The hidden talent of Dallas Braden

When people heard that Dallas Braden had pitched a perfect game, they were surprised by a number of facts. They were surprised that this relatively obscure pitcher accomplished such a monumental task. They were surprised that he did it with only six strikeouts. They were dumbfounded that a pitcher who has never even pitched eight full innings had accomplished such a feat.

They were certainly amazed that he did it against such a great team—the team, in fact, with the best winning percentage to ever lose a perfect game—the Tampa Bay Rays (standard sample size warnings apply). However, I was surprised by something else: The one thing that Dallas Braden perhaps does better than anyone else in the game was not even on display that day.

It makes sense that you couldn’t see one of his talents because Braden does a number of things that you can’t easily see. I beg your pardon, but I have to use a dirty word here: intangibles. No, by “intangibles,” I don’t mean his courageous spirit or his grittiness (though he has those qualities). I am referring to the things we don’t tangibly account for when we make projections. In fact, it is these hidden qualities that make Braden special and make him able to beat his projections year after year.

Getting back to that surprising thing that Braden does better than anyone else: He controls the running game. Actually, he doesn’t just control it; he absolutely stops it. Anyone who has seen his pick-off move knows this is no exaggeration. While standing on the mound looking at home plate, his arm darts toward first. One pick-off attempt and batters are scared to ever get off the bag against him again. Because there were no runners last Sunday, he didn’t get to showcase this talent, but in a sense it’s too bad the world couldn’t witness that part of his game on his historic day.

Let’s look at the numbers. In 2008, Braden had seven pick-offs in only 72 innings. He also only allowed one stolen base with two caught stealings. In 2009, runners learned their lesson. Braden only managed one pick-off in 133 innings, but this is simply because scared-stiff runners were never leaving the bag when he was on the mound. In those 133 innings he allowed no steals and caught two runners who were foolish enough to try. This year, in 46 innings, he has already had two pick-offs and hasn’t allowed any steals.

Speaking of intangibles, his ability to play freeze tag with baserunners has implications reaching far beyond keeping a few baserunners from advancing between pitches. Runners never get a head start. They are easier to double-up. They are less likely to score from second. They don’t hit-and-run. Sometimes they are even afraid to run on the three-and-two pitch with two outs.

Let’s compare Braden to some of the top pitchers from around the league:

Year   Pitcher         Innings  SB   CS   PK   SB/9
2009   Dallas Braden   136.2     0   2    1    0
2009   Zach Greinke    229.1     5   9    1    0.20
2009   Felix Hernandez 238.2    20   8    1    0.75
2009   Roy Halladay    239      18   6    0    0.68
2009   CC Sabathia     233      13   7    3    0.50
2009   Jon Lester      203.1    19   6    6    0.84

I’ll admit to having an evil twinkle in my eye when I included Lester, so I better say that his numbers come with the caveat of Boston’s catchers. And, of course, Greinke is good at everything, but these guys still can’t compare to Braden.

Let’s look at it a different way. Here are the pitchers who led the majors in pick-offs last year:

Year   Pitcher         Innings  SB   CS   PK   SB/9
2009   Dallas Braden   136.2     0   2    1    0
2009   Mark Buehrle    213.1     4   4    8    0.17
2009   Jon Lester      203.1    19   6    6    0.84
2009   Andy Pettitte   194.2    14   8    6    0.65
2009   Clayton Richard  89       8   5    6    0.81
2009   John Danks      200.1    18   7    5    0.81

Again, Braden allowed a lot less stolen bases and has easily been better than at least four of these guys. Buehrle has always been renowned for his ability to control the running game, and whether he is better at it than Braden or not, maybe the most important thing to take away from his appearance on this list is that he is another guy who has consistently beat out his ERA projections.

So what of Braden’s projections? Last year most projections had his ERA at well over 4.00 and none had it under 4.00. He ended with a 3.89. This year he has been projected in virtually the same exact way as last year, and in many cases, worse. He has a 3.33 ERA and just threw a perfect game.

