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Sink Fast, Or Sink Fast

Unfortunately, in this stretch devoted to “finding out what these young guys can do,” a lot of what we’ve learned is what many of them cannot do: We have learned that Dan Meyer simply does not have what it takes to get big league hitters out, that Gio Gonzalez is not yet ready for prime time, that Eric Patterson is not an accomplished second baseman, and so on.

It’s not all gloom and doom, though, as many of the 2008 disappointments – namely Daric Barton, Sean Gallagher, Gio Gonzalez, and recently Carlos Gonzalez – have in common that they are all exactly 22 years of age. And if you recall how Dallas Braden looked his first go-around and how he has looked lately, you see how quickly things can change, and how there is simply no substitute for experience and maturity.

As a result, I’m pretty philosophical about the struggles many of these guys are having, and despite the ghastly statistics my mantra is generally “22” rather than “GAAAK!!!! We’re building around crap!!!!” For example, I really do think Carlos Gonzalez will be fine, that Gallagher is far better than he has shown, that Suzuki is more for real than Gio isn’t, and so on.

However, I do have one big concern with the group of young starting pitchers and that is the lack of sink on their fastball. This was a concern I had about Blanton, who never developed much movement at all on his fastball – and as a pitcher who gave up a lot of hits I felt it was a real hindrance not to have a DP pitch in his arsenal. Unless you have a high-octane fastball (Gallagher), an exceptional cutter (Duchscherer), or just great movement in general (Eveland), the lack of ability to sink the ball really makes it difficult for a pitcher to use his fastball aggressively in the strike zone.

Braden has tried to overcome a lack of movement by “adding and subtracting” and he has done a good job – but I really question how long he can thrive without keeping more balls on the infield. Greg Smith’s strategy has been to nip away at the outside corner, resulting in his being fourth in the league in walks – whereas if he could sink the fastball he could aim it at the knees right over the plate and the natural movement would make the pitch one you want the hitter to put in play. The most dramatic example is Gio Gonzalez, who simply cannot pitch to contact with his fastball – he needs to be able to throw a fastball that helps him when it’s hit, and I think we can safely say that currently this is far from the case.

Mind you, I’m not talking about turning these guys into sinkerball pitchers; I’m talking about the importance of having movement – including sinking action – on the fastball as part of the pitcher’s overall repertoire. I’m surprised how few of the A’s pitchers can sink the fastball, and I think that for Gio Gonzalez, Greg Smith, and Dallas Braden in particular – and in about that order of urgency – their development will be stalled until they are better equipped to pitch to contact with their fastball, and can thus throw it in the strike zone with more confidence.