MARCH 7, 2004
Three Pitchers And A Cloud Of Dust
By Steve Lombardi, NetShrine.com

For the last four seasons, the Oakland A’s (led by their General Manager, Billy Beane) have been an excellent team.  In this time, they have won their division three times, made the playoffs in all four years, and have averaged 98 wins per season – while, each year, maintaining one of the lowest player personnel payrolls in the league.

Unfortunately for the A’s, they have also experienced more than their share of bad luck in the postseason during this time (2000-2003). 

Much has been written in the past few years about the triumphant A’s and the reasons behind their accomplishments.  According to the scrawling on this scorecard, the key to Oakland’s success is similar to that of many a great franchise before them – pitching.

Back in 1978, then Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver said it best:  “Nobody likes to hear it, because it is dull.  But, the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same…pitching.”

In 2000, the A’s were 3rd in the American League in team ERA.  They were 2nd in 2001 and 2002.  And, in 2003, the A’s led the American League in team ERA.  Overall, cumulatively, from 2000 to 2003, Oakland had the best team ERA (3.87) in the American League.  The chart below shows the Top 10 in ERA (for the American League) from 2000 to 2003:











Red Sox









White Sox









Blue Jays





On the flip side, Oakland’s offensive attack has not been as dominant as their pitching.  In 2000, they were 3rd in the American League in RCAA*.  In 2001, they were 4th in the league.  And, it gets worse from there.  In 2002, the A’s were 8th in the American League in RCAA and they were 6th in 2003.

Oakland hurlers Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder deserve the bulk of the credit for the A’s magnificent pitching during this great run.  They have been the “Big Three” in the A’s starting rotation.  See the following chart pertaining to the 2000-2003 A’s, the “Big Three,” and the rest of the Oakland pitching staff (outside of the “Big Three"):


Games Started





Complete Games


A's Overall








Big 3








Outside Big 3








Note the impact of the “Big Three” on the team ERA for the A’s.  While the mark of 3.87 is league best from 2000-2003, without the “Big Three” the team’s ERA is 4.23 (which would have ranked closer to 5th in the league, rather than leading the league).  In addition, the WHIP totals show us that the “Big Three” was much more effective in limiting base runners than the rest of the A’s staff.  Lastly, the complete game totals for the “Big Three” is impressive – 84% of Oakland’s complete games (from 2000 to 2003) came via a member of the “Big Three.”

Without question, it has been advantageous for the Oakland A’s, over the last four years, to have Hudson, Zito and Mulder.  How did this happen?  Was having the “Big Three” the residue of genius at work or some serendipitous gift?

Tim Hudson was acquired by the A’s by then General Manger Sandy Alderson in June 1997.  He was a 6th round draft pick, out of Auburn University.  The season following his signing, 1998, he was hit hard at Double A Huntsville.  In his 1999 Minor League Scouting Notebook, John Sickels rated Hudson a Grade “C” prospect, saying “My guess is that [Hudson will] emerge as a reliever in two or three years.  I find it fascinating that the Athletics are able to teach their hitters how to control the strike zone, but they have problems getting pitchers to throw strikes."  Something happened to Hudson in 1999.  In his first 11 starts in the minors (in Double and Triple A combined) he was nearly unhittable.  He was promoted to the A’s in June of 1999 and has been one of the best pitchers in the American League ever since.  

Not many college pitchers, drafted in the 6th round, suddenly have it “click” like it did for Hudson.  Either Alderson was a genius or the A’s did get lucky with Hudson.  This one is too difficult to call.

Barry Zito was acquired by Oakland, under Billy Beane, in June 1999.  He was a first round pick out of the University of Southern California (where he was a 1st team All-American).  Overall, he was the 9th player taken in the 1999 draft and the 2nd collegian pitcher to be selected.  Barry was one of just 12 pitchers in the 1999 draft to receive a signing bonus over $1.5 million dollars.  Zito breezed through the minor leagues in just 31 starts over two seasons (13 in 1999 and 18 in 2000).  Just one year after being drafted, Zito was in the major leagues.  Two seasons later, he won the American League Cy Young Award.

Clearly, the A’s did not get “lucky” with Zito.  He was one of the premier pitching prospects heading into the 1999 draft and he came at a high price.  Based on his rapid ascension into the majors, and his success at the level, he was worth the draft position and the bonus.  But, did it take great intellect to choose Zito?  Given his "can't miss" pedigree (in terms of his results as an amateur) the answer is “Probably not.”  

Mark Mulder was acquired by the A’s, also under Billy Beane, in the June 1998 draft.  He was a first round pick out of Michigan State University – and the 2nd pick overall in the draft.  Mulder signed for a $3.2 million dollar signing bonus – the 2nd highest bonus in all of the 1998 draft.  Mark reached the majors even quicker than Zito – requiring only 24 starts in the minors (with 22 coming in 1999).  He made his major league debut in April of 2000.  Over the last three seasons, no left-handed throwing pitcher in the American League has won more games than Mark Mulder.  Like Zito, Mulder did not come cheap – but, he has been more than worth it.

Mulder, like Zito, did not join Oakland (under Beane) as the result of either some fortuitous situation or great brilliance.  The formula on both these selections was simple:  Have a very high draft pick, take the best college pitcher available, and throw a ton of money at them (to get them to sign).  There is not much innovative stuff happening there.

In summary, the Oakland A’s have been great the last four years.  That greatness is a direct result of their superior pitching.  Their excellent pitching is the result of having Hudson, Zito, and Mulder (aka the “Big Three”).  The secret of having the “Big Three” is two parts “great draft position and big signing bonuses” and one part of either “luck or Sandy Alderson genius” (pick’em).  The statistics and the facts back up this summation.  

Some may not want to hear this finding – because, as Weaver stated, it is dull.  For those who prefer a more gaudy tale, instead of the scorecard, there are books out there that may better suit your need.  And, if you are willing to wait a bit, there is one in particular being released this Spring, in paperback.  Last year, as a hardcover, it sold rather well.  It is called "Moneyball."

*RCAA = Runs Created Above Average
** WHIP = (Walks+Hits) per Innings Pitched

Steve Lombardi is the Creator & Curator of NetShrine.com.  Scrawling On The Scorecard appears regularly during the baseball season and sporadically during the off-season.  Steve can be contacted at sots@netshrine.com

Scrawling On The Scorecard Archive

Discuss this column at:  http://www.netshrine.com/vbulletin2/showthread.php?t=14205

© Copyright 2004 NetShrine.com. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of NetShrine.com content, including by framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent.