June 27, 2007
If I had predicted that Chad Gaudin would find himself as the A's No. 3 starter, #24 among American League pitchers in Value Over Replacement Player with a week left in June, I would have been called crazy. Yet that is just where Gaudin improbably finds himself the year after he was a reliever with more walks than strikeouts for these same Oakland Athletics. How has Gaudin found success so far, and is it something that will last for a team struggling to hold on in the American League West?
Chad Edward Gaudin was selected by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in round 34 of the 2001 amateur entry draft out of Crescent City Baptist High School in Harahan, Louisiana. The right-hander did not sign until the end of August that season, so his first season of data comes in 2002:
After throwing 38 innings in an instructional league in 2001 with a solid strikeout rate, low home-run rate and acceptable walk totals, Gaudin made his full-season debut. He was 19 years old and starting out in A-ball, so the numbers look good for an unpolished kid out of high school. You have to be happy with your 34th-round selection putting together a season like that out of the gate as well, which is probably what caused the Rays to go a little nuts with Gaudin the very next season.
Baseball America ranked Gaudin #20 in the Rays' system heading into the 2003 season:
After turning down a Louisiana State scholarship and tossing 38 innings without allowing an earned run during instructional league in 2001, Gaudin made his regular season debut in 2002 and exceeded all expectations. He ranked 10th in the minors in ERA, limiting opponents to no more than one earned run in 16 of his 26 outings. Gaudin works quickly and goes right at hitters. His fastball sits at 92 mph, his curveball has a nice break, and his changeup is at least an average pitch. He also spots the ball well but needs more consistency in the strike zone. At 5-foot-11, Gaudin doesn't have great size for a righthander and is considered an overachiever.
Gaudin would make three stops in 2003, with the last coming for a major-league squad in Tampa desperate for pitching help:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 2003 Bakersfield(A+) 80.1 7.8 2.6 3.0 0.2 7.1 2.58 2003 Orlando(AA) 19.0 10.9 1.4 7.7 0.0 3.8 0.47 2003 Tampa Bay(MLB) 40.0 5.2 3.6 1.4 0.9 8.3 4.05
His stops at Bakersfield and Orlando saw Gaudin continue to be stingy with allowing runs, and his peripherals looked solid thanks to decent strikeout rates, low walks and very few homers allowed. Gaudin's undoing may have been the perfect game he threw for Orlando in one of his three starts--the Rays called him up shortly afterward to try him out as both a reliever and a starter.
In his three starts for Tampa, Gaudin had an ERA of 4.40, but his peripherals told a different story. He managed just three strikeouts in 14.1 innings while allowing eight walks and a home run, and his hit rate jumped to 10.2 per nine. His work as a reliever was much better, with opponents hitting just .221/.283/.358 against him while striking out almost 20 percent and walking just 7.5 percent of the time.
Baseball America was impressed by Gaudin's work in relief, and saw a future for him in that role:
He was more aggressive pitching in relief, posting a 3.16 ERA in that role for the Rays. Gaudin shows no fear on the mound. He goes right for hitters and is willing to throw his cutting slider at any time in the count. Hitters have difficulty picking up the spin on his slider. His fastball has excellent movement, including good sinking action that runs away from righthanders. His changeup is average. Gaudin doesn't have ideal size and doesn't generate much downhill plane on his pitches. He is primarily a two-pitch pitcher, though he can vary speeds from 86-92 mph. He was more tentative and struggled with his command in his three big league starts.Baseball Prospectus 2004 was also excited about Gaudin's future, but not in the hands of Rays management:
Gaudin's a small righty with solid control and good stuff. So what the hell is he doing in the major leagues at age 20…His peripheral numbers are pretty good, and Gaudin's got a chance to be a contributor to a major league club. Why they moved him from High-A to Double-A is pretty clear. Why they moved him from Double-A to the bigs after a perfect game is less clear, and borderline nuts. The Rays should put Gaudin at Triple-A to start next season, and let him learn how to pitch, and control the load on his arm.
Gaudin worked as a reliever in Tampa before four starts in June found him making his Triple-A debut after he had already been in the majors. He was used as both a starter and a reliever before ending up in the Rays' bullpen. PECOTA saw Gaudin putting together a PERA of 4.2 with a K/BB of 1.7, and that wasn't too far off from his actual figures of 4.85 and 1.9:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 2004 Durham(AAA) 47.2 9.8 3.2 3.1 1.5 9.1 4.96 2004 Tampa Bay 42.2 6.3 3.4 1.9 0.8 12.4 5.76
Here we have a young pitching prospect who found success as a reliever thanks to a well above-average slider and a fastball that sinks and changes speeds combined with an aggressive mound mentality, but his team was intent on turning him into a starter as well, where he is nowhere near as comfortable or effective at the major league level.
Gaudin could have been a capable starter if given the chance to work on his craft in the minor leagues, but the Rays instead shuttled him back and forth between not just the minors and the majors, but starting and relief work as well.
Also, his service-time clock started up once he donned a Rays uni, and that time was used as a reliever for a last-place team. This absurdity was only trumped by what the Rays did next. To make things even more cringe-worthy, the Rays shipped Gaudin north of the border in exchange for perennially below-average backup catcher Kevin Cash when they tired of his struggles after just half a season in the majors--struggles that they contributed to in the first place. It's no wonder the last Rays management team couldn't produce an effective starter to save their jobs.
