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Bobby Wahl makes MLB debut for Oakland A’s

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Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s have called on several players from their minor league system this season, but it took until Wednesday, May 3, to see the team’s first MLB debut of 2017 — relief pitcher Bobby Wahl.

First, some background on Wahl. He’s a 25-year-old right-hander, drafted in 2013 in the 5th round. Here’s my writeup from his callup yesterday:

Wahl’s calling card is his velocity. MLB Pipeline notes that he can touch 100 mph, and they rank his fastball as a 70-grade on the 20-to-80 scale. That makes it one of the three highest-rated pitches in Oakland’s entire system, along with the fastballs of Frankie Montas and A.J. Puk (both also got 70-grades). In addition, Melissa Lockard of Oakland Clubhouse calls Wahl’s breaking ball “one of the best in the A’s system.”

The questions for Wahl revolve around two things: control of the strike zone, and health. The latter isn’t currently a problem, as in 2016 he finally enjoyed his first (almost) completely healthy pro season (2014: oblique strain ... 2015: elbow nerve impingement).

As for the control: From 2015-17, mostly in Double-A and Triple-A, he’s posted a rate of 4.3 BB/9 (11.4% of batters). If he can hit the zone with his max-effort fastball, command his breaking ball, and avoid beating himself with too many walks, then he has late-inning potential — as evidenced by his 10.8 K/9 (28.5% of batters) over that same span.

Wahl ranks as Oakland’s No. 24 prospect on our Community Prospect List. He actually debuted all the way up at No. 7 in 2014, but once it became clear that he was a reliever he settled into the 20s — in 2015 (21st), 2016 (29th), and 2017 (24th). Not many relievers make the CPL, so the fact that he’s done so every year is a signal that he’s one of the club’s best bullpen prospects. Specifically, he profiles as a potential future setup man or closer, if he hits his ceiling.

MLB debut

The debut came on Wednesday, in the 6th inning against the Twins at Target Field. Oakland was already trailing 6-3, and starter Kendall Graveman had been bounced in the 4th. The game wasn’t over, but it wasn’t looking good either.

Unfortunately, the outing didn’t go particularly well for Wahl. He faced four batters and only retired one of them:

  • Double (Eduardo Escobar)
  • Single, RBI (Eddie Rosario)
  • Bunt popout (Byron Buxton)
  • Hit by pitch (Brian Dozier)

Yeesh. Even the one out was a gift. Let’s take a closer look.

Batter 1: Eduardo Escobar (L)

Result: Line drive to the wall, opposite-field (LF), for a double

First-pitch ball, but it was close. Wahl worked a 2-1 count, using a 95-96 mph fastball. The next pitch came at 88; MLB Gameday called it a fastball, but was it really a misbehaving changeup that sailed away? Either way it was a ball.

He found his way back in/near the zone with three more heaters, but all were fouled off. Full count. At this point it was clear he was working Escobar away, and he did so again on the next pitch. Escobar made contact again, but this time he hit it to the wall in LF for a double.

The last pitch itself was good — 96 mph, close enough to the outside corner that it probably would have been called strike three. It might have been his best pitch of the whole outing, and I’d say he really hit his spot there. The problem: it was his fourth time in a row going for that same spot, and Escobar wasn’t fooled any of those times. He was ready for it, and eventually he made hard contact on one of them.

Batter 2: Eddie Rosario (L)

Result: Line drive, opposite-field (LF), for an RBI single

Wahl got the first-pitch strike this time, and then he flashed his first breaking ball. It was an 86 mph slider, thrown for a strike, and fouled back by Rosario. Good pitch, though maybe caught more plate than you’d normally like.

That got him ahead 0-2, but he was unable to put away Rosario. He missed on three straight fastballs to run the count full, and although the latter two were decent attempts at chase pitches off the outside corner, I kept waiting for the power guy to just challenge the hitter and try to blow him away. The final pitch was wild and should have been Ball 4, both high and outside, but somehow Rosario put wood on it and lined a single to left. Probably helped that Wahl was giving him every reason to look outside.

Batter 3: Byron Buxton (R)

Result: Bunt, popup, out

This was a freebie. Buxton was going for the sac bunt, and Wahl gave him one down the middle. But the bunt was popped up, right back to Wahl for the out. Nothing to see here, but thanks for the free out!

Batter 4: Brian Dozier (R)

Result: Hit by pitch

Wahl continued working the same side of the plate, which had been outside to the lefties but was inside to the righty Dozier. He got ahead 1-2, including another slider for a strike (despite missed location and minimal movement). But then the wildness flared up again and his next pitch went way too far inside. The ball clipped Dozier in his front (left) elbow, ending the battle and putting him on first base.

At this point Bob Melvin made the call to the bullpen, and Wahl’s night was over. His remaining runners were eventually stranded.

Analysis

Wahl threw 19 pitches, and he didn’t get a single swing-and-miss. Above all else, that’s the stat I can’t get past. A power reliever with a mid-90s fastball needs to get some whiffs if he hopes to succeed.

In order to get those whiffs, he’s going to have to hit the zone. Sure, there are times to nibble around the edges, but if you’re throwing 95+ then at some point you’ve got to challenge someone. That’s especially true if you don’t have the accuracy to hit those corners with reliable precision, which Wahl doesn’t. His skill set is “effectively wild” brute force, and it seemed like he was trying to pitch like a control artist. Be yourself, man.

This was not a good outing, but hey, it’s the guy’s big league debut so let’s cut him some slack. Also remember that he has a total of 19 career innings at Triple-A, so he doesn’t have to be a finished product yet. Next time, I’d like to see Wahl challenge a hitter when he gets to a two-strike count, and one way or other I’d like to see him record a swinging strike.

Congrats on making it to the bigs, Bobby!