Of all the things that were wrong with the 2015 Oakland A's, the bullpen was probably the biggest weakness. Even when the other parts of the team managed to string together a good game, the relievers usually found a way to hand the win back to the opponent. They were the Bringer Of Rain On Your Parade. To add insult to injury, the unit seemed strong entering the season, full of pitchers with good track records and recent success whom most of us trusted, so this failure was relatively unexpected.
This analysis of the bullpen will be split into three sections. In the first, we will face our demons and look at how statistically awful Oakland's relievers were last year. Next, we'll identify the key culprits. And finally, we'll check in on the current in-progress overhaul to see how it's going and where it might head next.
The 2015 carnage
To begin, here's where the pen ranked in various areas. Each of these stats is limited on its own, and some of them are only useful as measures of the past rather than predictors of the future, but together they give a diverse illustration of all the ways the relievers stunk. This section is stat-heavy and it is depressing, two things you might not like, but be brave. This is will be cathartic. Let the numbers wash over you like dugout sewage.
- 28th in relievers' ERA. There were only eight teams whose bullpens finished over 4.00, and the A's clocked in at 4.63, just a hair better than Atlanta (4.69) and Colorado (4.70). The next-closest team was a quarter-run better than Oakland, and that was the Tigers, who have been notorious in recent years for their trainwreck relief corps. The three best teams were below 3.00 (Pit, KC, StL).
- 1st in percentage of inherited runners scored. They inherited 257 runners and let 88 of them score, for a rate of 34.2% that was juuust ahead of the runner-up Mets. League-average was 30%, and the Giants and Pirates led with rates of 21%. When you let an inherited runner score, it counts against the ERA of the pitcher who let him get on base, so the bullpen's awful ERA is probably even a bit optimistic.
- 3rd in blown saves. Oakland blew 25 saves, tied with Detroit and Colorado; the Rays (27) and Braves (26) led the league. That only tells half the story, though, because the A's were also dead last in save situations -- their total of 100 was less than half of the league-leading Rays (204). So, the Rays "led" in blown saves, but compared with Oakland they only blew two of their 104 extra chances. The Braves blew one extra lead in 62 extra chances, the Rockies tied the A's despite an extra 63 save situations, and even the Tigers had 16 extra chances. As you might imagine, this means the A's were dead last in saves (28) and holds (42); the Giants led MLB with 116 holds. I could write another 1,000 words about how awful these stats are, but an A's reliever would just knock a glass of water all over my keyboard while trying to click the "save" button and lose my work.
- 30th in Win Probability Added (WPA). Every appearance that a pitcher makes either increases or decreases the team's win expectancy, depending on how well they pitch -- get an out and you've increased the WPA, allow a hit/run/etc. and you've lowered it. The higher-leverage the situation is, the more you can affect the team's win expectancy with each at-bat, so relievers can have a big effect in a short outing. There were only eight teams whose bullpens posted overall negative values in WPA, meaning that their pens hurt them more than helped them. Three of those pens cost their teams at least three wins apiece, including the Marlins (-3.18) and Braves (-3.91). The A's total was -7.80, twice as bad as the second-worst team. That's the worst bullpen WPA mark since the 2010 D'Backs (-8.37). I took it back to 1990 and the 2015 A's were still 6th-worst on the list in the last quarter-century.
- 29th in WPA/LI. This stat is an offshoot of WPA. It's also called Context-Neutral Wins, and you can get the full scoop at Fangraphs. It removes the consideration of how high-leverage the game situations were (LI = Leverage Index), so a homer allowed in a blowout hurts the same as a homer allowed in a save situation. It's more reflective of talent level, whereas WPA on its own hinges more on the timing of events as well. Only 10 bullpens had negative values this year, and only four were at -2 or worse. The A's were at -3.17, ahead of only the Braves at -5.65. (Royals led MLB at +7.66.)
- 29th in Clutch rating. As for Clutch rating, it's almost the opposite of WPA/LI. It starts with how well a player performed in clutch spots, and then subtracts that player's general talent level, leaving a number that reflects how much better the player was "in the clutch." So, if you're a mediocre player who rises to the occasion, you'll have a high score. If you're normally a star but you always choke when it matters, you'll have a low score. Only 10 bullpens had negative Clutch ratings, and only five were at -2 or worse. The A's were at -5.28, just ahead of the Blue Jays at -6.07. (Yankees led MLB at +6.74.) Coupled with WPA/LI, we can see that the A's bullpen had a low talent level and got even worse in the biggest situations. The A's were the only bullpen in MLB to score a negative value on both WPA/LI and Clutch. The only one.
