One up in the wild card

By Jason Wojciechowski on August 20, 2003 at 2:35 PM

The A's pulled one out yesterday, though the bad luck flowed both ways, so it was really either team's game. Oakland's bullpen fared better in the end, though, and that was the difference.

Mark Mulder is the first worry: he left after just three innings with a hip strain. There's not much more information than that, but Will Carroll said in an email response to me that more information would be coming in today's UTK at Baseball Prospectus. UTK alone is practically worth the price of admission at BP, by the way, and I'm not getting a commission for saying that.

Mulder was not all that effective, allowing eight baserunners and two runs in those three innings, and he threw 60 pitches despite usually being one of the most efficient pitchers in baseball. Mulder has thrown just 14 pitches per inning this year, fourth in all of baseball, behind only the usual suspects (David Wells and Greg Maddux) as well as Roy Halladay.

As usual, the offense is the second worry, as the A's managed just two hits and no walks in six innings against Derek Lowe, who's been off all season (4.83 ERA). Luckily for Oakland, Lowe got a blister on his thumb and had to leave after that inning. Some fans, as usual, are crying "suck it up!" though Lowe noted that the blister actually cropped up around the second inning, and became too much for him after the sixth. As I noted in a comment at another blog, the question is generally not whether a player can take the pain anymore, it's whether the injury is affecting the play. A blister on the throwing hand means the pitcher can't grip the ball as well, and it can throw him off. We can't really know how much Lowe was affected, but to assume that a professional athlete can't tolerate pain seems irrational. The comeback to that in this case, though, is that Lowe was obviously pitching just fine. The question becomes one of whether you trust that he'll continue to pitch just fine, or whether he's likely to go out there and completely blow up because he can't hold the ball properly. It's a hard question, but it's why the trainers and managers and pitching coaches get the big bucks.

So anyway, after Lowe left, Eric Chavez and Erubiel Durazo drew walks against Scott Sauerbeck, and Ramon Hernandez hit a ball over the Green Monster to give the A">Eric Chavez and Erubiel Durazo drew walks against Scott Sauerbeck, and Ramon Hernandez hit a ball over the Green Monster to give the A's the 3-2 lead.
The bullpen (at that point, Chad Bradford and Keith Foulke (who else?)) made the lead stand up.

So the A's got a little lucky with Lowe being knocked out, but it was the middle of the Oakland bullpen that put them in a position to take advantage of that scrap of luck. Chad Harville (how many teams have two Chad's in the bullpen?) and Ricardo Rincon came together to pitch four innings of shutout ball after Mulder was knocked out, setting up Hernandez' go-ahead blast. Between them, Harville and Rincon allowed four walks and a hit against four strikeouts.

I'm not really pro-Harville (he's got a girly middle name, after all), particularly since he was a factor in costing the A's Adam Piatt (more on that later), but he has been waiting for this opportunity for a while. He's still only 26, even though it seems like he should be about 30 by now, and he's walking almost a batter an inning, but he is in the positive in ARP in his seven innings this year, which is more than we can say for Jim Mecir.

What about Ramon Hernandez' power explosion this year? He still doesn't get on base (his OBPs for the last four years are remarkably consistent, despite fluctuating batting averages: .311, .316, .313, .314), but his isolated power is the highest of his career, at almost .196. His 17 homers are already a career high, and he's got a month and a half to hit six more doubles to tie his 2001 mark of 25. His RARP place him 11th in baseball, while his VORP marks him 10th (the disagreement is over AJ Pierzynski, who had his virtues extolled by Aaron Gleeman about a week ago).

This level of performance is very nice for the price the A's are paying (many of the players ahead of Hernandez are highly paid veterans like Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, Jorge Posada, and the like), though he's certainly a different player than many expected. In an old Baseball Prospectus, maybe 1999 (and conveniently, that's the one year that is left out on his PECOTA card about the A's thinking he might need to move out from behind the plate, perhaps over to first base. The thought was that Hernandez would be a defensive liability at first, but would hit well enough to carry first base. Obviously, neither of these has turned out: Hernandez is a highly regarded defensive catcher, and his defensive numbers bear that out (23, 37, 33 defensive runs above replacement the last three years, third in the AL in defensive Win Shares (estimated) as of August 10); meanwhile, his .264 EqA is about 20 points below average for a first baseman, so he'd be a Wil Cordero-type offensive liability at that position.

Speaking of PECOTA, though, how does that .264 EqA fit into his forecast?
Somewhere just above the 75th percentile, it turns out, about 20 points above his weighted mean. Hernandez actually had a 25% collapse rate coming into the season, and his comparables list includes such luminaries as Chris Hoiles in 1992 and Scott Servais in 1994. In other words, Hernandez' first three years in the majors didn't inspire the same confidence that hitting 361/427/572 in West Michigan (A) in 1996 did.

On to Adam Piatt. The Devil Rays claimed him off of waivers, so he gets to go join Ben Grieve down in Tampa. You have to feel sorry for that turn of events, but at least he might get more consistent playing time in teal. Grieve and Piatt were actually only teammates for 60 games in 2000, despite being just three months apart in age. Piatt went to college at Mississippi State and wasn't drafted for good (i.e. drafted, then signed) until 1997, when Grieve got a cup of coffee with the A's for the first time.

If the Devil Rays are willing to let Piatt re-learn third base, he's got himself a nice place to play. Rocco Baldelli's not going to get bumped, Aubrey Huff is simply a better hitter, and Piatt's not going to play center over Carl Crawford, regardless of the bats. Travis Lee's actually having a tidy little season, for a Devil Ray, and Ben Grieve should be the DH. That leaves third base, since Piatt's certainly not going to catch or play the middle infield. Unfortunately, I don't know if anyone remembers that Piatt was a third baseman, and really only got moved off of the position because there was a little rock in his way named Eric Chavez. This seems to relegate Piatt (again) to pinch-hitting duties, which is a shame, since it'd be nice if a bad club claiming him would have the decency to at least have a spot for him to play every day.

People argue that he's never going to make it, but I think it's a shame that it's more likely that we'll just never really be able to find out whether he could mash at the major league level. There are signs and indicators both ways, but the biggest sign points to "bench lifer." I'm not sure what his free agency status is, but he's at least eligible for arbitration and, it seems, quite likely to be non-tendered. Hopefully he can latch on with a team like Detroit, Baltimore, or New York (NL) and play every day.

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