Entering Sunday’s game, Oakland starter Dallas Braden was owned in 45% of all ESPN leagues. Since his two previous starts weren’t all that special (a combined 11 IP with 19 hits and 9 ER with just three walks and four strikeouts to push his season totals to 3 Wins with a 4.14 ERA and 1.19 WHIP and 22 strikeouts in 37 innings) he had the dubious distinction of having his league ownership drop by 27% over the previous week.
There are probably more than a few who are kicking themselves for being hasty in cutting Braden loose.
It's difficult to fault those who released Braden as he hadn’t distinguished himself this season, or in his brief career. His strength has always been command. Entering 2010, he was walking three batters per nine in his career. This year, he’s sliced his walk rate down to 1.7 BB/9. It's consistent command… He’s walked more than one batter in a game just once in his seven starts.
Given the fact he lacks an overpowering fastball (average velocity: 88 mph) and lives around the plate, his contact rate figures to be high… and it is. Opponents are putting the ball in play in 78% of all plate appearances. That’s well above the major league average of 69%.
The high contact rate may be enough to scare some off, but this season, Braden has made a change to his repertoire – and found some quality results on those balls in play.
Braden has always been a fastball/change-up pitcher who will toss a slider into the mix from time to time along with a couple other secondary pitches like a sinker and curve. This year Braden has been featuring a sinker with increasing regularity and his change-up is exhibiting a little more downward bite. As you would imagine, the result has been more ground ball outs. A lot more ground ball outs. Here are the top four plate appearance resolutions for Braden last summer, as shown by percentage of all resolutions.
Fly Out – 20%
Ground Out – 17%
Single – 16%
Strike Out – 14%
Here are his top four plate appearance resolutions through his seven starts this year:
Ground Out – 26%
Single – 16%
Strikeout – 15%
Fly Out – 12%
Braden works his change-up down and on the right side of the plate and generally keeps his fastball on the left side. From Texas Leaguers, below is a chart plotting all of his pitches through his first six starts of the season.
Needless to say, this approach is working for Braden. This year, his ground out to air out ratio is at 1.29. It’s the first time in his career he’s getting more ground outs than air outs. He’s held opponents to a slash line of .262/.298/.411.
Going forward, the ground balls will continue to be the key to Braden’s success. The interesting thing about Braden’s perfect game is that he recorded six strikeouts to go along with seven ground outs and 14 air outs. On the surface, it doesn't make a ton of sense, but of those 14 air outs, five of them didn't leave the infield. That's another interesting trend that Braden has developed this year – he owns a 22% IF/FB rate, third highest in the league. That seems to indicate he's doing a great job keeping hitters off balance while taking advantage of the spacious foul territory of his home park.
The perfect game is an outstanding result and will undoubtedly make Braden's this week's waiver wire stud. And as long as he keeps the ground balls in his pitching toolbox, he'll continue to make a solid fantasy impact.