- 1st in one-run losses. Their record was 19-35, and it's difficult to be that bad in an area that is usually more or less a coin flip. Having a bad bullpen is a great way to weight the proverbial coin against you, but think about the teams that have been coming up as comps in the previous sections: the Braves (28-18), Tigers (26-22), and Rockies (20-24) all did fine in one-run games despite their porous pens. The A's were a special brand of bad to rack up this record. Ready for the best part? The Blue Jays actually had a slightly worse winning percentage in one-run games (15-28), and they made the ALCS anyway. Life isn't fair.
A few other stats to finish off the picture: 15th in innings (509), 28th in groundball rate (41.6%), 2nd-highest HR per 9 innings (1.31), 23rd in strikeout rate (21.0%), MLB-worst LOB% (69.6%). The one nice thing I can say is that they had the 10th-best walk rate (only 8.1%), but I assume that's simply because hitters were too busy crushing the ball all over the field.
The key culprits
Okay, we get it, the A's bullpen was bad. It might have been one of the worst bullpens in history, if we're being honest. As a group they had few if any redeeming qualities, but which individuals stood out as the worst of the worst? (Notes: ERA in minimum 20 innings; IS% with minimum 15 inherited runners; BS = Blown Saves; Pom = Pomeranz; O'Fats = O'Flaherty.)
|Alvarez (9.90)||Scribner (10/21)||Clippard (4)||Otero (-1.65)||Alvarez (-1.24)||Leon (-1.84)|
|Otero (6.75)||Pom (11/28)||Scribner (4)||Scribner (-1.47)||Otero (-1.02)||Otero (-1.55)|
|O'Fats (5.91)||Venditte (7/18)||Abad (3)||Mujica (-1.11)||Abad (-0.68)||Scribner (-1.37)|
|Mujica (4.81)||Otero (8/24)||Mujica (3)||Leon (-1.07)||O'Fats (-0.49)||Mujica (-1.22)|
|Venditte (4.40)||Abad (13/46)||Pom (3)||Abad (-0.94)||Scribner (-0.41)||Alvarez (-1.03)|
Who shows up on the most lists?
- Otero: 5 (all but blown saves; he was only trusted with 4 saves situations)
- Scribner: 5 (all but ERA, and at 4.35 he'd have been 7th-worst)
- Mujica: 4 (all but IS% and WPA/LI)
- Abad: 4 (all but ERA and clutch, though he was better than league-average in IS%)
Wondering why Dan Otero was let go so quickly and unceremoniously? It's arguable that he was the worst guy in the pen last year. Now, it's important to note that WPA and Clutch are not predictors of future performance, and the biggest thing hurting his ERA was a mammoth total of hits allowed that could easily come down next year. He could bounce back for the Phillies. But if you want to clear out the things that went wrong last year and start over from scratch, then he had to go. Meanwhile, Mujica was only here as the Tank Commander, so letting him walk away was an easy call. And as much as I believe in an Abad bounce-back, it's easy to justify removing him from the equation this winter.
The odd case is Scribner. He actually led the bullpen in innings in 2015, and as you can see he was as responsible as anyone for putting the A's in positions to lose games. It would be easy to make a case for dropping him too, and yet the A's tendered him a contract. Here are my best three guesses as to why:
- Even in arbitration, the contract will be cheap. He's currently estimated to get around $700,000, which is barely more than the minimum. Holding onto him through the spring as insurance is not a big monetary risk.
- Key stat: 64 strikeouts, 4 walks. His 16.0 K/BB was tops in MLB and it wasn't close. That is such extreme success in a metric I care deeply about that I'm willing to give him one more try to see what happens. Even though he also led MLB (min. 60 innings) with his 2.1 HR per 9 innings.
- He was set up to fail in 2015. All those blown saves, and the un-clutchness? That's because he was forced into a set-up role that he never, ever belonged in. The pen fell apart so quickly and so thoroughly that he was pitching the 8th inning by mid-April. Stick him back in the 6th inning where he belongs, or into a mopup role, and he can be an asset once again.
Alright, now who shows up on the fewest of those naughty lists, or not at all?
- Fernando Rodriguez escaped all lists, while ranking 2nd in innings (58⅔)
- Clippard only showed up on blown saves, which makes sense since he was the closer and also led in save situations
- Pomeranz was poor with inherited runners, and he also would have been next-worst on the Clutch list, but like with Clippard he's on the blown saves list because he had the second-most save situations.
- Ryan Dull and Sean Doolittle didn't pitch enough to qualify for most of this stuff, but they also did well in their small samples.
