May 10, 2010, 6:30 PM EDT
A 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.
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