I was looking for a photograph to represent the A's 2007 season in a nutshell. I settled on this one. Partly because, in a nutshell, there was something not quite right about the A's in 2007, and these guys look like they're doing what you would do if there was something not quite right with your nutshell. And partly because we can use these two players, Dallas Braden and Bobby Crosby, to represent both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Oakland Athletics organization.
One of the things the A's under Billy Beane have been exceptionally good at has been finding good pitching. Contrary to their stats-only Moneyball-based reputation, the A's formula for finding pitching is based on a combination of stats and scouting. The A's look for pitchers with good stats who are also good athletes. Before Beane took over, the A's consistently failed for decades to draft and develop good pitching. Pick after pick flopped, including the much-hyped Todd Van Poppel. Beane turned this around, using Van Poppel as a example of what to avoid: the big body with the big arm who lacks any evidence of success. Beane started drafting pitchers with good stats combined with good athleticism. Neither Tim Hudson nor Rich Harden nor Huston Street nor Chad Gaudin are particularly tall fellows, but they all exhibit great body control. Justin Duchscherer and Barry Zito were both fairly tall, but didn't throw particularly hard. But they all got outs, nonetheless.
Dallas Braden was a 24th-round draft pick of the A's in the 2004 draft, a soft-tossing lefty the A's decided to take a chance on. Shortly after he was drafted, Braden started messing around with a screwball. The screwball befuddled minor league hitters, and he quickly climbed the ladder. But he had some elbow troubles in 2006, so in 2007, the A's asked him to throw his changeup, which was also considered quite good, instead of the screwball, to keep his arm healthy.
Finding Dallas Braden is an example of what the A's do right. What happened to him in 2007 is an example of what the A's have done wrong. Braden got hurt, so they asked him to change his repertoire. Then a bunch of other pitchers got hurt. So the 23-year-old Braden got called up to the major leagues, before he had much of a chance to learn how to win with this new repertoire. He was basically asked to perform an experiment at the major league level. It didn't go so well: he went 1-8 with a 6.72 ERA in 72 2/3 innings.
Still, there were signs of success. The first time through the order, batters hit .250/.327/.364 off him. The second time through: .274/.335/.425. Third time: .500/.518/.870. So we learned something: either Braden should be a reliever, or he needs more time in the minors to learn how to get batters out multiple times per game, and/or he needs to go back to throwing his screwball to get major league hitters out consistently, potential elbow problems be damned.
None of which is so unusual in the development of a young pitcher. But preferably, you'd like to see that development take place in the minors, not in the majors. Braden still might turn out to be a good pitcher, but he still has some learning to do, and at age 23, he still has time to do it. But the injuries to Harden and Esteban Loaiza in the rotation, as well as to Duchscherer, Street and Kiko Calero in the pen caused a cascade of player moves throughout the organization that pushed players like Braden into roles they were not quite ready for.
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Nobody, except perhaps Rich Harden, symbolizes the A's injury frustrations more than Bobby Crosby. He won the rookie of the year in 2004, and made some strides at the plate in 2005. But he's lost a large chunk of each of the past three seasons, and has been regressing horribly at the plate. Whether Crosby's development has been hurt by all the injuries, or he just was not all that good to begin with, is hard to tell. But .226/.278/.341 is hard to live with.
Still, Crosby also represents another traditional strength of the A's under Billy Beane: good defense. Look at these numbers comparing the AVG/OBP/SLG against the A's when Crosby has been healthy compared to his large absences:
When Crosby has been the everyday SS, the opponents' batting average has been about .024 lower than when he's been missing. Now, obviously, that's not all Crosby's doing, but clearly he's a very good defensive shortstop.
But the bigger problem here is that there really isn't any good alternative to Crosby in the system. And that's because it seems the A's have a systemic weakness at drafting and developing talent in the middle of the diamond. Going into next season, the two positions where the A's could clearly use some improvement are at shortstop and centerfield. But the A's have nobody in the minor leagues who you can turn to and say, "that's the guy who is clearly going to own SS/2B/CF someday." In fact, since the A's made Rick Monday the first-ever draft pick back in 1965, I could only find ten players the A's drafted who spent any good length of time (3+ years) as a regular MLB player at 2B, SS or CF:
1965 Rick Monday CF
1970 Dan Ford CF
1973 Dwayne Murphy CF
1976 Rickey Henderson CF
1981 Mike Gallego SS
1985 Walt Weiss SS
1988 Darren Lewis CF
1993 Scott Spiezio 2B
1998 Eric Byrnes CF
2001 Bobby Crosby SS
Basically, the A's haven't drafted an all-star quality player up the middle of the diamond in over thirty years. Of course, Miguel Tejada came along in there, but he wasn't a draft pick.
Why this lack of draft success? Perhaps it's just bad luck, but 30 years is an awful long streak of bad luck for three key positions. There are a lot of exciting young players at 2B and SS and CF in baseball these days, but the A's have exactly zero of them. At this point, the burden of proof is on the A's management to go out and find a good player at one, if not all, of these positions.
Perhaps those three positions are the three positions where scouts matter more than stats, where athleticism matters more toward future results than past production, and so the A's, with their stats-heavy focus, either miss in their evaluation of these players, or find them too risky to be worth investing in.
Maybe the A's simply know what they're good at (finding pitching, corner players), and not good at (finding 2B/SS/CF) and figure they can trade what they have for what they're missing later. That's fine, too, as long as you can find that trade. Show us what you got, Billy Beane. Let the hot stove begin...