Billed as an offseason dark horse in the AL West, the Oakland A's have yet to really take off. They have yet to climb more than a game over .500, and with an extra-innings loss on Thursday, their record is 16-16, third in the division. To date, the A's have been in 2011 what the A's were for the four years previous - fine but not good, and off the public radar.
But you can't blame the starting rotation for the team's inconsistency. While the Oakland starters haven't matched the Phillies, nobody could reasonably expect them to, and the whole unit has been absolutely terrific. With Brett Anderson's nine-inning, two-run start on Thursday afternoon, the group ERA is down to 2.56, with peripherals to support it. The A's rotation has the AL's lowest walk rate, highest ground ball rate, lowest ERA, lowest FIP, and lowest xFIP.
It's gone five-deep. Or, realistically, six-deep, since Tyson Ross has spun a couple good starts as a replacement. Anderson's been awesome. Brandon McCarthy's been awesome. Gio Gonzalez has been good, Trevor Cahill has been good, and Dallas Braden was good before he hurt his shoulder. There just aren't any real visible cracks.
But between the rotation's overall effectiveness and McCarthy's incredible career turnaround, one improvement has gotten lost in the mix. Trevor Cahill seems to have taken a step forward, and nobody seems to be paying any attention.
Cahill was already terrific. As a 22-year-old in 2010, he posted a tiny ERA and got some supporting votes for the AL Cy Young. But Cahill also posted a mediocre strikeout rate that many - myself included - pointed to as a reason to believe he had some regression coming his way. He struck out only 118 batters over nearly 200 innings, and when you do that, it's hard to sustain a low ERA.
We figured that, given Cahill's strikeout rate, his ERA would rise. Instead, this is what we've observed through his first seven starts:
2010: 15% strikeouts
2011: 20% strikeouts
2010: 85% contact
2011: 80% contact
Rather than letting his ERA climb, Cahill has instead decided that he wants to miss a bunch more bats, and rack up a bunch more strikeouts. Not a bad idea. Curious, I dug deeper in an effort to find out what's going on, and found this:
2010 vs. LHB: 16% strikeouts
2011 vs. LHB: 15% strikeouts
2010 vs. RHB: 13% strikeouts
2011 vs. RHB: 27% strikeouts
Cahill is striking more guys out, but instead of doing it across the board, his entire improvement so far has come versus righties, against whom his strikeout rate has literally doubled.
That's just a massive leap, even if it is early in the season. And my best guess as to why we're seeing it is shown by the following splits:
2010 vs. RHB: 57% first-pitch strikes
2011 vs. RHB: 69% first-pitch strikes
2010 vs. RHB: 46% 0-1 counts
2011 vs. RHB: 59% 0-1 counts
Cahill has gone after righties more aggressively in the early going this season, and he's gotten ahead of them a great deal more often. And when a pitcher's ahead in the count, a pitcher can make pitcher's pitches, instead of hitter's pitches. Guess which ones tend to get better results for the pitcher?
I don't think this explains Cahill's entire jump in strikeouts, but I do think it explains a lot of it, and we'll see if all this continues over time. If Cahill reverts to what he was a season ago, he'll be a fine pitcher. But if he can keep going after righties and keep striking them out, he'll be a great one, with results to match the fact that he can throw pitches like this: