At this point in the season, the 61-76 Oakland A's have little to play for.
As a columnist, this fact gives me rather little to write about them. There are no playoff aspirations at this point, and it doesn't really matter how well certain players do in the next few weeks. At the same time, there's no real need to go on some sort of rant against the team: I'm confident that the long-term plan will work.
What is the long-term plan, you ask? Well, the A's clearly are building around a very young and surprisingly competent pitching staff. They also have a number of top hitting prospects, most notably Chris Carter, Brett Wallace, and Adrian Cardenas, in Triple-A. Once those three make it to the majors, they should begin to turn a terrible offense around.
As the offense goes from bad to decent, and the pitching goes from good to great (which it should if most of the pitchers follow normal development patterns), the A's could have similar results to the teams from the first half of this decade: namely, 90-plus wins and playoff berths.
Anyway, since I have plenty of hope for the future, but the immediate present doesn't matter, the amount of subject matter that inspires me to write about the team is little.
I considered just doing some prospect profiles to give A's fans some hope for the future, but that wouldn't relate too much to the big league club right now, which is the main thing I'm here to analyze.
So, eventually, I decided that it would be a good idea to examine each player individually, to get a good idea of where they are at this point in their career and see what the A's can expect from them in the future.
I'm going to start with Dallas Braden, simply because he's probably out for the season, so his 2009 performance won't change.
So here goes...
Braden went 8-9 with a 3.89 ERA this year. The win-loss record is bad luck: on a team with an actual offense, he'd have won at least 10 games. The ERA is pretty much right on, as FIP (3.72), and tRA (4.03) peg his run-prevention ability at a very similar level.
Braden only struck out 5.33 batters per nine innings this year, a pretty bad number. However, he's shown plenty of strikeout ability in the minors. He makes up for the lack of strikeouts with very good command and few walks (2.77 BB/9).
Braden keeps the ball in the park (0.59 HR/9), but it's worth noting that this could be somewhat lucky: his 4.7 percent HR/FB ratio is much lower than his career rates, and the A's play in a very pitcher-friendly ballpark. The account for this low HR/FB is what drives Braden's tRA above his FIP and ERA.
Braden is a pretty flyball-oriented pitcher, and he allowed a disturbing number of line drives this season (21.1 percent). His BABIP against is .307, which is probably a bit lucky given the high liner rate, although the flyball tendencies in a pitcher's park help correct this.
Braden's pitches find the zone 53.7 percent of the time, well above the MLB average of 49.3%. He gets ahead in the count nicely, getting strike one on 62.1 percent of batters.
In 2007 and 2008, Braden only threw about an average number of pitches in the strike zone, but got more batters to chase pitches out of the zone. This year, he seems to have changed his style, throwing a lot of strikes and pitching to contact instead of trying to miss bats like he did in the minors.
Because he throws a lot of strikes, Braden naturally induces an above-average number of swings (47.1 percent of his pitches are swung at; 45.2 percent is average). Batters also make contact on a good amount of their swings (83.7 percent; 80.5 percent is average), likely because most of Braden's pitches are in or near the zone.
Braden appears to be a No. 3 starter deserving of an ERA around 4.00. At age 25, he has a little bit of growth left—perhaps he can recover some of his strikeout ability, or perhaps he can refine his command even further—and should be a worthy No. 2 starter in the end.
Braden throws four pitches: a fastball, a slurvy breaking pitch, a cutter, and a changeup.
The fastball, coming in at 85-91 mph, averaged 87.9 this year, a career best. There's nothing particularly special about the pitch, as it's pretty straight and obviously doesn't have premium velocity, and Braden sensibly throws it less than most pitchers offer up their heaters (55.6%).
Braden does spot the pitch well, and excels at pounding righties down and in with it.
Statistically, Pitch Type Linear Weights show Braden's fastball to be pretty consistently below-average over his career, although not in "awful" territory. It was worth -.62 runs per 100 pitches this year.
