Who Will Be The Next A's Lefty Specialist?

The Oakland A's bid farewell to their longtime left-handed relief specialist on Monday, as Ricardo Rincon inked a two-year deal with the St. Louis Cardinals. With Rincon gone and the supply of lefty relievers on the free agent market looking rather slim, the A's may look into their farm system to find their next left-handed specialist. We take a look at the A's lefty relief prospects and analyze their effectiveness against left-handed hitters.

Back in the late-1980s, the Oakland A's made the role of lefty-specialist a popular one with their effective use of Rick Honeycutt. The Honeycutt role in the A's bullpen was filled admirably from 2002-2005 by veteran Ricardo Rincon. With Rincon on his way to St. Louis, the A's will be looking for a new lefty specialist for the first time in years.

Joe Kennedy may end up taking on Rincon's role by default in 2006 if the A's don't trade him or move him into the starting rotation. However, if he doesn't take on Rincon's role, the job will likely be rookie Ron Flores' to lose. However, over the next year or so, Flores could have some competition from other pitchers in the system. We take a look at the top five lefty relief prospects in the A's system. To analyze their effectiveness against lefties, we will breakdown their 2005 numbers into the following categories:

BAA or batting average against (i.e. the batting average that the opposition has against the pitcher)
GB:FB or groundball to flyball ratio (i.e. the number of groundballs against the number of flyballs allowed)
Extra-base hits allowed

Dallas Braden

Braden split his season between A-Stockton and AA-Midland, and he amassed an organization-best 15 wins and was named the A's Organizational Pitcher of the Year. Although Braden has spent the majority of his minor league career as a starting pitcher, many experts have projected Braden as a reliever because he doesn't have an overwhelming fastball. He does have an outstanding screwball to go along with his mid- to high-80s fastball. So how would Braden do as a left-handed relief specialist? Let's take a look at the numbers:

At Stockton:

Overall .201 BAA
.145 BAA lefties/ .232 righties
2:1 GB:FB lefties/ roughly 1:2 GB:FB righties
3 extra-base hits in 55 AB lefties/ 5 extra-base hits in 99 at-bats righties

At Midland:

Overall .282 BAA
.282 BAA lefties/ .281 righties
2:1 GB/FL lefties/ roughly 1:1 righties
4 extra-base hits in 71 AB lefties (0 homers)/ 22 extra-base hits in 338 AB (all 5 homers)

It appears from these numbers that Braden may very well have a future as a lefty specialist. He clearly dominated left-handed hitters during his stay in Stockton. The domination wasn't as obvious in Midland, as Braden's BAA was roughly even against righties and lefties. However, if you look closer, you can see that while lefties may have gotten hits off of Braden at AA, they didn't hit him with much authority. He didn't allow a homerun to a lefty and he allowed an extra-base hit to a lefty only once every 17.75 at-bats (he allowed an extra-base hit to a righty once every 15.3 at-bats).

Perhaps most impressive about Braden's numbers is his groundball to flyball ratio against lefties. At both AA and A, Braden induced two grounders for every flyball, a trend that bodes well for Braden's future success against lefties.

Ron Flores

Flores is the closest A's minor league lefty to the major leagues, and, in fact, he threw 8.2 innings of relief for the A's during the 2005 season. Barring a trade, Flores, a 2000 draft choice, will enter Spring Training with a strong chance to take Rincon's place in the A's bullpen. So what should we expect from Flores? Here's a look at his 2005 minor league numbers:

At Sacramento:

Overall: .213 BAA
.207 BAA lefties/ .216 BAA righties
1:1 GB:FL lefties/ 1:1.25 GB:FB righties
7 extra-base hits in 82 at-bats lefties/ 9 extra-base hits in 134 at-bats righties

Flores was very impressive against both righties and lefties in 2005, although he was slightly better against lefties. His role with the River Cats was similar to the role that he would have with the A's in that he often would come in to face Sacramento's opponent's best left-handed hitter.

The only blemish on Flores' 2005 season was an increased walk rate, especially against left-handed hitters. He walked nearly as many left-handed hitters (14) as he did right-handed hitters (16) in nearly half as many at-bats (82 AB against lefties and 134 AB against righties). That walk total was well out of line with his minor league track record and he didn't walk a batter in his 8.2 major league innings, so perhaps it was just an anomaly. He'll need to prove to Manager Ken Macha that he can throw strikes consistently during spring training to make the A's 25-man roster.

