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The Big Free? First Half Grades: The Pitchers

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[EDITOR'S NOTE: The analysis below does not include stats from tonight's game - Blez]

The A's starting pitching has once again, and much quicker than expected become a strength of this team. The A's have a foundation of a great rotation for the next five seasons with Rich Harden, Danny Haren and Joe Blanton quickly coming of age. And the best part? They're all affordable. Rich Harden makes $750,000 this season. Danny Haren makes $323,500. Joe Blanton is making $316,500. Kirk Saarloos is making close to the minimum (I can't seem to find his salary anywhere). And Barry Zito is the high-priced ticket on the staff, making $5.6 million. That's roughly $7.5 million for the entire rotation, or exactly $1 million more than Tim Hudson earns on his own. Or $1.5 million more than Mulder is earning this year.

But did the A's get the results for their bargain shopping for a rotation? Let's take a look at the pitching for the first half of 2005 and find out.

STARTING PITCHING

Barry Zito: Zito is supposed to be the ace of the staff. And yet he only has five wins through the halfway point of the season? But a closer look at Zito's stats reveal that he's been surprisingly consistent over the past two months. He posted a 3.49 ERA in May, when the A's offense couldn't score in a whorehouse with a $1,000 bill stapled to its forehead. In June, Zito dropped that ERA even lower to 3.05. And though he only has only start in July, his ERA is 2.25. Why the sudden and dramatic turnaround? For years, people had pushed Zito to add a pitch. But he resisted because he won a Cy Young being a three-pitch pitcher. Well, Zito finally added that new pitch, which is a slider. He also has a two-seam fastball now, so hitters can't just zone in and wait for the fastball. It also seems that adding those new pitches has helped his curveball command. He's getting it over and getting it called strikes once again. His batting average against is still fantastic, sitting at .230, down from 2004 when it sat at .263. He still needs to cut down on the walks. He's on pace for 90 walks this year which will eventually kill him. But that could be attributed to the fact that he's working with new pitches.

Career Average: 3.48 ERA, 2.05 K/BB

Stats After 40 Games: 5.17 ERA, 1.65 K/BB

Current Stats: 4.07 ERA, 1.76 K/BB

Grade: B-

Rich Harden: There are two key defining moments to the 2005 season thus far, in my opinion. The day Bobby Crosby returned from the DL and the day that Rich Harden went on the DL. Harden had an oblique problem which sent the A's scrambling to try and fill their rotation with serviceable pitchers. The drop down from Rich Harden to Seth Etherton and Ryan Glynn is sort of like going from Jessica Alba to Rosie O'Donnell. This injury put the A's was one of the major reasons the A's fell into that brutal tailspin. When Harden has pitched, he's seemed like a perennial Cy Young candidate. But the truth is that Harden is the ace on this team and will be for years to come. His walks to strikeout ratio is continuing to climn (walks were a problem earlier in his career) and opposition players have routinely praised/complained about how tough Harden is to hit. Two things to note about Harden. Even though his K/9 has dropped a little each year, the number of pitches per plate appearance is also dropping. Second, the OPS against Harden has also plummeted the three years he's been pitching in Oakland.

Career Averages: 3.74 ERA, 2.07 K/BB

Stats Through 40 Games: 2.80 ERA, 2.80 K/BB

Current Stats: 2.15 ERA, 2.94 K/BB

Grade: A

Danny Haren:: Haren would be a possible ace on so many teams in baseball. Maybe even the Cardinals. But with the A's, Haren slides nicely into the number three spot in the rotation behind Harden and Zito. He has been nothing short of sensational since the last time he was graded here on AN. He raised his walk to strikeout ratio a full strikeout. He lowered his ERA by a run and a quarter. He also pitched two complete games and has quality starts in nearly all of his outings. For someone who is basically making his first full go around through the majors as a starter, Haren has been off-the-charts good. And the fact that the A's are only paying him close to the minimum is even better. My only concern with Haren for the second half is a fatigue factor. He's on-pace for over 230 innings pitched and sometimes young guys lose it a little bit come August and September. This is where Macha needs to be cautious. Everyone would love to see the A's make the playoffs this year, but not at the cost of a player's health or consistency going forward. This team was built for this year AND beyond.

