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Baseball’s Big Three: A Look Back at Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito in Oakland

With Tim Hudson and Barry Zito scheduled to square off this weekend, Mark Mulder, Billy Beane, and Zito recall Oakland’s years with one of the best trios of homegrown arms the sport has ever seen.

This Saturday at the Coliseum in Oakland, A’s fans will be treated to a heavy dose of nostalgia. Barring last-second injuries, Tim Hudson will take the mound for the Giants. His opponent will likely be Barry Zito, making his first major league start in two years. The third member of the Big Three, Mark Mulder, last pitched in the majors in 2008, but he’s flying out to watch his former staffmates take the mound together one last time.

Both Hudson and Zito will likely retire at season’s end. Hudson pitched a gem in his last start, while Zito likely wouldn’t be starting if Oakland weren’t out of the playoff race. Still, if there’s any era in recent A’s history that deserves to be celebrated by way of some late-season schedule-engineering, it’s that of the Big Three.

Despite the applause that accompanied the rumors and then confirmation of the Hudson-Zito matchup, those two and Mulder don’t get the credit they deserve. Granted, they never brought home a World Series, so they’re without that immortality-sealing stamp of approval that comes with a championship. But they’re also completely absent from Michael Lewis’s Moneyball and the legend that’s grown around the franchise. When we talk about Hudson, Mulder, and Zito, we’re talking about one of the greatest homegrown pitching trios in recent baseball history. Books and rings aside, they were the linchpin of Oakland’s famous and unlikely run of early-2000s success

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tim-hudson-oakland-asOtto Greule Jr/Allsport

The A’s entered the 1997 amateur draft in terrible shape. They were on their way to a fifth consecutive losing season and their worst record in 18 years. Though they had a core of promising young position players including Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada, their pitching stunk. Not one of their four most-used starters had an ERA under 5.00, and the minor league cupboard was equally empty.

With GM Sandy Alderson and scouting director Grady Fuson calling the shots, Oakland decided that needed to change. Of its first nine picks in that draft, eight were college pitchers — a flood-the-zone approach the A’s hoped would allow them to restock the major league roster as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the first seven pitchers didn’t pan out. Four of the seven, including the no. 11 pick, a West Virginia University right-hander named Chris Enochs, never made it to the big leagues, and none of the other three notched more than one career Win Above Replacement.

The last of those eight picks was a small, wiry right-hander, barely pushing 6 feet and weighing about a buck-seventy. Pedro Martinez, who was in the midst of a Cy Young–winning season in Montreal, had a similar body type, but scouts viewed Pedro as a once-in-a-generation exception. Meanwhile, Tim Hudson made it all the way through his senior year at Auburn University — itself a warning sign — before the A’s grabbed him in the sixth round.

Despite Hudson’s modest pedigree, an area scout and former major league pitcher named John Poloni still saw good things in the little righty. Poloni, derisively called the “fat scout” in Moneyball, praised Hudson’s “turbo” sinker and wicked splitter — two dynamic pitches he felt could make up for Hudson’s lack of size. Poloni also loved Hudson’s athleticism, noting that he was, among other things, one of the best hitters on his college team.1 Finding pitchers who could mash wasn’t a high priority for an AL club, but Hudson’s general athleticism was appealing to Oakland.


1.

Hudson played the outfield in addition to pitching while at Auburn. In his senior year, he batted a terrific .396/.430/.670.

“Auburn had two horses at the time,” Fuson said. “Their Friday guy was a kid named [Bryan] Hebson, and their Saturday guy was [Patrick] Dunham. On Friday night you’d have 40 scouts go see Hebson. On Saturday there’d be 20 in to see Dunham. By the time you got to Sunday, there wouldn’t be many left to see Hudson. Hudson’s elbow was barking a bit, which gave us some room. But the credit goes to John Poloni for discovering him, and pushing for him.”

The A’s made Hudson the 185th overall pick in the draft. His elbow proved a nonissue, and his climb up the minor league ladder happened quickly — albeit without his best pitch. Keith Lieppman, currently the A’s farm director but only a minor league instructor at the time, saw how advanced Hudson’s splitter was from day one, so he ordered him not to throw it at all.

“He wanted Timmy to work on developing his changeup instead,” said A’s general manager Billy Beane, who took over the GM job from Alderson after that 1997 season. “Otherwise, he’d just strike everybody out with the splitter and never improve that change … which was ultimately an important pitch for him.”

