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Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field, Mark Prior and Javier Vazquez treated us to one of the better pitching duels we’ll see all year. Vazquez struck out 14 men in seven innings, but came up on the short end of a 3-0 score as Prior struck out 12 and scattered four hits in his first major-league shutout.

A couple of weeks ago, there was some internal discussion after a handful of BP staffers, myself included, picked Prior to win the NL Cy Young Award. The idea that Prior, at 22 and with 116 2/3 innings of major-league experience, could be predicted to be the best pitcher in a league with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling struck some as ridiculous. Prior, however, has that kind of ability, combining terrific command, amazing stuff, and smooth mechanics that limit his injury risk. Workload is a concern, but his build offsets some of that, and if he’s going to be this economical–fewer than 15 pitches an inning so far–it willl be hard for him to be abused.

Take yesterday’s game, for instance. Prior threw just 113 pitches, even batting for himself in the eighth and driving in an insurance run. Prior was able to save his arm because he was in the strike zone all day. He didn’t walk a batter, and in fact, threw 89 strikes. His 78.7% strike percentage was surpassed by just a dozen pitchers in the past two seasons:

Date    Pitcher         Team   IP   H   R  ER  BB  SO   NP   STR   STR%
9/20/02 Curt Schilling  ARI   7.1  14   9   8   1   3  114    94   .825
5/11/02 Steve Sparks    DET   1.1   8   7   7   0   1   33    27   .818
9/18/01 Curt Schilling  ARI   5.0  10   6   6   0   7   76    62   .816
4/19/01 David Wells     CHA   9.0   8   1   1   0   6  100    81   .810
5/27/01 Brad Radke      MIN   7.1  10   3   3   0   5   94    76   .809
10/7/01 Jose Lima       DET   7.0   8   6   5   0   1   76    61   .803
9/2/01  Mark Mulder     OAK   9.0   4   1   1   0   8   86    69   .802
4/18/02 Roy Oswalt      HOU   7.0   6   0   0   0   6   86    69   .802
9/22/02 Greg Maddux     ATL   7.0   4   1   1   1   6   75    60   .800
4/6/01  Brian Meadows   KCA   4.0   8   5   5   0   1   64    51   .797
7/22/01 Greg Maddux     ATL   8.0   9   2   2   0   7   93    74   .796
7/21/01 Josh Towers     BAL   7.2  10   4   4   0   6  110    87   .791
9/6/02  David Wells     NYA   9.0   5   1   1   0   5  105    83   .791

We have this information because Keith Woolner is, quite frankly, a better human being than the rest of us. Bow down.

Throwing four out of every five pitches for strikes is not the marker of a high-quality start that you might think it is. Then again, if you’re as hittable as Steve Sparks or Brian Meadows, being around the plate that much isn’t a good thing. If you’re Mark Prior, though, that kind of control enables you to throw shutouts, because if Prior is putting hitters behind in the count and taking walks off the table, there aren’t a whole lot of other ways to get to him.

Which brings us to Greg Maddux.

Maddux has an ERA of 11.05 through three starts. In his last two outings, he’s been beaten like a snitch on The Sopranos: 19 runs, 14 of them earned, in 7 2/3 innings. The funny thing is, his peripherals have an odd shape. Maddux has struck out 14 men in 14 innings, while walking six and allowing six home runs. Maddux allowed just 12 home runs in 1994 and 1995 combined,
so this is highly unusual, and the strikeout rate is just plain weird.

Maddux is blaming his problems on location, and from what I’ve seen, that’s a spot-on observation. He’s up in the zone and out over the plate, and he doesn’t have the velocity to get away with that. All six of the home runs he’s allowed have been hit by right-handers, and getting too much of the plate above the belt is largely the cause of that.

That said, there’s some bad luck involved: opponents are 23-for-53 on balls in play, a .434 batting average that is safely outside the norm. That number will come down soon enough, and with it, Maddux’s ERA. These three starts are a blip, the kind of early-season stretch that looks worse because it leaves Maddux with an 11.05 ERA instead of the 3.54 ERA he might have if it happened
in August. While it might be time to accept that Maddux is never going to have an ERA approaching my sophomore year GPA again, it’s not time to conclude that he’s done. He’ll have a stretch, soon enough, in which he lowers that 11.05 by dominating hitters, by not walking guys and not giving up the long ball.

Which brings us to Rich Harden.

Harden, the top prospect in the A’s system and one of the top pitching prospects in the game, hasn’t allowed a baserunner since camp broke two weeks ago. Tuesday night, he extended his perfect streak to 39 batters over 13 innings with seven perfect frames against the Round Rock Express. Harden eats up right-handed hitters with a fastball/slider combination, and has a change-up and splitter just for kicks.

My reaction to Harden’s performance was initially surprise; not that he was pitching so well, but that he’d been assigned to Double-A. The A’s loved him in the spring, and sent him out in early March only because they were having trouble getting him work and had an accelerated spring schedule thanks to the scheduled trip to Japan. While Aaron Harang and John Halama were
the nominal candidates for the No. 5 starter slot–with Halama winning the job–everyone expects Harden to assume that role later this season.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect. Harden is just 21 years old and had just 85 1/3 innings of experience above A ball coming into this season. As nasty as his stuff is, his command of it is still coming along; he walked 76 hitters in 153 minor-league innings last year and averaged fewer than six innings a start. Given those factors, the A’s decision to send him back to open the season in the Texas League seems appropriate. As Rob Neyer pointed out in his column yesterday, the A’s have earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to developing pitchers. To his credit, Harden responded to the move exactly the way you want a top prospect to respond: by pitching his way up to a higher level.

If you can get Harden’s Texas League Strat-O-Matic card, go for it: the A’s promoted the right-hander to Triple-A Sacramento on Wednesday, so the following line will become a part of his permanent record:

           IP   H   R   ER   BB   SO    ERA
Harden   13.0   0   0    0    0   17   0.00

My best guess is that Harden’s Midland stat line is the single greatest pitching line in the game’s history, the kind of thing that’s going to look like a typo a dozen years down the road.

In closing, I’d like to pass along a note to everyone’s favorite sports network.

Dear ESPN,

If you’re going to insist on an exclusivity window that blacks out my Extra Innings package on Wednesday nights, then SHOW BASEBALL ON WEDNESDAY NIGHTS, or lift the blackout for the window in which you’re not televising games.


Thank you for reading

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