Shortly after Jackson exercised an opt-out clause with the Washington Nationals and signed with Oakland in early June, Melvin entrusted him with taking the lineup card to home plate. The A’s reeled off six consecutive victories against the Tigers and Indians, and Jackson had a semi-regular gig as the team’s resident good-luck charm and minister of outreach to the men in blue.
“That was a first,” Jackson said. “I just laughed. I was new still, and he said, ‘E.J., you’re taking out the lineup.’ I was like, ‘For real?’ And he said, ‘For real.’ Then we won, and he didn’t even ask for the next five days. He just looked at me. I go out there with the umpires, and I tell them, ‘This is what happens when you’re a player-coach.'”
When he isn’t making small talk with Joe West, Tom Hallion and C.B. Bucknor, Jackson is helping the A’s reach the playoffs and making a statement on behalf of journeymen pitchers on the wrong side of 30. It’s a big responsibility, but someone had to do it.
When Oakland began to attract attention as a potential dark horse team in spring training, the projected rotation consisted of Sean Manaea, Kendall Graveman, Jharel Cotton and Daniel Mengden, with Paul Blackburn, Andrew Triggs, Daniel Gossett, Jesse Hahn and top prospect A.J. Puk among the candidates for the No. 5 spot.
Then pitchers started grabbing body parts, and the MRI results began to come back, and it was time to adapt or die. The list of aforementioned pitchers incurred a devastating run of Tommy John surgeries and shoulder woes, mixed with a strained foot here and a case of lateral epicondylitis there. That’s tennis elbow, the malady that sent Blackburn to the disabled list in early June.
“I’ve never, ever seen anything that comes close to this as far as the injuries to starting pitching,” Melvin said.
One man’s setback is another man’s opportunity. Jackson, 35, tied Octavio Dotel’s MLB record when he took the mound for his 13th club. He half-jokingly pointed out that this is the first time he has worn all-white spikes in 16 major league seasons. Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill are both in their second turns with the Oakland organization, and the A’s added to the mix when they acquired veteran Mike Fiers in early August in a post-waiver deadline trade with Detroit.
The A’s have used 14 starting pitchers this season, and they’re doing lots of improvising as they try to outlast the Yankees in the race for home-field advantage in the wild-card game. They’ve taken a page from the Tampa Bay Rays‘ playbook and used an “opener,” Liam Hendriks, in designated bullpen games once around the rotation, and the media-relations staff continues to stay light on its feet. After Cahill had to be scratched from Saturday’s outing in Tampa with a back problem, the A’s listed their scheduled starters for this weekend’s series as Jackson, TBA and TBA.
While Oakland’s starters rank a respectable ninth in the majors with a 3.49 ERA, they’ve succeeded in an old-fashioned, pitch-to-contact way. They rank 20th in baseball with an aggregate fastball velocity of 91.9 mph, but they’re 29th in strikeouts. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the A’s could become the first team since the 1989 Toronto Blue Jays to make the playoffs while their starters finished in the bottom two in the majors in whiffs.
A strong support system helps. Largely on the strength of third baseman Matt Chapman‘s killer metrics, the A’s lead the American League with plus-59 defensive runs saved. The Oakland starters also have the luxury of handing the ball to a bullpen that’s long on experience and power arms. Lou Trivino and Blake Treinen have been a dominant 1-2 combination at the back end of the pen all year, and the A’s have methodically added depth with the acquisitions of Jeurys Familia, Fernando Rodney and Shawn Kelley.
Catcher Jonathan Lucroy waited on the free-agent market all winter before signing a one-year, $6.5 million deal in March. He shares the job with Josh Phegley, who is so unassuming that he went with the nickname “PTBNL” (or Player To Be Named Later) on the back of his Players’ Weekend jersey. Oakland’s pitching coach, Scott Emerson, is an organizational soldier who worked with Anderson and Cahill before they broke in with the A’s in 2009 on a staff led by Dallas Braden and Gio Gonzalez. That was right about the time Aaron Sorkin was finishing his third screenplay for the movie “Moneyball.”