Hudson made his major league debut on June 8, 1999, and struck out 11 batters in five innings.2 From there, he went on to strike out nearly a batter an inning during his rookie season, posting an ERA 42 percent better than league average and finishing fifth in Rookie of the Year voting despite making only 21 starts. In the 2000 season, he made the All-Star Game and finished second in Cy Young voting, trailing none other than Martinez. In six seasons with the A’s, Hudson finished in the top six in Cy Young voting three times, and he posted the highest ground ball rate of any pitcher with at least 1,000 innings pitched over those six seasons.


2.

He also notched a single and a walk in his two times at the plate.

Beyond his sheer pitching skill, Hudson brought what Beane admiringly describes as “Southern swagger.” Peek into the locker room during those early years and there was a good chance Hudson was playing cards and taking his teammates’ money. On the field, Hudson “didn’t back down from anybody,” said longtime San Francisco Chronicle beat writer Susan Slusser. There were staredowns with Barry Bonds at the height of his powers, plus showdowns with Pedro. The tenacious personality had its downsides, too: After getting into a bar fight the night before his start in Boston, Hudson was forced to leave Game 4 of the 2003 ALDS after just one inning. Slusser reported that the injury that knocked Hudson out of his start was related to the fight, but Hudson denies it to this day.

After the 2004 season, Oakland traded Hudson to Atlanta in a four-player deal — Beane’s classic veterans-for-prospects move. In this case, though, none of the three players the A’s acquired amounted to much. Meanwhile, Hudson would go on to make two more All-Star teams and pitch for 11 more seasons outside of Oakland.

Even with Hudson gone all this time, he’s still providing value for the A’s — as a blueprint for the kind of pitcher Oakland wants to acquire, and a reminder that size shouldn’t always be the determining factor.

“We were looking at Sonny Gray [during the 2011 draft],” Beane said. “He checked all the Hudson boxes. SEC school, great athlete.” Rather than take a more prototypical big, strapping pitcher with the 18th pick that year, the A’s chose Gray. A few years later, Gray, like Hudson 15 years before, has become one of the best young pitchers in the game.

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mark-mulder-oakland-asLisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

While Hudson was the underdog, Mulder was anything but. Six-foot-six, broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted, the kid from Chicago looked like he’d rolled right off the assembly line for the ideal pitcher. A great hitter in high school, Mulder was also an excellent basketball player, a scratch golfer, and a guy who never doubted his own abilities.3


3.

In her book, 100 Things A’s Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, Slusser wrote that A’s teammates would later dub Mulder “The Golden Child,” both because of his terrific athletic ability and his seemingly unlimited confidence.

After their miserable ’97 season, the A’s owned the second pick in the ’98 draft. But Mulder was such a polished prospect at Michigan State — painting both sides of the plate at 95 and showing no obvious weaknesses — that Beane figured the Phillies would take Mulder first overall. When Philly took University of Miami slugger Pat Burrell instead, the A’s got their man.

“Grady [Fuson] always used to get mad at me,” Beane said. “Because Mulder was so good, I told him my 8-year-old daughter Casey could’ve scouted him.”

The A’s looked at their barren big league rotation, plus Mulder’s lights-out results in college, and decided to shove Mulder all the way up to Triple-A Vancouver to start his minor league career.4 To everyone’s surprise, he struggled, giving up nearly twice as many hits as he had strikeouts in his first professional season. Rather than touching the mid-90s with his fastballs, he was suddenly sitting in the low 90s, even dipping into the high 80s.


4.

Mulder signed late in ’98 and didn’t get to pitch in the A’s system until the following season.

“It’s not that it was too difficult or that I wasn’t ready for it,” said Mulder, who now works as an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight.5 “I loved that they pushed me to Triple-A. But I didn’t have a routine, I didn’t know how to get myself ready to start every five days. We had just a hallway with a small weight room. No strength coach. I didn’t yet realize that after you pitch you have to do legs the next day, upper body the day after that. On the road, it would be, ‘Hey, there’s a bus leaving for some random gym at 10 a.m., who wants to come?’ As much as I loved being in Vancouver, I didn’t have any of that support. And instead of saying, ‘Let’s find a different way to do it,’ I just didn’t do it.”


5.

Full disclosure: He’s a colleague.

Once Mulder got his routine together, he made his big league debut in April 2000. He didn’t click quite as quickly as Hudson did, as evidenced by a 5.44 ERA in his rookie year. But come Season 2, he was electric. Mulder tossed 229.1 innings, delivered an ERA 26 percent better than league average, led the league in shutouts, and — like Hudson the year before — finished second in Cy Young voting.6 Oh, and he bagged 21 wins, too.


