Of the seven pitchers who currently comprise Oakland's bullpen, not one claims ownership of the title "closer." It's an interesting phenomenon, and not one that Bob Melvin has happened upon voluntarily. Much to the contrary, the A's are without a closer simply because none of their relief pitchers have demonstrated the ability and consistency to be depended on night in and night out when the game is on the line.
While a shaky bullpen is a big issue regardless of alignment, this problem is one that affords the A's an opportunity to do something they do so well: move away from an outdated paradigm. No disrespect to two of the all-time greats, Mariano Rivera and Dennis Eckersey, but your position is a social construct. Is there room for a number one reliever, that go-to guy who gets the ball when it's most important? Absolutely. But assuming that the game's key moment is in the 9th inning, regardless of circumstance, seems like a stretch. Further, designating someone for the 9th inning and the 9th inning alone when there's a lead to be preserved seems foolish, given the dozens of factors that influence who's best suited to close on a given night.
Resource maximization in baseball has been applied just about everywhere except for bullpens. You only get four infielders? Play them where the ball is most likely to be hit, as ridiculous as the formation looks. Your lefties hit .100 points higher against right-handed pitching? Sit them against southpaws.
When your team is clinging to a one-run lead in the 8th inning with the No. 2, 3, and 4 hitters scheduled to bat, that's when you bring in the best pitcher in your bullpen, right? The one you've hand-picked to handle the highest-leverage situations? Wrong, apparently. Give him the 9th, even if he'd ideally see the No. 5, 6, and 7 batters, who collectively are half as likely to score a run.
Give that No. 1 reliever the 9th even if, for example, he is left-handed, displays a rather large platoon split, and would face two middle-of-the-order lefties in the 8th. With Sean Doolittle looking increasingly like that front-end, first-call guy, the situation is hardly a hypothetical one. His left-handed opponents' wOBA is .180, while the righties are managing a very respectable .294. If using Doolittle in the 7th or 8th gives him the opportunity to face an extra lefty, it's worth spending him early. Let Ryan Cook, a right-hander with an even larger wOBA-against split, handle the righties.
Jim Johnson is getting BABIP'd to death and isn't pitching well in general, but sample size and track record say he'll come around. Fernando Abad has been phenomenal, a true diamond in the rough. Luke Gregerson remains one of the better right-handed setup men in the game, Joe Savery and Fernando Rodriguez look to become major contributors after their respective returns from injury, and Doolittle and Cook remain a dynamic one-two punch in the late innings. The weapons are there, to be sure, and remaining outside the straitjacket of designated closers and setup men will allow the A's to use those weapons as effectively as possible.
Designating a "closer" is a disservice to yourself, if you allow the title to dictate strategy. Your best pitcher should pitch when he's most needed and most capable of success. Two decades ago, the concept of playing four infielders to the right of second base multiple times in an inning, if at all, was almost unheard of. And then coaches and front offices took a closer look at the numbers and the data as it became available, and realized that as radical as the concept was, the practice put them in the best position to win.
The reasoning here doesn't even need to be data-driven. It's much simpler: different situations call for different relievers. It's why you have lefties and righties, ground-ball pitchers and fly-ball pitchers, long relievers and one-out specialists. Doolittle gets an inning with a pair of lefties, be it the 7th or the 9th. Let Jim Johnson's ground-balling tendencies try to steer clear of the home run on an 85-degree afternoon at the Coliseum, and let someone else handle his inning on the chilly Tuesday evening prior.
It's simple logic, and Bob Melvin currently has the ready-made excuse of not having an obvious choice for closer. There's no time like the present to shake things up, and if the A's want to continue on their path to an AL West three-peat, it seems like the way to go.