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Wheat/Chaff Reports Reach End Of Alphabet

Oakland Athletics v Los Angeles Angels
“Hey, at least my catching wasn’t too bad.”
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

If you missed A-R fear not: S and W are still ahead as the Eyeball Scout and Wheat/Chaff Director (same person, me) finish off predicting where a slew of young A’s players will ultimately land as “makes” or “fakes”.

Tyler Soderstrom

Make no mistake about it, the A’s need to hit on their #1 pick from 2020. When you completely botch a trade for a talent like Sean Murphy, bungle a trade for a marquee player like Matt Chapman, and get middling results at best from dealing another star in Matt Olson, you flat out need for your top picks to come through in order to offset some of the damage.

Soderstrom has one number that may save him and that number is 21: his age. His stats look better when the “age relative to league” label is stamped over them and his weaknesses seem potentially more forgivable when you can project 2 years down the road and remember he will still be only 23.

There is a chance that Soderstrom will not only be good but even possibly great. His defense behind the plate has been surprisingly decent and his bat has always been his carrying tool. And he wouldn’t be the first impact hitter to struggle big time in his maiden go around. (And by “big time” I mean .160/.232/.240, 35 wRC+)

But the business of making projections is the business of being bold: seeing wheat where other see only chaff and seeing chaff in what looks like a field of wheat. Soderstrom may have pedigree, bloodlines, talent, and time on his side but I see some qualities that have damned many a fine talent.

What we saw in the big leagues this year is simply the continuation of flaws long associated with Soderstrom: a lack of selectivity, poor control of the strike zone, no real plan, and as a result the work of a talented “hacker”.

I’ve never seen someone get himself out so often as Soderstrom. If he wasn’t hitting a “pitcher’s pitch” on the first pitch as if he were playing a basketball game with the clock at 0:01, he would get the count to 2-0 and then reach for a fastball off the outside corner — because who wouldn’t want to pull that to the second baseman if had the chance?

Watching Soderstrom hit, it appears as if he decides before each pitch is thrown whether or not to swing and then follows through on his resolve regardless of what kind of pitch, where, or why. It’s either a terrible approach or no approach at all.

But these are habits that can be changed over time and this is a 21 year old rookie, so why worry? The reason is that Soderstrom also showed, in his debut, the flaws critics have cautioned about that are not physical.

He was slow — and by slow I mean less like a sloth and more like continental drift — to make adjustments. His hacktastic, non-selective approach has been shouted to the clouds by his own coaches for 3 years. His response to terrible at bats was a pouty walk back to the dugout — and then another at bat just like the one before, followed by a new pouty walk.

All of this could be chalked up to “immaturity” which can be cured by nothing but time. Perhaps at 24 this will be a talented catcher with a mature outlook and a craving to listen to coaches and up his game every day.

I hope with every fiber of my being that this happens because the A’s flat out need it to. And without question there is a real chance it will happen. I have just seen too many first round talents with 23rd round attitudes, 25th round levels of stubbornness, and “undrafted” levels of willingness to adjust, fail when their natural ability hit a wall at the game’s highest level, the level that, well, separates the wheat from the chaff.

I want to be wrong and I expect there’s a fair chance I will be wrong, but from where I sit on October 29th, 2023 I am unwilling to overlook the warning signs of poor strike zone command, immaturity, and in particular a stubborn, pouty character deaf to coaching and adjustments. May time heal all wounds and flaws, please. May Tyler Soderstrom mature and blossom. May I please be wrong.

Verdict: Chaff

Ken Waldichuk

Waldichuk, despite improvement in the second half, put up slightly terrifying stats in 2023. With a 5.36 ERA and 4.53 BB/9 IP the lefty did not master MLB in his first go around. Then again, another rookie put up a 5.72 ERA this season, with 2.06 HR/9 IP, and it’s Brandon Pfaadt, whose post-season efforts have shown why the Diamondbacks stuck with him.

So this isn’t about stats so much as it’s about “What do we have in Ken Waldichuk?” Where I start, with Waldichuk, is that he has not one, not two, but three “swing and miss” pitches.

His fastball not only has solid velocity (93.5 MPH) but it has ability to miss bats that Luis Medina’s seems to lack. The breaking pitch, that slurvy sweepy scoundrel of a pitch, has late break both vertically and horizontally, and is difficult for hitters to track. And his changeup, the pitch I think may make or break Waldichuk, gets consistent whiffs when he throws it right.

On the last point, I recall one at bat in the game going into the All-Star break when the A’s were at Fenway Park (my first game ever in person at Fenway). Waldichuk had a 3 pitch at bat to a right-handed batter, darned if I can recall who, that was “good morning, good afternoon, good night” on 3 perfectly executed changeups all swung and missed. It was Jamie Moyeresque, and a glimpse of what could be from a pitcher whose fastball and sweeper already play.

There is, of course, the matter of control. Waldichuk cannot succeed walking a batter every other inning, but what I see is a pitcher who goes along walking about a batter every 3 innings — which is just fine — and then has flurries of wildness from which he can’t recover until things spiral out of control.

The flurry of wildness isn’t, per se, the problem. It’s the complete inability to right the ship that is devastating. Overcome that and you might have a very good pitcher because we keep seeing, for 4-5 innings at a time, the trappings of a legitimate #3 SP. And then in 5 minutes he undoes, both statistically and actually, all that good work.

There was progress in the second half. After the All-Star break Waldichuk posted a 4.04 ERA in contrast to the 6.63 ERA that preceded it. His BB rate fell from 5.50/9 IP to 3.52. You can look at his second half numbers as “pretty decent” or you can look at the contrast from the first half as “very promising improvement”.

The latter is my conclusion. This is a pitcher, with good big league stuff, who chopped his ERA by 2.5 points and his BB rate by 2.00. Perhaps as importantly, he threw a ton of quality innings in the second half and then showed one fatal flaw: the inability to stop the bleeding when things went south.

Figure out how to better right the ship when it veers off course and otherwise pick up where you left off in the second half and you’re pretty much there. Even from his delivery, along with the big breaking sweeper, Waldichuk has always reminded me of Gio Gonzalez.

Gio is a nice comp to have, as the southpaw carved out a solid career with 132 wins and 32.2 WAR. He also struggled mightily in his early years, walking 6.62 and 5.11 per 9 IP his first 2 seasons while posting unsightly ERAs (7.68 and 5.75).

For Gio, that covered 24 starts and 132 IP. Waldichuk is currently at 29 and 175.2. I still see a bright future for the St. Mary’s alum if he stays healthy, perhaps as high as being that #3 SP who would look mighty nice behind Mason Miller and Joe Boyle.

Verdict: Wheat

Check back in 5 years for a good laugh when Soderstom is starting the All-Star game behind the dish and Waldichuk is working the third shift at IHOP. I will still be here making the best predictions I can from my bedroom.