Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Brilliance of Brad**

With a pitching style and personality that were filled with as much flash and flair as the Metrodome, Brad Radke may be one of the most underrated and under-appreciated pitchers to those who reside outside the 494/694 beltway. Yet Radke, like the Dome, was equally functional, reliable and provided production far exceeding the cost. His demeanor, workman-like and unassuming, played well in a land like Minnesota, whose inhabitants appreciate the aw-shucks-humble-as-pie persona in our athletes. He reciprocated the Northland's good nature by remaining a Minnesota Twin for his career, an uncommon feat in an age where payrolls rival the gross national products of European principalities.

Control is to Radke what alcohol-intake is to a Brewer fan: it is his lifeblood. The Eau Claire, Wisconsin native walked just 445 batters out of a pool of 10,244 batters faced, leading to an absurdly low career walk rate of 4.3%. To put that statistic into context, Radke's walk rate is better than future Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux who has a walk rate of 4.9% in his 23-year career. Radke ranks 33rd all-time in walks per nine innings with 1.63 (his name comes within four pitchers of touching pitching legend Christy Mathewson) and he could dismantle an opponent with tactical precision, striking out 14% of batters faced in his career, inducing empty swings with a devastating circle change-up. His 1,467 strikeouts rank third all-time for the Twins.

Naturally, that kind of zone dominance does not come without some blowback. Due to this consistency, Radke’s pitches were often teed-up by opponents. In his career, Radke watched 326 batters circle the bases from the mound, slightly less than one per game, earning him the affectionate nickname "Bombs-Away Brad." He leads the Twins all-time in that dubious statistic.

The man drafted by the Twins in the 8th round of the 1991 draft out of Jesuit High School in Tampa, Florida would spend three seasons in the minor leagues getting acclimated to professional hitting, never getting above AA Nashville before being introduced to major league hitters at 22 years old. For the next dozen seasons, Radke would start 377 games for the Twins including nine opening day games in his twelve seasons. He ranks fourth all-time in the franchise with 148 wins, trailing very good company in Bert Blyleven (149), Jim Kaat (190) and Walter Johnson (417). He finished above .500 six times, four times in the latter part of his career when players like Corey Koskie and Torii Hunter emerged and scored runs for a team who had in the mid-to-late 1990's provided as much offense as the Swiss Army.

His contributions to the organization go beyond just statistics, even though the numbers were outstanding in their own right. His contract negotiations during the 2000 seasons changed the paradigm of the front office, which had all but forgotten how to sign a paycheck. Reflecting back, what is most memorable about Radke's tenure with the Twins – outside of his circle change-up – is the way he finally coaxed money out of the heavily guarded vault. And he did so without alienating the Midwest fan base that is typically appalled by the ransom requests of people who play games for a living (see: Spreewell, Latrell). There was still fallout remaining from the Chuck Knoblauch fiasco and it was a foregone conclusion among local fans that the Twins would inevitably trade Radke or watch him walk via free agency. Either of those scenarios would been a PR disaster for the Twins, a team that had not had a winning record since 1992 and were also attempting to get a stadium built. It was this realization that may have coerced the Twins into extended talks.

In February of 2000, Radke and his agent rejected a 3-year, $21-million dollar offer hours before the self-imposed deadline, demanding a no-trade clause and an opt-out clause. For obvious reasons both parties were adamant over the inclusion of the no-trade clause. Understandably Radke had spent the better half of six season mired with teams that were losing in fantastic fashion. He and his agent requested the clause to hold the team accountable for improving the quality of the team and added the opt-out clause if they felt that the organization was heading in a different direction. After all, the then 27-year-old right-hander did not want to spend what would be his prime years for a team in constant rebuild mode.

Meanwhile the Twins front office felt as though the contract, one of the richest to a Twins player not named Kirby Puckett, would hamper the team's finances, especially if Radke declined in the later part of the three-year deal. Plus there was the distinct possibility that some of the developing prospects such as Hunter and Pierzynski might not pan out, forcing the Twins to liquidate their commodities that had trade value (i.e. Radke, Brad).

In July 2000, the team and Radke agreed upon a contract extension that would give Radke his no-trade and opt-out clause for four-years and $36 million dollars. Radke's contract begat the retention of other players via long-term deals, like Torii Hunter, Joe Mays and Johan Santana, that helped fuel competitive runs. The signing signified a new era for Twins baseball. It was a watershed event for the team and Twins fans should embrace Brad Radke as the player who got the front office to expand the penny-pinched budget.

Needless to say, the gamble by the organization paid off. From 2001 to 2004, Brad Radke went 49-34, logging 775 innings. The Twins surged in the American League Central with the newly stabilized rotation and returned to the postseason for the first time in eleven years in 2002. You could argue that the economic realities of the game would have forced the Twins into signing someone eventually as the products of the minor league system developed. Still if there is one takeaway from this, it is that without Radke's contract enabling him to fortify the rotation, the Twins may not have reached the playoffs in successive years. Plus, his success made it easier on the front office when it came time to extend contracts to Torii Hunter, Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau. Unbeknownst to him at the time, Radke's contractual demands helped foster a winning franchise and reminded the front office that what seems like today's high price is tomorrow's bargain value. That is the brilliance of Brad.
** This originally appeared in the August 2008 GameDay. Enjoy.