By Jay Jaffe
September 20, 2012

Brett Anderson Brett Anderson left the mound in the third inning last night and may not be back for the rest of the season. (US Presswire)

The Oakland A's have been one of the season's most pleasant surprises. At 84-64, not only have they clinched their first record above .500 since 2006, but they've got a 3 1/2 game lead for the second wild-card spot in the AL. They're a team that has proven its resilience by battling through a near-constant stream of injuries and other problems, doing so with a payroll that ranks as the league's smallest, and delivering a message to the rest of the baseball world: reports of the death of Moneyball have been greatly exaggerated. Alas, on Wednesday night, their quest for a postseason spot just got a bit harder, as Brett Anderson left the team's 6-2 loss against the Tigers on Wednesday night in the third inning with an oblique strain, which will sideline him for the rest of the regular season, and possibly longer.

A former blue-chip prospect, Anderson has made just six starts totaling 35 innings for the A's this season; the 24-year-old lefty didn't make his green-and-gold debut until August 21 as he was working his way back from July 2011 Tommy John surgery. His return appeared to be a major shot in the arm for the A's playoff hopes, and assumed even greater importance when Bartolo Colon was suspended for 50 games due to a drug violation the day after his first start. Since then, he has largely been brilliant, delivering a 2.57 ERA and a 25/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 35 innings. Through his first four starts, he allowed just three runs, albeit against downtrodden, sub-.500 teams, namely the Twins, Indians, Red Sox and Mariners. Shortly after he returned, the A's rotation was dealt another significant blow when Brandon McCarthy suffered a fractured skull via a line drive, requiring emergency surgery and almost certainly ending his season — which only increased Anderson's importance to the staff.

Now they're without their putative ace, who after being charged with five runs in the final inning of his September 13 start against the Angels struggled to get loose during the third inning of Wednesday night's game. On a chilly night, he could be seen stretching out his back between pitches. After delivering two hitless, scoreless frames, he yielded three hits (two on bunts), two walks (one intentional) and two runs while loading the bases in the third. He was removed after falling to the ground while throwing a 2-2 pitch to Delmon Young.

Immediately after being relieved, Anderson was taken for an MRI, which revealed an oblique strain on his right (non-throwing) side. Oblique injuries on the same side as a pitcher's throwing arm are said to heal more quickly, though via email, injury expert Will Carroll dismissed the notion: "It depends [more] on the severity. The side really doesn't matter. I would say that normally, we'd be looking at a week to 10 days, but this obviously isn't a normal situation. " In any event, the right-handed Colon strained his right oblique in June and was back after 15 days on the disabled list, without even making a rehab start, providing a template for an optimistic timetable; a more pessimistic one could stretch over a month. With expanded September rosters, there's no need to put Anderson on the DL, but a 15-day absence would leave him inactive until the October 5 wild-card playoff, which he was — not coincidentally — lined up to start anyway. His loss comes just as the A's kicked off a 10-game road trip through Detroit, New York and Texas. Lefty Travis Blackley, who has delivered a 3.36 ERA in 93 2/3 innings over 12 starts and nine relief appearances, will take his turn, leaving the A's with an otherwise all-rookie rotation (listed in order of next appearance):

Pitcher Age GS IP HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 ERA FIP
Tommy Milone 25 28 174.2 1.2 1.7 6.7 3.81 3.98
Jarrod Parker 23 26 161.1 0.5 3.2 6.6 3.51 3.43
Dan Straily 23 5 28.1 2.5 3.2 6.7 4.13 6.40
A.J. Griffin 24 12 69.2 1.0 1.6 7.2 2.45 3.45
Travis Blackley 29 12 93.2 0.7 2.4 6.1 3.36 3.57

While the A's rotation as a unit ranks second in the league in both ERA (3.74) and  is tied for first in quality start rate (57 percent), Milone is the only one of their starters to have lasted the entire season in the rotation; the team has used 10 different starters thus far this year, which is actually a middle-of-the-pack figure (in a six-way tie for 12th in the majors). What's more unusual is that seven of those pitchers have made at least a dozen starts (Colon, McCarthy and Tyson Ross being the others) tying them with their fellow upstarts, the Orioles, for the major league lead. Injuries have been the main culprit; according to Carroll, the team is one of four contenders — along with the Rays, Orioles and Nationals — to lose at least 1,000 player days to the disabled list this year.

Such injuries have extended to the lineup as well, with Josh Reddick the only player to appear in more than 116 games thus far, though platoons and minor league stints have played a part there, too. The one constant for Oakland's season has been change; according to one report, one anonymous player posted a note in the clubhouse recently: "Please limit your AAA stories to one per day per person. Sincerely, Those lucky enough not to be there this year."

The A's currently have an 80.4 percent chance of making the postseason according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds report. If Blackley pitches to the level he has thus far, Anderson's absence won't cost the A's more than a couple of runs over the course of the rest of the regular season, but in a single-game elimination like the new wild-card format, such an absence looms large. Assuming the A's score and provide bullpen and defensive support at the same level regardless of pitcher or opponent — a huge assumption, but a baseline — and plugging in the Pythagorean formula, the dropoff from Anderson to Blackley based on their 2012 Fielding Independent Pitching estimates (2.67 for the former, 3.36 for the latter) translates to 84 points of winning percentage for a single game; use their career marks (3.57 for Anderson, 4.85 for Blackley) to offset the small sample sizes and the damage rises above 100 points of winning percentage. If the A's had a 50-50 shot at advancement with Anderson going in an elimination game (disregarding home-field advantage for the moment), the odds without him would tilt closer to 60-40 against them.

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