The A team of A’s pitchers
When “Moneyball” -- Michael Lewis’ bestselling book about the Oakland Athletics’ low-budget success -- was published two years ago, only a few critics were persnickety enough to mention that Oakland’s best players were, for the most part, conspicuously absent from the story. How do you write about the A’s (the critics wondered) without devoting at least a few pages to the franchise’s Big Three: pitchers Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito?
The answer (in case you’re one of the six baseball fans in North America who haven’t read the book) is that “Moneyball” wasn’t about the Athletics; it was about an idea. Nevertheless, Hudson and Mulder and Zito certainly are worth writing about. If they were combined into one pitcher -- let’s call him Dusty Mulzitson -- his career record would include 245 wins and 121 losses, making for a .670 winning percentage, or fifth in major league history among pitchers with at least 200 wins.
Granted, other trios of pitching teammates have sported similarly impressive records over the course of five or six seasons. What makes Hudson, Mulder and Zito special is that all three were drafted, developed and brought to the majors by the same organization within roughly one year (and only Mulder wasn’t immediately successful).
Author Mychael Urban, who has covered the A’s since 2001, initially planned to write a book about the introspective Zito, who won the American League’s Cy Young Award in 2002 and has more in common, philosophically at least, with George Plimpton’s fictional Buddhist pitcher Sidd Finch than he does with any real pitcher. Urban eventually decided to focus on all three of Oakland’s great young pitchers, which probably was a wise move because, as Roger Angell found out a few years ago when he spent a season following David Cone around, one pitcher’s stories tend to sound the same after the first month or two.
That isn’t to say three pitchers’ stories can’t also get old after a spell. As a group, the Big Three started 94 games in 2004, and Urban describes most of them in some detail. All games seem important when you’re actually pitching them, or writing about them, but a year later the details often seem less than momentous. Every pitcher goes through ups and downs over the course of the long season, and good pitchers have more ups than downs, bad pitchers have more downs than ups, and, yes, it’s really as simple as that.
Urban is at his best writing about these good pitchers’ downs, noting that while Zito makes “a concession to the physical side of the game,” Mulder makes “a rare concession to the mental side of the game.”
Zito, admitting his problems can’t be solved by yet another round of introspection, learns a new pitch. (He does fare better the rest of the season but just marginally so.) Mulder, befuddled by his second-half slide (for the first three months of the season, he was the best pitcher in the American League), actually turns to Zito for advice. Mulder also consults a psychologist. Nothing helps. He loses his last four starts, including a terrible game on the penultimate day of the season that knocks Oakland out of the pennant race.
Hudson’s not immune, either, losing six weeks to a hip injury. But Hudson, endowed with equal measures of Zito’s self-awareness and Mulder’s insouciance, bounces back from the injury with solid pitching down the stretch. And perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Hudson -- who is exceptionally small for a pitcher and was not considered a great prospect when the A’s drafted him -- has been the most consistent of the trio.
The Big Three is now down to one: Hudson and Mulder were traded this winter to teams that could afford to pay them. But the Athletics were wise to draft the three pitchers and the organization also deserves a great deal of credit for keeping them generally healthy and effective for the last six years. Urban spends little time on those details, though, perhaps because he’s aware of a basic truth about great pitchers: They are, in the end, mostly inscrutable. It comes down to what Crash Davis tells Nuke LaLoosh in “Bull Durham”: “You got a gift. When you were a baby the gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt.” *