Luckily for Gaudin, he was able to spend most of 2005 as a starter for Triple-A Syracuse, outside of 13 poor innings in the majors:
In a turn of events that may have shocked Tampa, Gaudin performed well when left to a single role in Triple-A, keeping his strikeouts close to seven per nine while keeping the walks, hits and homers down. No worries though, in 197 plate appearances, Kevin Cash managed to have an OPS lower than Chad Gaudin's opponent OPS: 558 to 663.
Despite Gaudin figuring things out at Triple-A for the first time at age 22, he was a victim of a roster squeeze. The Jays sent him out west to the Athletics in exchange for Dustin Majewski. The Athletics made him a starter at Triple-A Sacramento for a month before bringing him to the majors as a reliever:
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 2006 Sacramento(AAA) 24.1 9.6 3.0 3.3 0.0 5.2 2.24 2006 Oakland(MLB) 64.0 5.1 5.9 0.9 0.4 7.2 3.38Sacramento was a neat start, but that 3.38 RA in relief is a mystery considering his awful peripherals. He did have 10 double plays in just 64 innings, which erased a few of the baserunners he put on via walk, but the primary reason for his success, given his peripherals, had to do with his lofty flyball rate. Gaudin pitched his home games in Oakland, a place of death for many a flyball or fouled-off pitch. His .249 BABIP is a product of the park and his style as a reliever.
Oakland may have seen this coming, and converted Gaudin to starter after he survived almost a full season in the majors:
His walk rates are higher than you would like to see, especially given his pedestrian strikeout rate, but at least his K/BB is over 1.0 again. Gaudin still isn't giving up homers, and his flyball tendencies have been replaced with severe groundball numbers.
One thing Gaudin does have trouble with is holding runners on. Overall, opponents are hitting .256/.335/.361 against Gaudin-including a dominant .210/.261/.284 line against right-handers. With none on, his opponent line is .248/.310/.386, and with men in scoring position, .233/.325/.311. Gaudin has struggled with men on first though, allowing a .340/.450/.360 line with 10 walks versus just 8 strikeouts. This is just a 50 at-bat sample, and last year he held opponents to .159/.327/.159 in situations with a man on first. It's possible that he's better off focusing on the batter and letting the man on first take second, since he seems to walk the hitter and advance the runner anyways.
Gaudin has changed his style significantly, turning into a groundball pitcher who uses the excellent A's defense behind him in order to earn his outs:
Year P/PA FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Diff. 2003 3.9 40.5% 22.1% 37.4% 9.4% 7.5% .269 .341 +.072 2004 3.7 42.3% 24.2% 33.6% 6.3% 6.3% .378 .362 -.016 2005 N/A 37.7% 17.7% 44.7% 13.6% 7.4% .298 .297 -.001 2006 4.0 44.6% 15.9% 39.5 10.3% 3.4% .249 .279 +.030 2007 3.8 29.5% 19.2% 51.3% 11.2% 5.6% .299 .312 +.013
Gaudin was beat around during his time in Tampa, as evidenced by his lofty BABIP and high line-drive rates. His 2005 numbers above are from his season at Syracuse, and not the short stint at Toronto (thanks Minor League Splits). You can see his home-run numbers started to dip when he was sent to Oakland while his infield flies increased. More foul balls in play in the infield will result in additional infield flies in your batted-ball data, and Oakland has foul territory to spare, hence the below expected BABIP for most Oakland pitchers.
The most important difference is that groundball rate. It's 11.8 percent above the next highest, and has allowed Gaudin to succeed as a starting pitcher. The increase in groundballs has brought his BABIP up, but he's also been able to reduce his walks while bringing on plenty of groundball outs. He's had batters hit into 12 double plays so far this year, helping erase some of those free passes he hands out all too often. How sustainable is this newfound grounder rate?
Let's take a look at some of the data Dan Fox has collected and was kind enough to put into chart form:
Gaudin works down and in with right-handers with his various fastballs, including his sinker. This makes putting the ball in the air or hitting it squarely difficult, especially given the downward motion of the pitch.
Gaudin is not as successful against lefties-they have hit .299/.398/.433 against him-and you can blame that on his inability to stay as down and in on them as he does with right-handers. If he could figure out how to make left-handers ground out like their right-handed counterparts do using his changeup, he would be able to reduce his walk rate.
Despite his problems with lefties, Gaudin is a capable starter who is pitching over his head at the moment. If he were to improve versus left-handers, I would have no problems mentioning him as a mid-rotation pitcher who pitches to contact rather than someone who dominates with pure stuff. In the interim, things might get a little hairy as the league gets exposed to him more, and he may start to get the Bronson Arroyo treatment, with managers stacking lefties together for the sake of a big inning flanked by right-handed futility.
Gaudin is an example of how not to treat a pitching prospect. The A's focused on what he can do--induce groundball outs with his sinking fastballs as a starter or use his home park to his advantage as a reliever--rather than what he could not do, which was come up to the majors and succeed out of the gate when he should have been taking courses at his local state college. The fact that the Jays gave up on him so quickly is surprising, given that he shares some of Roy Halladay's pitch-to-contact tendencies, although not to the same degree. Kudos to the A's for recognizing the former prospect has his uses, which include the ability to prevent a team from having to sign Tomo Ohka (now a Cardinal) or John Thomson (now a Royal) to fill out its rotation.