Remembering when Braden was a (non-)prospect

How unlikely was Dallas Braden's perfect game? According to the numbers at hand, it was

even more unlikely than you might guess.

BradenAnd leaving the numbers aside, a few years ago Braden would have been far, far, far down the list of candidates to do such a thing. Joe Posnanski:

    Braden was never a prospect in the minor leagues either. Even in 2005, when he won 15 games in the minors and was named the team’s organizational player of the year, he was still ranked as the 19th best Oakland A’s prospect by Baseball America. The scouting report was build around the idea that he did not have a good-enough fastball or slider. The next year, he was not ranked among the A’s 30 best prospects. In 2007, when he was called up to pitch when Rich Harden got hurt, he was certain it was a prank.

    No, he was never highly regarded. He was not regarded at all. He was a left-handed pitcher with a Member’s Only fastball — mid-80s — a bland slider and this one sleigh-of-hand pitch that would disappear into hitters’ blind spots. Or anyway, it disappeared into MINOR LEAGUE HITTERS’ blind spots … that first year in the big leagues, the league hit .303 against him, and after he won his first big league decision he lost his next eight. It was more or less a consensus that he wasn’t getting big league hitters out with that stuff.

As a prospect, Dallas Braden did have one thing going for him: strikes.

He threw a lot of strikes. In Class A, Braden averaged 13 strikeouts per nine innings. In AA, he averaged seven strikeouts per nine innings, which wasn't great but he would ultimately strike out 10 batters per nine innings in Class AAA (which is pretty great). Throughout, he walked roughly 2.5 batters per nine innings; not great, but perfectly fine when accompanied by all of those strikeouts.

So why didn't Braden make any noise on the prospect lists? Well, as Joe suggests, it was mostly because Braden didn't throw particularly hard. Of course that's actually too kind; Braden actually throws particularly soft compared to everyone except knuckleballers and Jamie Moyer.

But it wasn't completely that. Braden was a 24th-round draft pick. In his first professional season (2004) he pitched 39 innings and posted a 3.89 ERA. Worth watching, but far from special.

In his second pro season, Braden dominated in Class A (6-0, 2.68) before moving up to Double-A, where he went 9-5 with a 3.90 ERA. It was after that season that Baseball America ranked him as Oakland's No. 19 prospect (as Posnanski suggests, this was the only time Braden ever appeared in the top 30). The report concluded with this: "More advanced hitters were disciplined enough to lay off his breaking stuff and wait for his fastball, so he'll have to find a way to keep more patient hitters more off balance."

Seems fair enough, considering that Braden's strikeout-to-walk ratio had fallen from 5.82 in the California League to 2.22 in the Texas League.

In his book, John Sickels struck most of the same notes and gave Braden a C grade as a prospect, and had at least 17 Oakland prospects ranked higher. Sickels did conclude, "If his K/IP and K/BB marks hold stead, he could be a surprise." To say the least.

Basically, what everybody was saying was, "Hey, this kid is getting people out but he doesn't throw hard and we need to see what he does against better competition."

Which is enormously reasonable.

Well, in 2006 Braden didn't do anything against better competition. He was hurt, started only four games above Rookie ball and got plastered in those games.

But in 2007, Braden made something of a miracle comeback. After just a few starts in the minors, he got the call from the big club and debuted for the A's in late April. He did wind up back in Triple-A for a spell that season and the old numbers were back: lots and lots of strikes. But he pitched too many innings in the majors to make any prospect lists after the season.

Same thing in 2008: Braden dominated in Triple-A but was no longer considered a "prospect" by the common standards, so again he didn't make any lists.

Posnanski's right. Braden was never considered much of a prospect. But I can't fault any of the guys who make those lists. It's tempting in these situations to wonder what all those smart guys missed. You want to go back and find something they (or you) missed, like you want to go back and figure out how Penn & Teller could have just done something on TV that seems impossible. But maybe we didn't miss anything. Maybe there are just some things we can't know. And it's probably fair to mention, now that another day has dawned, that Dallas Braden and his 87-miles-an-hour fastball are still just 18-23 with a 4.49 ERA.

As a competitor, Braden gained extra respect from me when he staked out Bradenia.

As a pitcher, Braden gained extra respect from me when he threw a perfect game.

Even before Sunday, Braden had come a long way for a 24th-round draft pick. But if Braden really wants to shock everyone -- for more than a day, I mean -- he's going to have to throw lots of strikes in the majors, too.