It isn’t easy keeping all the repertoires, individual preferences and scouting reports straight. When quizzed on the names of Oakland’s 14 starting pitchers, Lucroy ticked off nine before requiring a refresher course. He minimizes the stress by taking things day by day. “I just try to get guys to believe in what I’m doing back there and get them to buy into it,” Lucroy said. “You’ve just got to roll with what you’ve got.
“When I came into spring training, I told people we wouldn’t be striking out a bunch of guys or blowing people away. We have to manufacture outs. We have to pitch to contact. My big thing in working with these guys is throwing strikes and getting ahead in the count. Expanding. Execution. I don’t care how hard or soft you throw. I don’t care if you throw 98 or 88. It’s all about execution and location.”
Oakland’s veteran starters have all learned to embrace their limitations through the years. Jackson’s fastball is down a couple of ticks from his peak average of 95 mph, and this year he’s throwing his cutter a career-high 35 percent of the time. Cahill, whose repertoire consisted primarily of sinking fastballs and changeups in his rookie season, now works in a healthy mix of sliders and curves. Anderson is throwing his changeup a career-high 17.5 percent of the time this year.
“We have Plan A, which is our analytics — how we’re gonna attack these hitters,” Emerson said. “Then we have Plan B, which is how they’re attacking us. If that matches up, we’re good. Then there’s Plan C. Sometimes guys go out there, and they don’t have anything, and you have to make things up on the fly.”
Fiers, 33, relies on a plus curve and a deceptive fastball up in the zone. He has reduced his walk rate from 3.6 to 1.9 per nine innings since last year and thrived despite allowing eight home runs in 39⅔ innings with Oakland. In seven starts with the A’s, Fiers is 5-0 with a 2.72 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP.
“Last year, late in the year, I was walking guys, and I didn’t have a good feel for my pitches,” Fiers said. “It was a tough spot. I felt like every strike I threw was getting hit, and every ball I threw, guys weren’t swinging. For me, it’s all about keeping the ball in the yard, not walking hitters and making them earn their way on. I’m not trying to throw any harder or make my stuff even nastier. I have to use what I pitch with.”
Come November, Fiers and his fellow veterans will find out how their efforts are perceived on the open market. Cahill, who pitched well for the Cubs in relief in 2016, paid the price last winter after amassing a 4.93 ERA with the Padres and Royals in 2017. He remained unsigned until St. Patrick’s Day. Then the A’s rescued him from unemployment with a one-year, $1.5 million contract.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Cahill said. “Obviously, some teams are lucky, and they have five or six guys starting all year. But you always need depth, and it seems like a lot of teams weren’t realizing that. A lot of guys couldn’t get jobs. You’d have to be lying to say there isn’t a little extra motivation there. Every time we pitch, we’re trying to do a little bit for this next free-agent class. Some of us older guys might not throw as hard as the young guys they bring up. But we can still get outs.”
Oakland’s staff is thriving in a both quiet and cost-efficient way. Of the 34 pitchers used by Melvin this season, Treinen is the only one who can expect to receive a mention in AL Cy Young balloting. While Clayton Kershaw and David Price both have the choice of opting out of $30 million-plus salaries in coming years, Oakland’s 14 starters have barely cracked $20 million in total compensation in 2018. Fiers leads the group with a $6 million salary, and Detroit paid the majority of that before trading him to Oakland.
With two weeks left in the regular season, wild-card speculation is about to ramp up in earnest. Could the A’s go with Jackson in a one-game playoff against the Yankees, or will they opt for Fiers? Or maybe Melvin will ditch tradition, go with an undetermined “opener” and cobble things together with a parade of relievers from that airtight bullpen.
At the moment, the A’s are too busy grinding out victories to spend much time contemplating hypotheticals.
“I don’t think it really matters who it’s going to be,” Lucroy said. “We’re trying to win the first five or six innings of the ballgame, and we’ll pitch whoever we have to pitch to get to that point. We’re going to do whatever we’ve got to do.”
Through all the injuries and disruptions, the A’s have done better than anyone could have imagined behind a team slogan of “To Be Announced.” Why change now?