While some might think he is playing over his head, the discrepancy actually comes from the fact that projection systems don’t account for the pitcher’s ability to hold baserunners—and rightly so. Degrees of controlling the running game are usually pretty negligible and therefore not counted in any projection systems. However, when you have a pitcher who is this good, it has to have a real effect on the number of runs he is allowing in a season.

I asked expert statistician Todd Zola from mastersball.com about this and he said:

Depending on the actual engine, stuff like BABIP and LOB% can be a result of the projection or in fact drive the projection. … Controlling the running game will impact LOB%. Intuitively, a pitcher that prevents steals, gets more outs from pick-offs and caught stealing, etc. will have a better than normal LOB%. Most systems will regress LOB% to league norm. Perhaps you can regress LOB% less for someone like Braden to reflect this skill.

So if a projection system is built from a pitcher’s home run, strikeout, and walk rates, it is not going to reflect any ability he has to shut down a running game. If the projection is partially built upon his left-on-base percentage, it will reflect the skill, but then you lose most of it when the system regresses that percentage closer to the league norm. Either way, projection systems fail to account for someone as good at this as Braden is.

Braden defies conventional thinking in some other ways. While I am not looking to restart the debate on whether a pitcher can induce weak contact here, Braden has managed to keep the ball inside the park despite having a very high flyball rate. While playing in a friendly ballpark certainly helps, it doesn’t explain all of it.

In order to answer the question of how Braden manages his penchant for flyballs, we need to look at his unusual repertoire. His fastball comes in at an average of 87 to 88 mph according to Fangraphs, while his changeup, which is widely regarded as his best pitch, only averages about 73 mph. He even has a screwball he occasionally uses as a show-me pitch (like I said, he’s unique), and that is only in the mid-60s.

To understand why outstanding off-speed stuff helps, we should look to physics. When a ball comes in at 95 mph, some of that energy is going to be retained and deflected by the bat, especially in balls hit to right or left field, and the added speed can help them to go out of the park. Conversely, a ball at 73 mph needs more of its power to be generated by the batter (insert A-Rod joke here). Projections are going to reflect a home run rate that is consistent with his flyball rate, but again, Braden won’t cooperate. He had 0.6 HR/9 last year and now has a 0.8 this year. League average is 1 HR/9.

Finally, given that he isn’t that far removed from it, we should think about Braden’s minor league history. His outstanding minor league strikeout rate is most likely due to his changeup having a profound effect against minor league hitters. The changeup doesn’t translate to the majors as well as, say, a mid-90s fastball, but it is still worth taking a look at his phenomenal punch out numbers in the minors.

He averaged 10 K/9 in the minors. I definitely don’t see that coming back, but it’s certainly plausible to think he will get more than around five per nine—the amount he has had in the past couple years. In fact, the six Ks in his perfect game are actually more than they sound like when you consider that he only faced the minimum number of batters in each inning.

These aren’t the types of skills that will make Braden into a Cy Young candidate. Last year he had a 3.89 ERA and he is pretty much the same pitcher now. But this helps to explain why he is an above-average pitcher rather than a lucky guy. And every once in a great while an above average pitcher throws one of the most impressive games ever.

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Comments

  1. Brian Oakchunas said...

    My guess would be that the young guys have picked up something from Buehrle, who has long been an expert at this. But it’s also important to remember that picking-off runners tends to be something that left-handers do well. Everyone on the list is left-handed, while Gavin Floyd is not.

  2. MikeS said...

    So in 2009 you have Buehrle, Danks and Richard near the top of the list.  Are Don Cooper and Ozzie Guillen Teaching something special?  Do the White Sox overvalue these skills?  If either of thise are true, explain Gavin Floyd.

  3. Hecubot said...

    Braden’s got an excellent pickoff move, but if you ask Kurt Suzuki or Landon Powell they’ll tell you that Greg Smith has the best pickoff move in baseball.

    He’s not as good a pitcher as Dallas, and he’s suffering in Colorado (he’s a flyball pitcher without strikout stuff).  But his pickoff move is unreal.  (7 picks in 32 games his rookie season.)

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