Clippard was traded midseason (for great value) and Pomeranz was traded last week (for solid value). But Rodriguez is still here, Doolittle is expected to be ready for the season, and Dull should be in the picture at some point.
The rest of the holdovers:
- R.J. Alvarez was atrocious, but he was a 24-year-old with virtually no MLB experience. He has a huge arm and control/command problems, and there's enough upside in that profile to keep him around in Triple-A and give him another try.
- Arnold Leon showed up on two lists, but they were the two that aren't predictive at all (WPA and Clutch). However, he would have ranked on the IS% list if he'd made the minimum cut; he allowed 7-of-13 inherited runners to score (Alvarez was even worse at 7-for-12). Leon also missed the ERA list by one hundredth of a run (4.39). On one hand, it was his first time in MLB and his first experience as a full-time reliever. On the other hand, he's out of options now. I'm happy to keep him if he fits in April, but if he has to be waived then it's not the end of the world.
- Daniel Coulombe, Angel Castro, and Aaron Kurcz are still in Triple-A Nashville as the deepest of depth, but they aren't currently on the 40-man roster.
The 2016 overhaul
The A's have added two new relievers already this winter:
- Liam Hendriks. In his first go-around as a reliever, he struck out a ton of batters but didn't get much of a chance to hold leads (only 8 save situations, for 6 holds and 2 blown). His non-predictive clutch stats (WPA, Clutch) were negative, and he was only average at stranding inherited runners (30%). One thing he brings is velocity. Here's another stat from last year: The A's pen ranked 28th in average fastball velocity, at 91.4 mph (via FanGraphs).
In 2015, the biggest average fastball velocity in the pen belonged to Angel Castro, at 94.1 mph ... in four innings of work. There were 150 hurlers who appeared in MLB and registered a speedier average fastball than that, and the entire Marlins pen had the same average. Among holdovers who might actually be on the team next year, there is Rodriguez (93.7), Doolittle (92.4), and no one else above 92 mph. Last year, Hendriks' heater clocked in at 94.9 mph on average, making him by far the hardest thrower in the pen even if Doolittle recovers his 94 mph average from 2013-14. There are other ways to retire hitters than pure gas, and in fact speed won't get you there on its own. But from a fan perspective, it sure feels good to see some of your relievers come in and light up the gun in the late innings.
- Marc Rzepczynski. He had an off-year at age 29, so we're hoping for a bounce-back here. He still misses bats and racks up strikeouts (more than one per inning the last three years combined), and despite an increase last year he usually strands inherited runners well. He's perfectly fine to fill the hole left by Pomeranz.
So, where does that leave us at the moment?
4 guys are locks if healthy: Doolittle, Hendriks, Rodriguez, and Rzepczynski
4 guys out of options: Scribner, Leon, and surplus starters Sean Nolin and Felix Doubront
3 spares who have options: Dull, Alvarez, and Jarrod Parker if he's healthy
The A's are still looking to add arms, so this won't be the final picture and there will ultimately have to be subtractions before Opening Day. Here are some thoughts on that:
- Gotta add a set-up man, if not two. I like Hendriks and Rodriguez, but I'd rather see them in the 6th/7th for the most part. Also, who closes games if Doo gets hurt again?
- It's hard to see Leon making the cut in the end unless a lot of things go wrong, but he may also clear waivers so perhaps he'll stick around.
- I could see anything with Scribner: making the roster, getting cut during spring, or being included in a trade this winter.
- Despite being an intriguing prospect, it seems to me that Dull is a virtual lock to start in Triple-A. There is always a crunch to keep out-of-options players, and so his youth will work against him this year.
- What's more likely: Rzepczynski is flipped in another deal, or Nolin is included in a trade rather than risk having to waive him if he doesn't make the cut in the spring?
Beyond that, we'll have to wait and see. The Winter Meetings get underway on Sunday, though Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle reports that the A's aren't arriving until Monday. At last year's meetings, Oakland swung the Brandon Moss trade and Sharknado 2, so who knows what could happen this time around. There are all sorts of names to choose from: Darren O'Day, Ryan Madson, Shawn Kelley, Joakim Soria, Antonio Bastardo, Trevor Cahill, Joe Blanton, Steve Cishek, Juan Nicasio, Yusmeiro Petit, and many more whom we haven't discussed, not to mention all kinds of trade targets. The possibilities are endless, with the current rumors having them in on Madson.
What would you do next? How many more big additions should they make, and who should be subtracted to make room? Are there any particular targets you want above all else? Is the ultimate prize, trading for Aroldis Chapman, on the table at all? To the comments!