The Big Three has turned into the Big Two this season, and expected contributions from second-year starter Rich Harden and former Marlin Mark Redman have fallen short. While Tim Hudson (before re-injuring his problematic oblique muscle) and Mark Mulder have been two of the top ten pitchers in the major leagues this season, Barry Zito has experienced his worst season as a pro, and Mark Redman has been inconsistent, perhaps as a result of his heavy workload last season.
Hudson's strikeout rate has dipped way down (4.31 K/9 versus a career rate of 6.58), but he has only issued 24 walks all season, and has turned himself into an extreme groundball pitcher – a 2.39 groundball/flyball ratio, which is good for 5th in the majors, behind only Brandon Webb, Derek Lowe, Jake Westbrook, and Roy Halladay. He's also only given up 3 homeruns all season; no regular major league starter has given up less. It's hard to argue against his effectiveness with stats like that.
Mulder, although not as flashy as Hudson or Zito, is simply a machine. He puts up the same numbers, year after year: finishing games, exhibiting excellent control (although his walk numbers are up so far), posting ERAs in the low 3s, and working quickly and efficiently. He's finally getting the run support that's eluded him in other years, and enters the break with a 12-2 record and as the leading contender for the AL Cy Young award. Mulder has gone at least 6 innings in 16 of his 17 starts (he lasted 5 2/3 inning in the other start), and has gone at least 7 innings in 12 starts. Perhaps more importantly, Mark's allowed 3 or fewer runs in all but 4 starts.
Zito's decline is puzzling. His strikeout rate, which had fallen each of the last 2 years, is back up, but hitters are batting an amazing .282 against Zito. I say amazing because Zito's always been able to miss bats: his BAA in his first 4 seasons was .195, .230, .218, and .219. Perhaps even more troubling is that his homerun rate has skyrocketed. It's never been low, but jumping from a career rate of 0.79 HR/9 to 1.38 HR/9 this season is a big factor in his huge ERA jump (4.62, from a career level of 3.12 prior to this season). He's shown flashes of being able to put it together, which may indicate that the problems are more mental than physical. I'd put Miller behind the plate for all of his starts – he seems to work better with the pitchers, for whatever reason – and hope that he can put it together for a strong second half run.
As for Harden and Redman, both have been disappointing, but not Zito-disappointing. Harden has definitely shown improvement from 2003; being paired up with Curt Young again has seemed to help. His strikeouts are up, his walks have decreased a little bit, but Harden's problem is that he can't get through the order a second time. In innings 1-3, batters are only hitting .213/.312/.339 against Harden, but in innings 4-6, they are hitting him like he's Hideo Nomo for a line of .306/.376/.439. The problem seems to be inconsistency, not talent, which bodes well for the future. He's still got dominant stuff – an effortless fastball in the high-90s, and a nasty slider when it's on – and could put it together at any point.
Redman had a career year in 2003, but it appears to have taken its toll. He ranked 4th in the major leagues in Pitcher Abuse, according to Baseball Prospectus (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/statistics/pap_pitcher2003.html), and as a result, his strikeouts are down, his ERA is up, and he looks worn down. He'll tantalize with a decent game here and there, but not much more than that. He's still an OK fifth starter, but he might be replaced in the rotation by Kirk Saarloos or Justin Duchsherer if he can be traded by the deadline, or if he continues to get shelled on a regular basis.
Terrible. That's one word to describe a unit that has been among the worst in baseball. The relief corps is arguably bottom-five in the major leagues in 2004, after ranking 6th, 15th, 2nd, and 12th the past four years according to Baseball Prospectus' Adjusted Runs Prevented. Well, "arguably" is the wrong word to use. They are bottom five in baseball. What's gone wrong?
Well, Keith Foulke left for greener pastures in the offseason, and was replaced for most of the season by Arthur Rhodes. Chad Bradford and Ricardo Rincon, once reliable situational relievers, were used in longer stints, and failed. Jim Mecir has been up and down. Chris Hammond has been a bust. Only Justin Duchsherer has been a quality reliever. With Rhodes struggling as the closer, and all the other relievers save the Duke struggling and/or injured, Ken Macha had his hands tied with bullpen decisions (more on that later).
Billy Beane already made a big trade here to help fix this problem, adding former Houston reliever Octavio Dotel to shore up the bullpen, and let the rest of the members settle into more comfortable roles. While Dotel has been unsuccessful so far (7.94 ERA since coming to Oakland), his peripheral numbers indicate that better days are ahead. His struggles are similar to that of Twins pitcher Johan Santana. In April and May, Santana posted an ERA of 5.61, largely due to an inordinately high opponents' batting average of .294 during those months. But his strikeout rate of 7.96 K/9 indicated that his stuff was still there. Dotel is similar; he was dominant in Houston before coming to Oakland, and then his opponents' batting average shot up to .378 from .213, despite a constant K rate, and as a result, his ERA more than doubled. Isolating that even further, opponents are hitting a ridiculous .536 versus Dotel in an Oakland uniform on balls put in play. That number is startling when the league batting average for balls in play is around .300, and that Dotel's BABIP was .315 in Houston. Santana has been one of the league's best pitchers recently, and expect a similar turnaround from Dotel, as long as Macha realizes that he doesn't need to use him in every game.
As for the rest of the relievers, I touched on this in depth when analyzing the Dotel trade, but Bradford and Rincon should be used situationally. Rincon is killing lefties to the tune of .159/.174/.182, and Bradford is shutting down righties at a .240/.270/.356 clip. Duchsherer and Lehr can be used as setup men. Rhodes, Hammond, and Mecir should either be released or traded for "cash considerations," even if those considerations total up to $3. By tightening up the bullpen, the A's can expect a much better performance in the second half.
Macha's done an OK job so far this year; at least he doesn't regularly give away outs like some other major league managers by bunting in the second inning. But he needs to improve on his player communication skills and his player usage, especially in the bullpen. Here are some tips for him:
- Don't EVER write Karros' name in the lineup
- Bradford should only pitch to right-handed batters
- Rincon should only pitch to left-handed batters
- Ease up on Dotel; he doesn't need to be in every game
- Give some guys a day off once in awhile
- Don't put Mecir, Hammond, or Rhodes in a game unless we're ahead or behind by 6+ runs
- Don't ride the starters too hard
Comments or Questions? Email Adam Miller at email@example.com
A's First Half Review: Part Two
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