John Rheinecker

Rheinecker was once one of the A's top pitching prospects, but his star has dimmed some over the past three years due to injuries and ineffectiveness. He missed most of the 2005 season with a finger injury, although he did pitch very well before the injury. Rheinecker will likely begin the 2006 season in the Sacramento starting rotation, but his major league future may very well be in the bullpen, especially since the A's have a young rotation locked up for at least the next three years. So what do Rheinecker's 2005 minor league numbers tell us about his effectiveness against lefties?

At Sacramento:

Overall .181 BAA
.250 BAA lefties/ .158 BAA righties
1:1 GB:FB lefties/ 1.5:1 GB:FB righties
3 extra-base hits in 40 AB lefties/ 6 extra-base hits in 120 AB righties

As you can see, Rheinecker was actually more effective against righties last season. He held them to a lower batting average and induced more groundballs off of righties. Although this is a relatively small sample size, it may indicate that Rheinecker is better suited as a regular middle reliever then he would be as a lefty-specialist.

Steven Bondurant

Bondurant came into the 2005 season hoping to improve upon an outstanding 2004 campaign that saw him put up some of the best numbers of any pitcher in the Midwest League. He struggled at the end of the 2004 season after a promotion to AA, so Bondurant needed to prove that he could hold his own in AA. A classic soft-tossing lefty, Bondurant had an inconsistent season with Midland. At times, he looked as good as he did in Kane County. At other times, he was hit hard. In the end, he led the Rockhounds with wins (12) and finished with an ERA in the 4.00s. Soft-tossing lefties often make better relievers than they do starters, so Bondurant's future could be in the bullpen. His 2005 numbers seem to reflect promise that he could be a left-handed specialist in the future:

At Midland:

Overall: .271 BAA
.220 BAA lefties/ .284 BAA righties
1:1 GB:FB lefties/ 1:1.5 GB:FB righties
11 extra-base hits in 143 lefties/ 54 extra-base hits in 567 AB righties

Bondurant handled lefties with relative ease in 2005. Not only did he limit lefties to a batting average that was 64 points lower than he did to righties, but he also induced more groundballs off the bats of left-handers. His control was also better against lefties.

Matt Lynch

Lynch, like Bondurant, came into the 2005 season on a full head of steam after a strong 2004 campaign. Lynch spent his 2004 season with the Modesto A's, whom he helped lead to a California League championship. He began the 2005 season near the top of the Midland rotation. However, after a little more than half of a season of struggles, Lynch was moved to the bullpen. As you can see from the numbers, Lynch was far more effective as a reliever then he was as a starter. He went on to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, with some success. So how does Lynch's future look as a reliever based on his 2005 stats?

At Midland:

Overall: .284 BAA
Note: 2.48 ERA as a reliever (32.2 IP); 5.21 ERA as a starter (77.2 IP)
.316 BAA lefties/ .275 BAA righties
2.1:1 GB:FB lefties/ 1.5:1 GB:FB righties
7 extra-base hits in 98 AB lefties/ 27 extra-base hits in 346 AB righties

Based on batting average against alone, it would appear that Lynch was actually more effective against righties than lefties. However, upon closer inspection, Lynch actually seems to have had some tough luck against lefties. He did a good job inducing more groundballs than flyballs against lefties and limiting extra-bases hits. Lynch also had excellent command against lefties, walking only four in 98 at-bats (he walked 34 in 348 at-bats). These trends would indicate that Lynch will likely have better results against lefties in terms of batting average in the future.

Conclusion

There is no question that the A's are thin on left-handed pitchers in their minor league system. Flores is clearly the most polished and major league-ready left-handed relief prospect the A's have currently and he was a late round draft selection. That isn't likely to change next season, as the A's heavily invested in right-handed pitching in the 2005 draft. Nonetheless, left-handed pitching is hard to come by for any organization and certainly the A's will keep a close on eye these five pitchers and the rest of the left-handed pitching prospects as the year progresses. At the very least, the A's figure to get at least one good lefty relief specialist out of the bunch.


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