Oakland Athletics have hot start, but it may not last

Apr 16, 2013 3:05 AM

As we start the baseball season, we have already seen some surprises. The Oakland A’s have been terrific on offense, top five in runs, but let’s not read too much into that.

This is a team that was 14th in runs scored a year ago and plays its home games in a huge, pitcher friendly park. The A’s opened against the Mariners and Astros. The rest of the month is a tougher test against the Rays, Tigers, Red Sox and Angels.

Speaking of the Angels, the “Super Team” already has its own concerns. Last year they were great on offense and this season the on-base percentage has been strong. It just hasn’t translated into a lot of runs partly because of the struggles of newcomer Josh Hamilton. He’s likely dealing with external pressures, like Albert Pujols did a year ago, joining a new team with all the pressures that come with a big contract.

It’s the pitching, though, that is the real problem. Righty Jered Weaver is out for a while, an irreplaceable ace. That forces C.J. Wilson to move into the No. 1 slot and he’s simply not an ace. Wilson nibbles around the plate and has a tendency to walk batters (he walked seven in his first 12 innings). That puts pressure on the bullpen to come into games early and gets worse when they have to relieve the other weaker starters in Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas, all newcomers.

It’s also a good time to point out that this is an age of specialization for baseball pitchers. You have starters, closers, middle relievers, long relief, set-up men and lefty specialists. Some pitchers feel more comfortable and excel in the role of set-up man rather than closer, for example.

It can all seem overwhelming and even silly at times. I recall an interview with a pitcher a few years ago who was asked about what his role would be on the team. He looked strangely at the inquisitor. “A pitcher’s role,” he said, “is to get guys out.” If more hurlers simplified things like that, we might see better pitching league-wide.

Pitchers are a unique breed in the sports world. One thing to keep in mind during the baseball season, especially early on, is that pitchers can perform very differently year to year, for a variety of reasons.

The ballpark can play a role in how good or bad a pitcher is, something to keep in mind with Blanton. He has pitched in Oakland and in the NL, but now is with the Angels, a better hitter’s park. A soft thrower like him is better suited to a big park like Dodger Stadium, Washington or Oakland than most AL parks.

Hard throwers aren’t usually as influenced, such as C.C. Sabathia, who went from Cleveland to the Yankees four years ago and wasn’t affected by the small confines of Yankee Stadium. Remember a decade ago when the Yankees picked up Kevin Brown, who went from one of the best pitcher’s parks in baseball – Dodger Stadium – to Yankee Stadium and didn’t throw as well.

It is a bit easier to go from the AL to the NL and not face the DH, as we saw with Philadelphia ace Roy Halladay in 2010 (league leading 21 wins). You may recall the careers of pitchers Mike Hampton, Jose Lima and Darryl Kile. All three had great seasons in the Houston Astrodome, then played in much smaller parks the next season and got clobbered.

Hampton and Kile went to Coors Field in Colorado, while Lima went from 21-10 in the final year of the Astrodome, to 7-16 with a 6.65 ERA in 2000, the first year Houston moved to its current smaller park.

It’s essential for sports bettors to keep up on moves, parks and injuries like this. Early in the season, betting lines on pitchers can be based largely on what happened last season, and as I’ve outlined, pitchers can vary significantly from year to year.

Injuries, too, can be significant. Randy Johnson went 20-4 with a 2.28 ERA in 1997. The next season he struggled with back trouble and a contract squabble, going 9-10 with a 4.33 ERA in Seattle before they traded him to Houston. There, Johnson went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA the rest of the season!

After a strong 2011, Josh Beckett struggled badly in Boston last year as age and injuries took a toll, as well as the small AL park. Betting lines are made around the starting pitcher, but be careful – starters don’t always pitch the same from season to season for a variety of reasons.

Jim Feist, author and leader in sports information for over 40 years, hosts TV’s Proline as well as running National Sports Services since 1975. Reach him at [email protected]

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