Dallas Braden's unexpected path to fame

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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.

What’s on Tap: Previewing Thursday’s action

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 18:  Manny Machado #13 of the Baltimore Orioles celbrates hitting a solo home run in the sixth inning during a baseball game against the against the Tampa Bay Rays at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 18, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.  The Orioles won 2-1.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
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With each division now spoken for, our attention now turns to the Wild Card races. The Blue Jays hold a one-game lead over the Orioles for the first Wild Card slot in the American League while the Orioles have a one-game lead over the Tigers for the second slot. The Jays and O’s will do battle on Thursday night and each of the four other teams alive in the AL Wild Card race are rooting for the Jays to win. The Yankees and Astros can both be eliminated from Wild Card contention if the Orioles win one more game or if they each lose one more game. The Mariners are also active in the Wild Card hunt, currently two games behind the Orioles.

Over in the National League, the Giants have a one-game lead over the Cardinals for the second Wild Card slot. The Giants get to play the Rockies while the Cardinals face the lowly Reds. The Mets, who currently own the first Wild Card slot, have the night off.

Asterisks denote that the game is relevant to the Wild Card.

The rest of Thursday’s action…

*Boston Red Sox (Henry Owens) @ New York Yankees (CC Sabathia), 7:05 PM EDT

Chicago Cubs (Rob Zastryzny) @ Pittsburgh Pirates (Ivan Nova), 7:05 PM EDT

*Baltimore Orioles (Ubaldo Jimenez) @ Toronto Blue Jays (Marcus Stroman), 7:07 PM EDT

Philadelphia Phillies (Jeremy Hellickson) @ Atlanta Braves (Josh Collmenter), 7:10 PM EDT

*Cincinnati Reds (Dan Straily) @ St. Louis Cardinals (Alex Reyes), 7:15 PM EDT

Minnesota Twins (Kyle Gibson) @ Kansas City Royals (Danny Duffy), 7:15 PM EDT

Tampa Bay Rays (Chris Archer) @ Chicago White Sox (Jose Quintana), 8:10 PM EDT

Los Angeles Dodgers (Julio Urias) @ San Diego Padres (Christian Friedrich), 9:10 PM EDT

*Oakland Athletics (Kendall Graveman) @ Seattle Mariners (Ariel Miranda), 10:10 PM EDT

*Colorado Rockies (Jon Gray) @ San Francisco Giants (Johnny Cueto), 10:15 PM EDT

Who should win the MVP Awards? Who will?

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 20:  Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs bats during the second inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field on September 20, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cardinals defeated the Cubs 4-3. (Photo by John Konstantaras/Getty Images)
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With the regular season ending on Sunday and most of the playoff spots locked up, there’s really only one big thing left to argue about: postseason awards. So let’s spend some time looking at who should win each of the four major awards and who will win them. Which are often totally different things. First up: The MVP Awards. 

Who should win the AL MVP Award? 

We at HBT have tended to lean toward the idea that the best player should win the MVP Award, regardless of whether his team wins or not. It’s not an iron-clad thing, of course. In the past I’ve supported some more narrative-driven MVP candidates and, more importantly, deciding who is “the best player” in an objective sense is not always a cut-and-dried endeavor. Defense is an inexact science. Players often have competing apples and oranges arguments for their candidacies.

If you look at “best overall player” this year, however, it’s hard to say that Mike Trout and his line of .318/.441/.556 with 29 homers and his usual solid-to-outstanding center field defense is not that guy. Yes, his team stinks, and no, his 2016 season isn’t head and shoulders above any number of his other excellent seasons, making him a less-than-sexy choice in a lot of ways. But it’s hard to stand head and shoulders above uniform excellence and no matter what you think of stuff like WAR and all that goes into it, Trout has a 1.5 WAR lead over Mookie Betts according to FanGraphs and 1.3 according to Baseball Reference. It’s a pretty significant separation, especially when you realize that, dang, Betts is having a whale of a season himself (.320/.365/.538).

Still, Trout isn’t a unanimous pick even with the HBT team, which has it this way:

Craig: Trout
Bill: Trout
Ashley: Betts

Who will win the AL MVP Award?

There has been a lot of talk about Betts and his teammate, David Ortiz, splitting the vote, as it were. Maybe that was a thing that happened more often back in the day when narrative-driven awards were more common, but I think today’s BBWAA voters are way more savvy than that. I think that Ortiz will get some votes thrown his way by virtue of his outstanding offensive season (.316/.401/.622, 37 HR, 124 RBI) and the storybook ending to his career, but I think Betts will ultimately carry the day with the better overall and all-around performance. MVP PREDICTION: MOOKIE BETTS.

Who should win the NL MVP Award?

There are a lot of guys putting up years that, under different circumstances, would be MVP worthy. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman, Nolan Arenado, Daniel Murphy, Joey Votto and Corey Seager are all having outstanding campaigns. Most of them are bunched up as far as WAR goes, more so with Baseball-Reference.com’s version, a little less so with FanGraphs. Bryant leads both versions and is putting up outstanding offensive numbers. Murphy, Freeman and Votto are hitting a tad better than him depending on how you measure it, but have less defensive value. Seager’s mix of defense and offense may be closer to what Bryant is doing, although Arenado might have something to say about that. There are a lot of good choices.

Bryant is the best choice, however. His hitting — .293/.387/.560, 39 HR, 101 RBI — is better than the other all-around candidates and his defensive versatility — he’s played all three outfield positions as well as his usual third base — sets him apart. He’s been the best player in the NL this year.

Craig: Bryant
Bill: Bryant
Ashley:Bryant

Who will win the NL MVP Award?

This is one of those years where I suspect our views will match that of the voters. MVP PREDICTION: Bryant, possibly unanimously.