We were all thinking it. Turns out Billy Beane and Bob Melvin were, too.
Melvin: "We're going to give Jim a break" from the ninth. Now closer by committee: Doolittle, Gregerson, Cook, Otero all options.— Jane Lee (@JaneMLB) April 10, 2014
Well this is interesting.
Prudence is usually the best course of action early in the season, since small-sample struggles tend to be an unfair basis for significant decisions. This was not one of those cases. The severity and the nature of Johnson's struggles meant a move had to be made sooner than later, and the team recognized that.
Johnson is out of the ninth inning, but it's being spun as a temporary move rather than a permanent decision. That's exactly what I was lobbying for yesterday, so I'm happy. The A's do have a recent history of pulling guys from the closer role, giving them a break, and then letting them work back into it.
This is not new for #Athletics. Balfour gained/lost/gained closer role and became an All-Star.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) April 10, 2014
However, while the action is not new, the follow-up move certainly is. When previous closers like Grant Balfour, Brian Fuentes and Ryan Cook were demoted, new closers were always named in their places. That is not the case this time. Instead, the team will (reportedly, hopefully, possibly) go with a closer-by-committee. That's a strategy that no Major League team has really, truly tried. Teams have dabbled in it before, but no one has ever fully committed to it for a full season, much less while also contending for a title.
Will the closer-by-committee last? I suppose that depends on how well it works. Athletics Nation has been screaming to try this out for years, because it makes logical sense to us. Baseball folk, including Melvin himself, firmly believe in specifically assigned roles for relievers. I'm just a guy with a keyboard, and I've never been in an MLB clubhouse, but that culture of specialization seems overblown to me. It also seems like one of those things that feels important when it's there, but you wouldn't notice after a while if it disappeared. Relievers like their roles, but would they really be less happy or less effective if those roles went away and they showed up to the park every day ready for anything? Or would they adapt and get used to the change? I honestly don't know; like I said, just a guy with a keyboard.
But dammit, the A's are supposed to be the team that tries this kind of thing. We're the ground-breaking team who comes up with new ideas and innovations, employs them in the face of widespread criticism, and then smiles with satisfaction when at least some of the bold strategies work out. It should be Oakland that pulls off the first successful closer-by-committee. And, given the personnel that will make up Melvin's committee, there would seem to be a great chance of success. The committee will be:
Luke Gregerson: career 2.86 ERA, strikes out a batter per inning, doesn't allow hits or homers, nasty slider for out pitch
Sean Doolittle: career 3.03 ERA, strikes out a batter per inning, doesn't allow hits or homers, working on secondary pitches because this is only his third year of professional pitching
Ryan Cook: career 2.53 ERA, strikes out a batter per inning, doesn't allow hits or homers, made the All-Star team as a rookie in 2012 while filling in as closer, nasty slider for out pitch
Dan Otero: 1.38 ERA in 2013 (39 innings), doesn't allow walks or homers*, served as Sacramento's closer (Triple-A) in 2013 before call-up to Oakland and posted 15 saves with a 0.99 ERA
* literally, Otero has never allowed a homer in 56⅔ major league innings.
Nobody has ever tried this plan with a relief corps like that. In fact, it's kind of hard to figure why Johnson was ever the closer to begin with, since he's probably the fourth or fifth best reliever of the group. The expectations that come with a high salary, the potential strategy of suppressing future arbitration demands from guys like Doolittle and Cook, and Johnson's track record in Baltimore all contributed to that. A week's worth of the eyeball test corrected the error in allocation of resources.
So, we'll see how this goes. Perhaps Melvin is able to mix-and-match his closer choices based on situation. Perhaps he gives everyone a shot until he settles on one guy he likes, Johnson or otherwise. As long as it all results in A's wins, I'm not too concerned how we get there. And if they're getting lots of save opportunities in which to try guys out, then that means they're protecting a lot of late leads, which is a good thing.
This is the right move, and we should all be happy. And then excited to see if Billy Beane will make yet another innovative mark on the game of baseball.
In completely unrelated news, Oakland's catching depth is quickly dwindling:
Chris Gimenez resigns with Rangers so there goes that theory.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) April 10, 2014
Get used to seeing John Jaso behind the plate.