6.

Mulder lost to Roger Clemens. There’s a parallel universe sans baseball immortals in which the Big Three wins a bunch more hardware.

What impressed everyone most — his teammates, manager, opponents, and A’s brass — was that Mulder could beat you in multiple ways. Not a huge strikeout collector for a pitcher his size, he could still fan 10 batters under the right conditions. But his specialty was his ability to attack hitters and force them to make weak contact early in the count: The classic Mulder start is a quick-hit series of seven- and eight-pitch innings.

“He could finish a game in an hour and a half, and not even break a sweat,” Beane said.

He’s exaggerating, but only a little. In July 2001 alone, Mulder threw three shutouts. The game length for those starts: 2:08, 2:27, and 2:21. On April 24, 2003, he needed only 2:06 to shut out the Tigers. He followed that start with a 4-1 complete-game win over the White Sox that took just 1:54. The next time out, Mulder one-upped himself again, beating the White Sox once more, this time with a 1:49 shutout.

Unsurprisingly, Mulder & Co. would often one-up each other, too. Take the July 2001 series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, who went on to win the World Series that year: In Game 1, Mulder struck out nine and fired a one-hit shutout. In Game 2, Hudson threw a complete game, fanning six and allowing just one run. In Game 3, Zito lasted a relatively paltry six innings, but he still stuck out 10 and allowed just one run in a 2-1 win. Three games, 24 innings pitched, two runs allowed.

“Without a doubt, the two of them made me better,” Mulder said. “None of us wanted to be that weak link. Some of the best times I had came when they pitched a great game, and I had to pitch the next day. It was, ‘Hey, thanks for throwing a shutout.’ No pressure or anything, I just need to go out and match that.”

Mulder went on to make two All-Star Games with the A’s before he, too, was traded after the 2004 season. The return this time — Dan Haren, Kiko Calero, and Daric Barton — was exactly the kind of haul that Beane craved: three immediate contributors who also offered five or six years of team control.

The Big Three was composed of that kind of player — three pitchers who dominated from the start, offering the A’s multiple years of All-Star performance at league-minimum prices, thus enabling them to win on a tight budget. Scrap-heap finds turned Moneyball heroes Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford certainly helped Oakland’s cause. But I asked Beane, assistant GM David Forst, and Fuson the same question, and they all unsurprisingly said the same thing: There’s no way the A’s make the playoffs every year from 2000 through 2003,7 and no way a best-selling book and Brad Pitt movie ever happen, if not for the efforts of the Big Three. And of course, their departures for other teams fit the Moneyball narrative to a T: As great as Hudson and Mulder were, they were destined to get traded once their performances demanded enough money to no longer make them spectacular bargains. As for Zito’s exit? Well, he was always a little different from the other two.

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barry-zito-oakland-asJed Jacobsohn/Getty Images


7.

Along with another division title in 2006, thanks to Zito, along with the fruits of the Mulder deal.

Fuson watched Zito pitch at UC Santa Barbara, at Pierce College near Los Angeles, and at USC. Each time, he came away impressed with Zito’s athleticism, as well as his terrifying, knee-buckling curveball. Still, the A’s were drafting ninth in 1999, and neither they nor any other team had Zito ranked in the top 15.

“I was at an Applebee’s in Richmond, agonizing over the whole thing,” Fuson said. “I knew [Josh] Hamilton and [Josh] Beckett wouldn’t get to us. After that, I wasn’t sure. Then I thought about Zito, and I realized something: That year, I had never seen any guy dominate one game the way he’d dominated five.”

So the A’s “reached” for Zito at no. 9, landing him for less money than usual for that slot. They used that surplus to sign Gerald Laird, a draft-and-follow who the A’s took a year earlier but didn’t sign until the following summer. Laird went on to play 13 seasons in the majors. Meanwhile, Zito quickly became one of the best and most beloved pitchers in franchise history.

Like Hudson, Zito broke into the majors with a bang, posting a stellar 2.72 ERA as a rookie during a 2000 season in which offensive numbers looked like they came from a video game. He made a league-leading 35 starts the next season, struck out 205 batters, and even earned a down-ballot MVP vote. In 2002, he submitted his masterpiece: 229.1 innings pitched, an ERA 58 percent better than league average, and a Cy Young award.8 While his beautiful 12-6 curve got the headlines, Zito credits his changeup as being his money pitch.


