this offseason. Of the top 35 qualified starters in baseball according to ERA, only Jon Garland had a higher FIP than Cahill.
Difference Between ERA and FIP
A's Starters This Season
In addition to the team’s likelihood of regression in 2011, there’s also two other factors to consider. First, the starter with arguably the most upside on the staff, Brett Anderson, also has experienced durability issues in his first two seasons. He threw just 131 ⅔ innings overall last season between the majors and minors and has never thrown more than 175 ⅓ innings in any professional season.
The team also is putting together a foundation built upon pitching and defense and, as part of that plan, the team is loading up on groundball-heavy pitchers. The pitching staff as a whole ranked fifth in MLB in groundball percentage at 48.2.
Not coincidentally, here’s what ESPN.com’s Keith Law wrote about Iwakuma:
“He pitches differently than most of the Japanese pitchers who have come over, with a more conventional delivery and a pitch-to-contact approach that yields ground balls and few walks but not many strikeouts.”
So while at first glance the Athletics move to sign Iwakuma might seem redundant for a team that was so pitching-heavy last season and is in such desperate need for offense. But as has been demonstrated time after time, there’s never enough pitching, particularly when the numbers suggest there’s some regression ahead in 2011.