Career Averages: 4.41 ERA, 2.22 K/BB

Stats Through 40 Games: 5.19 ERA, 1.56 K/BB

Current Stats: 3.96 ERA, 2.56 K/BB

Grade: B+

Joe Blanton: Smokin' Joe became Simmerin' Joe who then became Smokin' Joe again. Blanton had one of the worst months pitching in May, but then made a Rocky Balboa-like comeback in June to post remarkable numbers. He won June Rookie of the Month honors for his outstanding performance, posting a 2.06 ERA for the month and going 5-1. But May was just ridiculously bad. He had a 13.25 ERA for the month and opponents batted nearly .400 off of him. It's expected that Blanton will have an up and down season in his first year, but for him to be so outrageously good and then so miserably bad? Blanton will likely wind up somewhere in the middle. The best news about Blanton is that he's actually started to strike people out which was a concern for the first two months of the year. He had 28 strikeouts in June as opposed to 16 for April and May combined. I also have the same concern about Blanton being overused, although he's only on pace for 200 IP.

Career Averages: 4.53 ERA, 1.47 K/BB

Stats Through 40 Games: 5.15 ERA, 0.68 K/BB

Current Stats: 4.44 ERA, 1.38 K/BB

Grade: B-

Kirk Saarloos: I said back when I gave out my first quarter grades that Saarloos had provided exactly what you want from a fifth starter. A guy who gives you a chance to win each time out without getting rocked. He wasn't going deep enough into games. Of his first 11 starts, he only lasted past the fifth inning three times. Saarloos was close to losing his position in the rotation because of this fact. But over the past three starts, he's lasted 6.1 IP, 9.0 IP and 7.0 IP. So, Los Kirk seems to have turned that corner. He isn't going to overpower anyone, but with a good sinker and a recently-added slider, the 26-year-old seems like he's primed to be as solid a fifth starter in the AL as there is.

Career Averages: 4.92 ERA, 1.55 K/BB

Stats Through 40 Games: 4.64 ERA, 0.72 K/BB

Current Stats: 3.94 ERA, 0.82 K/BB

Grade: C+

BULLPEN

Justin Duchscherer:Justin Duchscherer. All Star. Yes, the Duke has been recognized for being a Justin-of-all-Trades. Duke has been a middle relief guy, a long relief guy, a set-up guy and even a closer. He's been able to succeed in nearly every role, despite not having overpowering stuff. What he does have, is one of the best curveballs this side of Barry Zito. He has been absolutely filthy this year, boasting one of the best K/BB ratios on the team. I honestly didn't believe that Duke could keep up his stats through 81 games, but he has. He's one of those rare pitchers who just gives you the feeling that he's going to shut down the opposition, no matter the situation. But what said the most to me about his fortitude was the ability to act as closer while Huston Street was out. He's been rewarded with an upcoming appearance in Detroit. The only knock on Duchscherer is the fact that out of 16 inherited runners, he's allowed nine of them to score.

Career Averages: 3.56 ERA, 2.65 K/BB

Stats Through 40 Games: 1.33 ERA, 6.00 K/BB

Current Stats: 1.41 ERA, 4.67 K/BB

Grade: A

Ricardo Rincon: Rincon frustrates me, he frustrates you. He often has one job and that's to get the best left-handed batters on the opposition out. So when he doesn't do it, it amplifies his failures. But out of his 38 inherited runners, only seven of them have been allowed to score. That's not a bad percentage. Ironically, righties are hitting only .222 off of him whereas lefties are hitting .250. But that's probably because Rincon will usually be lifted rather than facing the big right-handed bats on a team. He's almost always facing the best left-handed bat on the opposition. Regardless of the frustration we feel with Rincon, he can still get the job done.

Career Averages: 3.49 ERA, 2.06 K/BB

Stats Through 40 Games: 4.38 ERA, 1.00 K/BB

Current Stats: 4.22 ERA, 1.88 K/BB

Grade: B-

Keiichi Yabu: Yabu has adjusted fairly well to pitching in North America. He's not someone I'd want in the game at a crucial moment, but he's played the long relief role well for the A's this season. One of the major problems with Yabu in being a reliever? Well, he's had nine inherited runners this year...and six have scored. He often either gets mop-up duty in blow outs, and he's now coming off the all-too-familiar oblique problem that seems to have plagued our A's. Yabu can be deadly if he gets ahead of hitters because of a devastating splitter. The problem is that he hasn't. With Chad Bradford soon returning, Yabu might see even less time.

