First off, folks should stop being so hard on Bob Melvin's bullpen use. He has had not one, not two, but three very good relievers struggle unexpectedly. First Jim Johnson, then Luke Gregerson, then Sean Doolittle. You can't fault a manager for using pitchers who usually succeed only to have them fail, and you can't ask your manager to stay away from all his good relievers because one by one they keep disappointing.
Nor can you ask your manager to turn only to relievers who are currently hot because as we have seen in just the first 4 weeks, one quality most relievers share is that they go from hot to cold rather suddenly and without notice. Bullpens are notoriously volatile and as a result they tend to make managers look bad. There's a reason that according to fans around the nation, there are exactly 30 managers who are below-average at bullpen management.
Melvin also has a interesting septet in that he has 7 good relievers where most teams have only 3 or 4, yet he also doesn't have any one reliever who is head and shoulders above the rest. Is it better to have 7 B+ and A- relievers, or is it better to have a couple lousy ones, a few good ones, and a couple great ones? The answer depends a bit on what inning it is and what types of games you're playing: When you need a good reliever in the 6th inning, you want the choices Melvin has. However, when you play a ton of one-run games and it's the 9th inning you might prefer to have a lousy long-man but one "lights-out" closer.
What I am going to focus on here is how, given the group Melvin has, he could be getting better results -- and can get better results going forward.
1. Keep relievers in longer when you can see that they're dealing.
Relievers are inconsistent from appearance to appearance. Perhaps this is because their rest pattern is ever changing, or perhaps it's one of the qualities that got them to the bullpen. I have seen Melvin pull relievers that are clearly on their game, perhaps not factoring in that the next reliever, even if he is generally very good, is like "what's behind door #2" -- you don't know what you're going to get that day.
One of the best illustrations of the problem occurred very recently, on Saturday, when Ryan Cook needed just 7 pitches to dispose of two batters with both his fastball and slider crackling. Replaced by Sean Doolittle, the A's got a Doolittle who just didn't have it that day.
I would have preferred to see Cook go 1⅔ IP and not be available Sunday, rather than trying to piece the 7th, 8th, and 9th together with several relievers. Remember that one reliever on a bad day can offset all the good work done by 3 others. Put in enough different relievers and you're likely to unearth one who is off and by the time it's clearly evident the horse will have long left the barn.
2. Stagger appearances more.
I would sooner see Melvin stick with the "hot hand" longer and ask relievers to go on back-to-back days less often. Note that this is complementary with my first point; it is in fact a natural extension of the first point. With the depth the A's have, if they were to use Cook, Doolittle and Johnson one day they would still have Otero, Abad and Gregerson fresh the next day. So it is not necessary to remove a reliever who is going great guns that day, nor is it necessary to ask each reliever to go as often as Melvin has been doing.
Luke Gregerson has gone back-to-back days 4 times already, including a "3 days in a row" stretch that culminated with Gregerson being used 4 times in 5 days. On that 5th day Gregerson gave up a Chris Ianetta HR and was tagged with the loss, and one appearance later he surrendered 2 runs in the blown save and loss to Texas.
Coincidence or not I don't see Gregerson, a slider pitcher, as a guy you want to wear down -- and with a bullpen that has depth more than one clear star, there is no need to keep going to the same well time and time again. Gregerson has already made 13 appearances in 25 games (28 days). Doolittle has made 12 appearances, but I would have preferred to see him pitch the same 12 IPs over about 9 appearances.
3. Johnson may as well close.
Because he doesn't have one clear "best reliever" and because each alternative to Johnson has failed in the closer's role, Melvin may as well return Johnson to closer where he is as good a choice as any and in a comfortable role. In doing so, Melvin will also slot his other relievers in their most familiar roles in the process.
Additionally, Johnson's bumpy start was truly limited to 3 early appearances when he was likely trying too hard to impress a new team and was getting in his own head. Since then, he has been absolutely as good as the A's thought they were getting when they traded for him: 7⅔ IP, 5 hits, 0 runs, 2 BB, 8 Ks -- and he has looked great. Johnson may not be the world's greatest closer, but the world's greatest closer is not on the A's roster and the A's should at least feel confident now that Johnson is ready to be the closer they set out to acquire.
Johnson may as well close and behind Johnson, Melvin should note when a reliever is on and not be afraid to ride that reliever for 4-6 outs rather than running several different guys out there until one might implode -- and in doing so he will get the same number of innings from his relievers over fewer appearances.
Do that and I predict the bullpen (which statistically hasn't been as bad as it feels) will settle into being as dominant as it looked on paper in the off-season. We good, Bob?