Bassitt Out-Keuchels Keuchel to Rescue A’s Seasonon September 30, 2020 at 11:45 pm

Bassitt Out-Keuchels Keuchel to Rescue A’s Season

OAKLAND — Chris Bassitt spent the month of September on the best streak of his life. In four regular season starts, he allowed exactly one run, a Joey Gallo homer. That works out to a 0.34 ERA, but it was far more than that: it won Bassitt Pitcher of the Month honors and essentially guaranteed him a start in the playoffs.

Why wasn’t more made of Bassitt’s September? Because it looked, well, like Chris Bassitt pitching. He struck out 24.8% of his opponents while walking 4.8%. His 12.4% swinging strike rate barely cracked the top 20 starters on the month. He turned those middling stats into dominance by stranding 100% of the runners he allowed to reach base. He also put up a stellar 3.7% HR/FB mark; hit the ball in the air against Bassitt, and it simply went nowhere.

The A’s know that, but they also knew something else: good luck in September or not, unsustainable sequencing or not, Bassitt is their second-best starting pitcher at the moment. With their backs against the wall, they turned to him to keep their season going — and he put the White Sox to sleep in much the same way he befuddled batters all September.

This wasn’t Lucas Giolito overwhelming the A’s the day before, or Trevor Bauer and Max Fried throwing matching gems today. It was ugly but effective in the same way that Bassitt’s September was: an inch off the barrel here, an escape from a jam there, and pretty soon, baby you’ve got a good start going.

In one stretch of the third inning, Bassitt might as well have engaged a cheat code. He gave up back-to-back line drive singles to start the inning before leaving a first-pitch changeup too far over the plate to Yoan Moncada. Moncada hit it on the screws, a 101 mph laser beam that carried 370 feet to the opposite field. One problem: the fence in that part of the field is more like 380 feet. One nifty Mark Canha catch later and Bassitt was back in business; he induced a popup from Yasmani Grandal and a well-hit (again!) fly out from Jose Abreu, this one a 98-mph shot that went to, you guessed it, the deep part of the stadium.

Meanwhile, Bassitt’s counterpart Dallas Keuchel put on a clinic in why whiffs, walks, and strikeouts are so prized in pitchers, and where contact management can go wrong. Keuchel had a very Bassitt 2020; he struck out only 16.3% of his opponents and walked 6.6%. He put together a 1.99 ERA by suppressing home runs (4.7% HR/FB) and leaving a ton of runners on base (81.6% strand rate).

Whatever run-avoiding mojo Keuchel had in 2020, he was missing it today. The A’s struck with small ball, plating two in the first when Nick Madrigal booted a difficult-but-playable grounder in shallow right field. They put balls over the fence, too: Marcus Semien hit a no-doubt line drive 418 feet in the second inning to extend the lead to four, and Khris Davis added another run with a solo shot two frames later.

In some ways, not much separated Keuchel and Bassitt on the day. Keuchel got four whiffs and 13 called strikes in 61 pitches, good for a 28% called-plus-swinging strike rate. Bassitt got eight whiffs and 19 called strikes in his 91 pitches, a 30% rate. Keuchel struck out four with no walks; Bassitt had one more strikeout but also one more walk, and he needed three more innings to do it.

Make no mistake, though: the two performances weren’t close to being equal. Bassitt bamboozled the White Sox hitters while Keuchel was at Oakland’s mercy. Bassitt had that one run of good fortune in the third, but he mostly succeeded by inducing poor contact. He allowed only eight balls hit between 10 and 30 degrees out of the 22 White Sox batters put in play. He lived on the ground or high in the air, in other words. Only seven of those 24 were hit 95 mph or harder. Soft or mis-hit, the White Sox played into Oakland’s hands.

Keuchel couldn’t claim the same. Of the 13 balls A’s batters made fair contact with, seven were in that coveted 10-30 degree bucket. Eight of the 13 were hit 95 mph or harder, with six hitting triple-digits. Even Oakland’s outs were crushed. A few inches here and there, and they might have put up a truly crooked number rather than merely five runs.

That’s not a normal Dallas Keuchel start, but he looked pressed for ideas today. He started with a consistent plan against righties — sinkers and changeups low and away, with cutters in to keep them honest. Oakland’s righties were simply on it — they didn’t swing and miss at a single sinker or cutter on the day, and they only whiffed on a single changeup. He briefly found success in the third by attacking the inside part of the plate, drawing some ill-advised takes, but A’s batters simply started swinging at those pitches too, and he had no answer.

Bassitt, on the other hand, kept Chicago guessing. He moved them in and out, up and down, and varied his pitch mix with aplomb. One example: Bassitt threw four 2-2 pitches to righties on the day — one sinker, one four-seam fastball, one cutter, and one slider. He had little feel for his changeup and threw only six on the day, but otherwise looked comfortable with his entire arsenal anywhere in the strike zone.

Of course, playoff games are never a walk in the park, and Oakland nearly wasted an excellent start with a late bullpen scare. Liam Hendriks, the A’s best reliever on the year, entered in the eighth with a man aboard and ruined Bassitt’s perfect September strand rate when Grandal tagged him for a home run.

Though Hendriks escaped further trouble in the eighth, he never looked completely comfortable, and the White Sox mounted a spirited ninth-inning comeback attempt. Madrigal and Tim Anderson lined back-to-back two-out singles to center before Moncada drew a walk, forcing the A’s to go back into the bullpen for Jake Diekman — letting Grandal face Hendriks a second time with the tying run on base didn’t exactly seem like a good plan.

Grandal drew a walk to make it 5-3, but Diekman retired Abreu on a first-pitch groundout to secure the win. The juxtaposition was striking: Oakland’s vaunted bullpen, their supposed edge in the series, floundered while Bassitt thrived. That wasn’t supposed to happen, but then, Chris Bassitt’s September wasn’t supposed to happen either. It’s only fitting that the last day of September was more of the same.

Odds and Ends

o Madrigal had a day he’d like to forget. In addition to two errors, one of which scored two runs, he made a baserunning gaffe in the third inning that cost Chicago a run. He was running when Anderson lined a single to right field and should have reached third easily. He slid into second, however, and lost track of the ball. He would have been at third with no one out, and the next at-bat featured a fly ball to the deepest part of the park. Instead he didn’t score, making that one of three runs Madrigal left on the table today.

o Grandal has looked uncomfortable from the right side of the plate and unstoppable from the left. The A’s brought in a lefty to face Grandal and then the right-handed Abreu with the game on the line to prevent Grandal from hitting from his left side.

o The White Sox were unhappy with umpire Mike Muchlinski’s zone, and the dugout was vocal about it. He showed restraint in talking back, but he did hit them with a memorable line after one complaint struck him the wrong way: “You’re no one. I don’t want to hear from you. You’re no one, you hear me?” Empty stadiums are delightful!

o The White Sox used Dylan Cease in relief. While they haven’t announced a Game 3 starter, Dane Dunning is the only available pitcher who is stretched out to start. Carlos Rodon is technically available but has only thrown 7.2 innings all year and only two since August 3rd.

o Hendriks was overextended — his 49 pitches were the most he’s thrown in a single outing since Game 4 of the 2015 ALCS. It’s hardly a shock that he looked gassed by the end. That still doesn’t explain how the A’s ended up using their best reliever in a 5-0 game the day before a win-or-go-home series finale, however, which leaves them more depleted than they’d like to be.

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