Career Averages: 4.42 ERA,1.67 K/BB

Stats Through 40 Games: 3.32 ERA, 1.90 K/BB

Current Stats: 4.42 ERA, 1.67 K/BB

Grade: C

Huston Street: Huston Street has been a phenom. In the truest sense of the word. No one expected Street to have not only performed so well, so quickly, but to have already taken over the A's closer role at such a tender young age? It's exactly what the A's needed. And in some sense, kharmic retribution for the Red Sox stealing Keith Foulke away. Foulke is now on the DL and Street could possibly be one of the best closers the A's have ever had. His stats are off-the-charts for a veteran, but this is a 21-year-old we're talking about. He is averaging more than a strikeout per inning and only allowed six earned runs in 38 2/3's innings. I'm even willing to overlook his promising to write an exclusive diary for AN in favor of ESPN and give him the highest grade possible.

Career Averages: 1.40 ERA, 2.50 K/BB

Stats Through 40 Games: 1.88 ERA, 2.15 K/BB

Current Stats: 1.40 ERA, 2.50 K/BB

Grade: A+

Kiko Calero: Calero had a fantastic start to the year. He and Haren alone would've justified both the Hudson and Mulder deals. But then the elbow problems cropped up and Kiko couldn't throw a slider with any bite to it. He subsequently got hammered in a few games against the Yankees and wound up on the DL. He's back now and appears to be healthy, although I still remain skeptical. His slider doesn't seem to have that same drop-off-the-table bite it did during spring training and April. I think Calero will be a perfect bullpen piece for the team if he can throw that wicked slider. Plus, when Chad Bradford does return, Calero can move to the sixth or seventh inning while Rincon and Bradford split the seventh/eighth. Of course, all of this is contingent on Bradford being back to 100 percent. Still, Calero is still striking people out, he's just getting killed by lefties, who are hitting .421 off of him. Calero needs to get that ERA back to his career average to up that grade.

Career Averages: 3.25 ERA, 3.37 K/BB

Stats Through 40 Games: 8.68 ERA, 3.00 K/BB

Current Stats: 4.99 ERA, 4.00 K/BB

Grade: C-

Juan Cruz: Cruz seems like a bust right now. He is down at Sacramento after being both wild and extremely hittable in Oakland. He's trying to make the transition to starter, which could give the A's a deeper rotation if he develops any kind of consistency. Saarloos could ultimately be a Jeff Tam-type coming out of the pen because of his sinker. But I won't be convinced Cruz has righted his ship until I see it on the major league level. If he ever gets his control back, he could be dominant. His K/9 is 10.41 for this season when he's been obliterated. The thing is his batting average against is .302 and his WHIP is up over 2. A recipe for disaster.

Career Averages: 4.34 ERA, 1.84 K/BB

Stats Through 40 Games: 7.94 ERA, 1.25 K/BB

Current Stats: 8.49 ERA, 1.42 K/BB

Grade: F

Octavio Dotel: Dotel wasn't bad this year even though he was seven out of 11 in save opportunities. Two of those blown saves came when he was injured. And now he's gone for the season. It remains to be seen if Dotel's career as an Athletic are over or not. My guess is that it is. Although if he comes back from the surgery throwing harder, he would be a nice set-up guy for Street.

Career Averages: 3.63 ERA, 2.80 K/BB

Stats Through 40 Games: 3.52 ERA, 1.46 K/BB

Current Stats: 3.52 ERA, 1.46 K/BB

Grade: C+

The A's have also had a few guys who have filled in occasionally in the pen, due to injuries. Tim Harikkala, Ron Flores, Britt Reames, Jairo Garcia, Seth Etherton and Ryan Glynn have made cameos. Etherton and Glynn each got starts while Harden was out. But none of them really has a body of work to be judged. Although Harikkala and Glynn have each pitched more than 10 innings now. Still, these guys have fallen into the mop-up roles when other relievers or starters aren't available.

People were speculating, myself included, that the bullpen was going to be the strength of this pitching staff in 2005, especially since there was so much youth and inexperience. But over the latter part of the first half, the starters carried this team. Now, with the impending arrival of Chad Bradford, the return to health of Kiko Calero, Huston Street's emergence and the possibility of Jairo Garcia eventually joining the bullpen, this seems to have the makeup of one of the best pitching staffs in the AL, 1-12. If Juan Cruz becomes an effective starter and Dan Meyer can return to form, the A's could be set up for years to come. All for a bargain-bin price tag.

What are the grades you would give out? Where do we agree? Disagree?