Dallas Braden's unexpected path to fame


braden throwing.jpgA Mark Mulder or Barry Zito he wasn’t.
Dallas Braden was drafted by the A’s out of Texas Tech in the 24th round in 2004. A polished left-hander with an underwhelming fastball but one very unusual weapon, he went 15-5 with a 3.52 ERA between Single-A Stockton and Double-A Midland in his first full pro season in 2005. That got him some notice, mostly because he was such an oddity.
The key to Braden’s success then was his exceptional screwball, a pitch that has largely disappeared from MLB through the years. At the time, noted screwballer John Franco was finishing up one of the greatest careers of any reliever in history. Still, the pitch had ruined too many arms and no one had been learning it as a result.
Braden was viewed as a one-trick pony. After his 15-win season, Baseball America ranked him as the No. 19 prospect in the game’s 26th best farm system, saying the screwball was “his only above-average pitch.” He was more a curiosity than a prospect. Then, suddenly, he wasn’t really either.
In Feb. 2006, the A’s announced that Braden underwent shoulder surgery. The screwball had apparently already taken a heavy toll. Braden returned in July, and while he dominated Rookie ball hitters in his rehab assignment, he gave up 15 runs in 16 1/3 innings at higher levels. Worse, the screwball was effectively gone from his arsenal. Baseball America didn’t view him as one of Oakland’s top 30 prospects going into 2007.
The A’s themselves, though, obviously saw something they liked. Braden was called up to make his major league debut that April 24. Filling in for Rich Harden, he beat the Orioles and lost to the Rays before being sent back down. He kept bouncing back and forth from there, finishing with a 2.84 ERA and an 87/21 K/BB ratio in 76 innings in the minors, but 1-8 with a 6.72 ERA in 14 starts and six relief appearances for Oakland.
Those struggles in the majors meant he wasn’t given much of a shot at making the team the following spring. Indeed, he spent last time in the majors in 2008 than he did as a rookie. However, he improved to a 4.14 ERA in 10 starts and nine relief appearances. Not only was he penciled onto to the 2009 staff as a result, but he was even named the Opening Day starter.
Since then, Braden has a 3.74 ERA in 29 starts. He missed the final two months of last year with a rash on his left foot that led to nerve damage, but he’s the Athletics’ most reliable starter, even though he rarely touches 90 mph on the gun.
With his screwball shelved, Braden improved his changeup and slider and picked up a cutter. His changeup now ranks as one of the best of the game, allowing him to keep right-handers off balance. It takes about a thousand soft-tossing lefties to come up with a Tom Glavine or a Jamie Moyer, but Braden clearly has some Moyer in him.
Aided considerably by McAfee Coliseum, Braden probably is pitching above his head right now. Since he generates a bunch of infield popups, he takes advantage of the ballpark’s huge amount of foul territory just like Zito used to. That’s no fluke, but it doesn’t entirely explain Braden’s .245 average against on balls in play. Given his modest strikeout rate, Braden should be giving up right around a hit an inning. Of course, he was as of Saturday. Now he’s allowed 37 in 46 innings.
Braden’s perfect game against a red-hot Rays team was an incredible feat. He can frustrate a lot of hitters with slow stuff when he’s on. He seems to have become a master of putting his changeup just out of reach of right-handed hitters. The 26-year-old hasn’t suddenly become an ace, but he’s likely to hang around a lot longer than 15 minutes.

Cardinals take 1-0 NLDS lead over the Cubs behind John Lackey’s brilliant outing

John Lackey
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
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John Lackey flirted with a no-hitter but settled for 7 1/3 terrific, shutout innings to beat the Cubs in Game 1 of the NLDS on Friday. The right-hander held the opposition to two hits and a walk while striking out five. Lefty reliever Kevin Siegrist struck out two to finish the eighth without issue. Closer Trevor Rosenthal worked around a one-out walk and a two-out single in the ninth to seal the 4-0 win, recording all three outs on called strike threes.

Lackey brought a no-hitter into the sixth inning, but lost it quickly when Addison Russell hit a ground ball single up the middle to lead off the frame. Russell would steal second base but was stranded.

Opposing starter Jon Lester wasn’t too shabby himself, relenting three runs on five hits while walking one and striking out nine in 7 1/3 innings. The first run came around in the first inning on Matt Holliday‘s RBI single, which followed a one-out double by Stephen Piscotty. Tommy Pham pinch-hit in the pitcher’s spot in the eighth inning and launched a solo home run off of Lester to double the Cardinals’ lead. Lester walked Matt Carpenter before exiting. Pedro Strop came in and promptly served up a two-run home run to Stephen Piscotty.

The closest the Cubs came to scoring was when Dexter Fowler sent a deep fly ball to right field with a man on base and two outs in the sixth inning, but Randal Grichuk caught it with a foot or two to spare in front of the fence on the warning track.

The two clubs will play Game 2 of the NLDS on Saturday at 5:30 PM EDT. Kyle Hendricks will start for the Cubs and oppose Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia.

Astros err in letting Scott Kazmir start sixth

Scott Kazmir
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Scott Kazmir went winless with a 6.52 ERA in six September starts. He allowed 41 hits, eight of them homers, in 29 innings, posting an 18/11 K/BB ratio. When the Astros got five innings of two-run ball from him Friday against the Royals, they should have thanked their good fortune and moved right along to the pen.

And they knew this. They must have. Josh Fields got up in the pen after Kazmir issued a one-out walk in the fifth. The left-hander got out of the frame, making himself eligible for the victory in what was then a 4-2 game, but it was still very surprising to see him come back out for the sixth, particularly with the switch-hitting Ben Zobrist (.926 OPS against lefties) and right-handed Lorenzo Cain due up.

Kazmir retired Zobrist, but he gave up a double to Cain. He was then pulled, even with the left-handed Eric Hosmer coming up. Manager A.J. Hinch had committed my biggest baseball pet peeve: he sent his starter back to the mound with the idea of pulling him after his first mistake.

It worked out terribly. Oliver Perez gave up a pair of soft hits to Hosmer and Kendrys Morales before walking Mike Moustakas. Fields then entered and walked the unwalkable Salvador Perez to tie the game at 4. The Astros gave up another run in the seventh and lost the game 5-4.

Maybe that’s the way it would have worked out anyway. Kazmir did give up just the one baserunner. It might not have even harmed the Astros if Perez had better luck.

Still, the thinking that went into the decision was disturbing. It’s always better to bring that reliever in with no one on base when you can. That’s especially the case with this Astros pen, which lacks a double-play specialist, much less a Wade Davis. But anyone in that pen would have been a better choice than sending Kazmir out to face Zobrist and Cain for a third time. Hinch needs to be more aggressive going forward.

Cardinals’ giveaway incorrectly claims ownership of 2001 division title

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The Cardinals have won so many division titles, it’s tough to keep track of them all. At least, it would be tough if it weren’t for Baseball Reference.

40,000 rally towels were given away to fans at Busch Stadium ahead of Friday’s NLDS Game 1 against the Cubs. The towel listed all of the years the Cardinals won the NL Central… and 2001. That year, they tied with the Astros for the best record in the National League at 93-69. However, because the Astros won the season series 9-7, they were awarded first place and the Cardinals took the Wild Card.