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What exactly is Billy Beane thinking?

Last column, I promised that I would explain why the Oakland A’s traded away their “aces”, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. We have to go back to 2003 and look at Barry Zito for the answer. Zito finished the season with a 3.30 ERA in 231 innings, not quite as good as his 2002 Cy Young campaign, but still top-ten in the majors.

But something was rotten in Zito’s underlying record – his strikeout rates from 2001-2003 had fallen from 8.6 to 7.1 and then 5.7. Normally, a pitcher with a falling strikeout rate runs into trouble because he gives up more batted balls and thus more hits. But Barry’s defense saved him – his 2003 batting average on balls in play (BIPA) was .233, the lowest in the league. Oakland’s overall defense was good, but the BIPA against them was .285. So Zito got very lucky and put up good stats anyways.

Oakland management knew all of this. They knew Barry Zito was headed for a huge decline in 2004, but they stood pat and refused to entertain any trade offers from teams that over-valued him. And so they paid $3 million to watch him be average. A team that prided itself on finding undervalued players was suddenly stuck with an overvalued one. Maybe the A’s kept Zito for P.R. reasons; maybe every other team thinks he’s so nuts that they didn’t offer up much in trade. It doesn’t matter – the A’s were determined not to make the same mistake again.

The first to go was Tim Hudson. Huddy’s been suffering from the same strikeout decline as Zito. As a rookie, he struck out 8.7 batters per 9 innings. Over three years, he dropped to 6.0. And last year, he was at just 4.9. But somehow he still posted a 3.53 ERA. How did he do it? His BIPA was just average, but he did three important things that made up for not striking people out anymore. First, he cut his walk rate for the fifth straight season. On its own, this is a good sign, but it can’t make up for declines in other areas forever. Second, he gave up only 8 home runs all season, with a run of 13 straight starts without a long ball. Randy Johnson’s longest streak in the last three years is just five games. Hudson’s a great pitcher, but keeping the ball in the park for 90 straight innings is not something he does every year. Third, he posted a career-best groundball ratio. He’s always been good, but he was 10% better last year. He can be expected to swing back to his career average in 2005. Instead of Greg Maddux, Hudson’s unfortunate downside looks like Derek Lowe or Mike Hampton, which isn’t worth $6 million.

Mulder’s health is a much bigger concern. He spent time on the DL in 2000 (herniated disc), 2002 (strained forearm) and 2003 (stress fracture.) And his 6.13 ERA in the second half of 2004 was painful to watch. This makes Mulder not quite a sure thing in 2005 – better odds than a Richie Sexson comeback, but not great. He would have made $6 million this year, and after carrying the injury-plagued Jermaine Dye’s bloated salary for several years, the A’s were not ready to take on any similar risks.

In the past, presented with players who weren’t a sure thing, like Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen or Miguel Tejada, the A’s simply let them walk as free agents. The compensation draft picks they received contributed to the tremendous 2001 and 2002 drafts where they selected Nick Swisher, Bobby Crosby, Jeremy Bonderman and Joe Blanton. But faced with fellow Moneyball GMs Paul DePodesta, Theo Epstein and J.P. Ricciardi competing for the same picks in 2004, the A’s decided to go the trade route instead. They got three 24 year-old guys with high strikeout rates and good control; a journeyman reliever with a great fastball; a backup outfielder; and the best prospect in the Cardinals’ farm system. Is it a good deal for the A’s? Only time will tell – but remember that everyone predicted disaster when the A’s let their free agents walk. And who would you rather have today – Giambi, Izzy and Tejada? Or Swisher, Crosby, Blanton and $20 million to spend on other players?