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April 16 is Wolf Day

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I've got wolves on the brain today, between the release of Okami on Wii and the start by a wolf of the Randy variety last night against the Rockies. I'm not sure Amaterasu can throw a fastball, so we'll stick with the baseball version for now.

It's only April, but Randy Wolf has himself a neat stat line. Last night, he flirted with a no-no before giving up a hit and leaving the game, but the important thing, more than statistical results, is seeing if he can pitch without any health problems popping up.

The Padres have been careful with Wolf--supposedly he was coming out when he did due to his pitch count, even if had still been flirting with a no-hitter--and between their intelligent front office and manager Bud Black, himself a former pitcher and pitching coach, chances are good an injury will come from Wolf's body not being able to handle the rigors of pitching, rather than from being overworked. He's averaging just 96 pitches per start thus far, and could probably go deeper into games if he didn't strikeout and walk as many hitters.

Opponents have hit just .161/.257/.242 against Wolf this year, and he's allowed a .202 Batting Average on Balls in Play. Neither of those figures will last much longer, but chances are good that Wolf's BABIP may not even jump over .300, due to his history (.296 career BABIP, right around the league average) and pitching half of his games in PETCO, the anti-Coors. His current line drive rate of 26.2% is a product of small sample size--this too should fall back down around a more average 21% or so. Wolf typically gives up a few more grounders and flyballs than he has so far this year, and the extra liners will most likely filter their way over to those categories as the year progresses.

Wolf has also stranded just over 90% of his baserunners, another freak April occurrence. His FIP, which adjusts for just that sort of thing, is at 3.25, so even when we see Wolf allow more baserunners to score, there shouldn't be an issue with his production. Historically, Wolf has given up well over a homer per nine innings, but he also spent all but 102.2 innings of his career pitching in Philadelphia prior to this season. PETCO will keep away those extra homers, and probably lop a few more off due to its dimensions.

We are seeing Wolf throw his fastball about 4% more often this year, while he cuts down on the number of sliders he throws. Wolf uses the fastball often with two strikes to end an at-bat, and also to come back from behind in the count. I would like to see him use his secondary pitches more often--namely, his breaking pitches, as his changeup seems to be hit hard--but his strategy is working for now.

It also helps Wolf that his arm is in better condition now than it was prior to his major injury--his strikeout rates in 2006 belie his true ability for punchouts. The K/9 figures he has posted this season so far and last season are a significant improvement on the more league-average looking figures of his recent past, and resemble his first few years in the majors. If that's the Randy Wolf the Padres have signed, then their rotation is in better shape than many people thought during the preseason.

Wolf is a player I plan to keep an eye on as the year progresses, as he was quite the starter when healthy at the beginning of the decade. Between Wolf and second-year Padre Justin Germano, the back end of the Padres rotation doesn't seem to be in the shambles many analysts believed it would be in. It's possible Mark Prior will manage to stay healthy for a time as well, boosting the pitching staff further. While their defense is still expected to have some hiccups, especially in the outfield, this is a team that may still be able to run with the big boys in the division with a little help from pieces like Wolf.