8.

He also led the league with 23 wins, if you insist on knowing.

“I was throwing a two-seam change at the time, and Ron Romanick9 at Double-A taught me to throw a four-seam instead,” Zito said. “My curve has always been the flashier pitch, but the changeup was always the great equalizer. I always tell people the change was what allowed me to get away with throwing inside fastballs at 88 [mph]. The change was the reason I had success.”


9.

Another important member of Oakland’s scouting and player development staff not credited in Moneyball.

As Zito’s accomplishments piled up, so, too, did the curiosity surrounding his personality. The son of two musicians and brother to a musician, Zito could often be seen clutching a guitar during his downtime. Even quirkier were his accompaniments on the road, which included pink pillows and scented candles. And while the way he dressed would be chalked up as typical hipster wear today, 15 years ago it looked more like, as Slusser joked, “thrift store/weirdo.”

Still, while Zito might have been different, the team embraced it: “I never thought Barry was this out-there flake,” Forst said. “He had interests outside baseball for sure. But he was always very serious about pitching, about studying it, and getting better.”

After the 2006 season, Zito left the A’s to sign a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Giants. He struggled from the start, and he admits the expectations that came with that deal and the pressure he put on himself only made things worse. The Giants left him off the playoff roster in 2010, denying Zito a chance at his first piece of action in the World Series. Two years later, he did get the call in the postseason, and he answered brilliantly: In two combined starts between the NLCS and World Series, Zito fired 13.1 innings and allowed just a single run, winning both games for the Giants. In 2013, San Francisco missed the playoffs and Zito ended his megadeal in ugly fashion, posting a 5.74 ERA. When the Giants declined their option on him at season’s end, it looked like Zito’s career might be done.

Zito didn’t play in 2014 — but mainly as a means of mental adjustment: “What became toxic for me was this idea, ‘I have to succeed!’” Zito said. “Of course I want to succeed. But when you hold on to it too tight, it’s like an egg. You squeeze too hard, and it breaks.”

He then signed a minor league deal with Oakland this February and did something unprecedented for someone with his pedigree: Despite a Cy Young, two World Series rings, and a massive bank account, Zito accepted an assignment to Triple-A Nashville, then spent most of the year on the farm.

A burgeoning songwriter who calls Nashville one of his favorite cities for both its great music scene and overall fun vibe, Zito said he enjoyed his time in Tennessee. Still, some within the A’s organization still can’t believe what’s happened.

“I said right off the bat in April: ‘He’s not really going to Triple-A if he doesn’t make the team, is he?’” Forst said. “He had an out clause in his contract after spring training, but neither he nor his agent ever said anything. He just wanted to pitch so badly, he was fine with being in Triple-A. All the stories about middle seats on 6 a.m. flights, not complaining, just being one of the guys down there and everyone loving him … all of those stories are true.”

The A’s eventually called Zito up to the big leagues on September 16, a move that delighted even the most clearheaded, analytical members of Oakland’s brass. Four days later, the veteran lefty saw his first major league action in nearly two years. Though he gave up two runs in one inning of relief work, the highlight came when he retired the first batter that he faced: Rookie of the Year favorite and potential future MVP Carlos Correa. Zito had more than 16 years on the dynamic young shortstop, yet he’d already faced him in the minors earlier this year.

All of which brings us to Saturday. A’s manager Bob Melvin said he doesn’t expect Zito to throw more than 50 pitches. So, given that Hudson hasn’t completed seven innings in a game himself since early June, we won’t be seeing anything like the “top this!” complete-game bonanzas that the Big Three once delivered on a regular basis.

Every team talks about wanting to develop elite young pitching talent. But few teams in recent history could ever match what Hudson, Mulder, and Zito did: The Braves’ big three of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery was a decent comp, though Avery broke down and needed to be replaced by free-agent import Greg Maddux. The Mets’ old Generation K trio of Paul Wilson, Jason Isringhausen, and Bill Pulsipher got hammered by injuries. The closest thing to Hudson, Mulder, and Zito might actually be the current Mets, whose young core of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Zack Wheeler have a chance to match or maybe even eclipse what Oakland’s top arms have done. The Mets’ current GM? None other than Beane’s predecessor, Alderson.

For now, though, the A’s Big Three wears the crown. And in what will likely be the final start of both Hudson and Zito’s careers, they’ll get to go out in rare style.

“It’s kind of a magical ending,” Zito said, “regardless of how it ends up.”