Luke Gregerson is a good relief pitcher. As such, he succeeds a lot of the time, certainly more times than he fails. But like any human, he is susceptible to a bad day, or a bad week, or even more. As long as the successes come more often than they do for other pitchers, he will still rightfully be considered good. That's what made his performance in the Houston Astros' victory in Tuesday night's AL Wild Card Game so frustrating for me, even though I'm incredibly excited both that the Astros reached the ALDS and that they knocked out the Yankees to get there.
You see, this was not Gregerson's first appearance in a Wild Card Game. In last season's edition, as a member of our own Oakland A's, he was called on to protect a three-run lead by squashing a rally in the 8th inning against the Royals. He entered with two on and one out, certainly a tough situation but exactly the kind he was going to have to face now and then as a high-priced, high-leverage set-up man.
In that game, Gregerson was greeted by Billy Butler, who had just wrapped up the first season in his new life as a below-average hitter. Despite being genetically engineered to ground into soul-crushing double plays, Butler lined an RBI single to right field to cut the lead down to two runs. Next up came Alex Gordon, a legit All-Star having a quality season, and on Gregerson's second offering he bounced a wild pitch past catcher Derek Norris to score another run and cut the lead to one. He ultimately walked Gordon before settling down and striking out the next two batters to end the frame, but even though Oakland still led 7-6 he clearly hadn't done his job. The A's lost the game and, although the box score doesn't assign him any direct blame for the outcome (like a loss or a blown save), he was clearly one of the leading causes for that loss by letting Kansas City back within easy striking distance.
On Tuesday, Gregerson entered the AL Wild Card Game to protect a three-run lead for the second straight year. He's a closer now, and on top of that his teammates had kept the Yankees off the board to that point, so instead of coming in for emergency rally-killing purposes he was able to tackle the 9th inning from the start. Due up were the following stars:
1. Carlos Beltran, a borderline Hall of Famer who, even at age 38, still put up the kind of year (121 OPS+) that Alex Gordon was good for at ages 30-31
2. Alex Rodriguez, who despite his transgressions is still one of the best hitters in history, and who even at age 39 just posted the 13th-best OPS+ (130) and 11th-most homers (33) in the American League
3. Brian McCann, one of the better offensive catchers in MLB history, who at age 31 just set a career-high with 26 homers while exceeding 20 for the eighth straight year (and ninth out of 10)
That's $54 million in 2015 salary concentrated into three batters, none of them still in their HOF-caliber primes but all still continuing to be significantly above-average hitters this season. Gregerson retired them in order on eight pitches, including two swinging strikeouts and a groundout to short. Because of course he did.
This is frustrating to me because there is absolutely no reason it couldn't have gone this easily for the A's last year. I can't stress enough that, in the 2014 Wild Card Game, Luke Gregerson, whose strategy is to get batters to roll over on his slider and who posted a 52% groundball rate that year, came in with runners on first and second with one out to face Billy Butler, the patron saint of double plays. This morning, Butler grounded into a double play on the way to the store. In the afternoon, he was trying to get a pair of stains out of a shirt and he somehow got them both out at once. When he swats a fly, he has a knack for nailing two at a time for a twin-killing. Since 2008, he has averaged 23 GIDPs per season (in 153 games, on average). As an A's fan, you just watched Butler all year -- imagine him coming up with two on and one out and think about what you would generally expect him to do next. Instead, he lined an RBI single.
Granted, Gregerson's two outings weren't created equally. In 2014, he was asked to strand a couple of inherited runners, whereas he got to start his own inning in 2015. However, remember that stranding inherited runners was exactly what he was so good at doing before the A's acquired him. He'd sat in the range of 18-26 percent of his inherited runners scoring in each individual year of his career with the Padres, at a time when the league average fluctuated from 27-31 percent. He'd struggled in that regard with the A's in 2014, but this was still the thing he was expected to be good at and the job he was getting a premium $5 million arbitration salary to be good at. So, yes, his new team paved him an easier road to success than the A's did in last year's game, but one way or other the same guy was given a three-run lead in each game and in only one outing did he truly protect it -- the success came when he faced three all-time great sluggers in a park designed for bountiful home run harvests, and the failure came when he faced the guy who GIDP'd all over the carpet yesterday. Relief pitching is truly a random luck-of-the-draw.
There's no telling what would have happened if Gregerson had pitched on Sept. 30, 2014, the way he pitched on Tuesday night. Maybe the Royals still find a way to beat Doolittle in the 9th. Maybe the Angels bounce the A's in the ALDS, or even worse, maybe the Giants win the Bay Bridge Series sequel. Maybe, in a small percentage of alternate realities, Oakland goes all the way. But the point isn't to dwell on what could have been. Rather, it's that, of all the things commonly pointed to as reasons for the failures of 2014 -- usually an overaggressive general manager, highlighted by the trade of Cespedes -- the entire narrative can swing on something so much smaller than all of that. Gregerson is rarely if ever cited as a scapegoat for the season, but he had the power to make all the problems go away if he had just done what he was fully capable of doing in theory, what he ended up doing in reality last night (and really all season) for Houston. Even accounting for whatever things Billy Beane did last year that you disagreed with, they were still one good Luke Gregerson performance away from continuing their playoff run with their stacked short-series starting rotation, and instead the Astros got that performance one year later.
But that's baseball. You win some and you lose some, and you can only control so much. As Bull Durham taught us, it only takes one extra hit per week, just one grounder with eyes, to raise your average from .250 to .300, and as Luke Gregerson taught us, fortunes can turn on the unpredictable behaviors of relief pitchers. What's done is done and we can never go back and save the 2014 A's by giving them a mulligan on that fateful 8th inning, but we can do the next best thing -- root like hell for these incredibly fun Astros to knock out the brash, obnoxious Royals in the ALDS this weekend. I have no doubt that Luke will be ready for his own redemption in Kansas City, and I hope he finds it.