The breaking ball is equally unimpressive, as it has pretty soft arc to it, coming in from 72-79 mph and averaging 75.5. Despite the lack of velocity, the pitch is technically a slider, not a curveball. It has a lot of sweeping action from left to right, but below-average drop, and the lack of velocity on the pitch hurts as well.
As with the fastball, Braden does show good command of the slider, rarely leaving it over the middle of the plate. He also is sensible enough to not overuse such a poor (at least in scouting terms) pitch, throwing it just 12.3 percent of the time.
Surprisingly, Pitch Type Linear Weights shows the pitch to be quite effective in both 2008 and 2009, coming in at 1.33 runs above average per 100 pitches this season.
The two factors that probably drive the breaking ball's success are Braden's command of the pitch and his low usage of it. His low usage—just one in every eight pitches is a breaking ball—makes the pitch more of a surprise to batters than Braden's fastball or changeup, and his premium command of the slider ensures that it will be spotted well.
Braden shouldn't start doubling his slider usage or anything just because PTLWs say the pitch is good. At its present usage, Braden's slider is quite good, but if he uses it much more, it will likely get overexposed and hit hard.
Braden just added the cutter this year, and nobody is going to mistake the pitch for Mariano Rivera's. It comes in very, very slow for a fastball at just 82.3 mph.
Braden's cutter moves similarly to his slider, but since it averages about seven more mph, the movement is considerably shorter and tighter. Like the slider, the cutter actually has pretty good movement compared to other cutters, but its relative lack of velocity makes the good movement much less impressive.
Braden uses the cutter to give hitters a different look from the fastball and slider, throwing it 10.3 percent of the time. Like the slider, it's pretty effective in that low usage, at 1.06 runs above average in the PTLWs.
It's worth noting that PTLWs had the cutter in the 2 runs above average range a couple of months into the season. Thereafter, Braden upped his usage of the pitch some, and its effectiveness went way down.
It could be that Braden's increased usage of the pitch doomed its effectiveness, but a more likely scenario is that the scouting reports were updated to include the cutter (remember, he didn't start throwing it until this year) and hitters figured it out once the pitch had been around the AL a few times.
Whatever the reason, the cutter's effectiveness will be something to watch in 2010.
Finally, there is Braden's famous changeup, which is thrown 65-76 mph.
There are a growing number of people, myself included, who think that when the pitch dips into the mid-to-high-60's range, it's actually Braden's mythical screwball.
If you don't know the screwball backstory, it goes something like this: Braden absolutely dominated the minors with a slow screwball nobody could hit. Then he blew out his arm, missed a year, then rocketed to the majors soon after returning. Once he got to Oakland, fans noticed that he didn't throw a screwball. We all wondered what the heck happened to it, until about a year later it was revealed that the A's told him to stop throwing it because it was a major cause of his arm problems.
But this year, about four or five times a game, he's thrown a pitch that certainly doesn't look like his regular changeup, going much slower and breaking much bigger. It's very possible that this pitch is the screwball, thrown on a very limited basis.
Anyway, largely in place of the screwball, Braden has developed an unbelievable changeup that seems to just stop in midair. He has the biggest fastball-changeup velocity differential in the majors this year, with 15.6 mph separating his fastball (87.9 mph) and change (72.3 mph).
The pitch actually doesn't have a whole lot of movement on it, with just average run and sink away from righthanders, but it's the velocity difference and deception on the pitch that make it so difficult. It's Braden's one plus pitch (if you exclude the screwball or lump it in with the changeup) and I don't feel hyperbolic in saying it's plus-plus.
Again, Braden understands this, and throws the changeup 21.4 percent of the time, far more than anything but the fastball. PTLWs show that the pitch is still very effective at this high usage, at 1.94 runs above average. It registered at 1.96 last year, so it's no fluke.
Scouting-wise, Braden has three poor pitches and one great one, but it's his poise, command, and effective use of what he has that makes it possible for him to succeed in the majors. He knows how much to use each of his pitches to get the most out of them, and his good command ensures that the pitches will be spotted well and tough to drive.