We're on to the second of our three 2014 Oakland A's villains, and next up is No. 44, Luke Gregerson.
Name: Luke Gregerson, aka Greg Lukerson
Position: RHP, relief
Stats: 72 games, 2.12 ERA, 72⅓ innings, 59 Ks, 15 BB, 8 blown saves*
WAR: 1.7 bWAR, 0.9 fWAR
How he got here: Acquired from San Diego Padres prior to 2014
2014 Salary: $5.065 million
2015 Status: Free agent, signed with Houston Astros (3yr/$18.5M)
2015 Salary: $6 million
* tied for MLB lead, accrued in 33 saves situations
Last winter, the A's found themselves with a crowded outfield and nowhere to put Seth Smith, not to mention little interest in giving him a raise through arbitration after a down season. His skillset no longer fit quite right on the roster, but he was too good to simply non-tender and give away for free. So, Oakland shipped him to the Padres in exchange for Luke Gregerson, another veteran in his final year of team control. Smith's value was limited by being a platoon player, and Gregerson's by being a non-closer reliever, but both players had plenty to offer and were above-average for their roles. The A's hoped that their new addition would be one more piece in what was shaping up on paper to be a dominant bullpen. Unfortunately, the games aren't played on paper.
Judging Gregerson's season is no easy task. On one hand, his 2.12 ERA was the lowest of his already impressive career, even after moving out of the pitcher's paradise of Petco Park and into the American League, home of the designated hitter. His 176 ERA+ ranked 23rd among the 272 MLB starters and relievers who threw at least 60 innings. By those measures, he was an absolute stud. On the other hand, he was also credited with eight blown saves, tied for the MLB lead with Brad Ziegler and Jonathan Broxton. Given that his specific job was to come into the late innings and hold close leads, that low conversion rate -- eight blown saves in 33 save situations**, or 75.7 percent success -- was a considerable problem. So, which do you prefer: the strong individual stats, or the poor team results that too often followed after his name was called?
** See note at end for more info on "save situations" and "save opportunities"
Blown saves are kind of a sketchy stat, and a lot of team effects can go into them. Let's take a look at Gregerson's meltdowns to gain a bit of context, and then see if it's fair to assign blame to the pitcher:
4/2, vs. Cle: Gregerson entered in the sixth with a 4-3 lead and recorded an out to strand a runner on second. But then, in the seventh, with one out, he was unable to stifle the heart of the Indians' order, as Jason Kipnis (walk, steal), Carlos Santana (single), and Michael Brantley (RBI groundout) manufactured a run to tie the game. The A's re-took the lead, and then Jim Johnson allowed two more in the ninth to re-blow it and lose the game. This was one of those rare contests in which two pitchers on the same team both recorded blown saves in the same game. So, while the loss is probably more on Johnson, I'm more interested in whether Gregerson's blown save (as its own isolated event) was his fault rather than whether the team's loss was his fault, so as to grade how effective he was at holding leads. Blame Luke? Yes
4/16, @ LAA: Gregerson entered in the ninth trying to convert a 4-3 lead into a save. With one out, he allowed singles to Mike Trout and Albert Pujols and then an RBI groundout to Howie Kendrick to tie it. The Angels eventually walked off in the 12th when Chris Ianetta homered off of Drew Pomeranz. Blame Luke? Yes
4/22, vs. Tex: Gregerson once again entered in the ninth with a 4-3 lead, looking for a save. Mitch Moreland doubled and moved to third on a sac bunt, but when Leonys Martin botched a squeeze bunt Gregerson was able to nab Moreland at the plate. Rally over, right? Now he had two outs and Martin on first ... wait, he just stole second. Then Josh Wilson, whose first name I just had to look up because he's so marginal that I'd forgotten him, doubled down the line to tie it and Michael Choice knocked him in with a groundball single; grounders are great and all, but a strikeout would have been just wonderful at that moment. Gregerson practically blew this one twice. Blame Luke? Yes
5/7, vs. Sea: First game of a doubleheader, and earlier in the afternoon the A's had lost Coco to his infamous neck injury. But wait, in the seventh, they finally figured out Felix Hernandez enough to score a few runs and take a 4-3 lead! Fernando Abad started the eighth and recorded an out and a walk, then gave way to Gregerson. The righty walked Stefan Romero, who posted a .234 OBP last year and should have been an easy out. Instead, Luke found himself facing Robinson Cano with two runners on base, and Cano drilled a single to tie it. Corey Hart followed with another liner to left, but this one was caught. Sean Doolittle came in to finish the inning, but Ryan Cook and Dan Otero teamed up to allow the winning runs in the ninth. Forget the loss, though, and look at Gregerson's blown save. Yes, he inherited a runner, but he also only had to get two outs and instead managed to retire only one of three batters he faced. Inherited runners are part of life as a lead-protector, and this was not a particularly tough situation. Blame Luke? Yes
5/14, vs. CHW: Fernando Abad once again started the eighth, with the A's up 2-1, but this time he left a much bigger mess for Gregerson -- runners on the corners, one out, and Jose Abreu coming to the plate. Gregerson served up a three-run homer to Abreu, but even just a sac fly would have been enough to tie it. You might blame him for the loss due to the extra runs he allowed, but the blown lead is clearly on Abad, who left a nearly impossible task to his successor. And, to Gregerson's credit, he stuck around after the homer to record five outs, giving his team two more chances to come back against the third-worst bullpen in baseball. Blame Luke? No
6/21, vs. Bos: Gregerson entered in the eighth to hold a 1-0 lead. After a groundout and a single, Dustin Pedroia hit a fielder's choice that may have had a chance to be a double play if the A's first baseman had been taller than 5'9 (anything to get Callaspo's .580 OPS into the lineup). David Ortiz hit a popup, but it found turf because the outfield was playing him so deep. And then, Gregerson struck out Mike Napoli on a foul tip to end the rally ... except home plate umpire Quinn Wolcott ruled it a foul ball and let Napoli keep hitting. Gregerson bounced the next pitch away from his catcher and Pedroia trotted home, but the inning should have already been over multiple times as far as the pitcher was concerned. Also, the A's eventually won in extra innings. Blame Luke? No
8/26, @ Hou: Gregerson entered in the eighth to hold a 2-1 lead. He got the first out and then induced a grounder for what should have been a second out, but Stephen Vogt flubbed the catch at first to allow Robbie Grossman to reach. And then, Gregerson unraveled, hitting Jose Altuve with a pitch and serving up a mammoth three-run shot to Chris Carter. The dinger went completely over the Crawford Boxes and onto the train tracks (no conductors were harmed). On one hand, even without Grossman on base the result would have been the same. On the other hand, the error (and subsequent baserunner) surely interrupted Gregerson's rhythm and may have had a sort of butterfly effect on the rest of the inning, so it's hard to put this one completely on him. Blame Luke? Partial
9/10, @ CHW: Gregerson entered in the eighth to hold a 1-0 lead, since the A's could only score a single run off of some nobody named Chris Bassitt. Carlos Sanchez led off with a single, but according to BBG's recap it should have been an error on Eric Sogard. Then Adam Eaton hit a double-play ball to first, but Nate Freiman threw it into left field; instead of none on and two out, it was two on with no outs. Gregerson nailed down a couple of strikeouts and almost got out of it, but, with the bases loaded on an intentional walk, Avisail Garcia lined a single to center to plate the tying and go-ahead runs. The A's lost, but this one was clearly on the defense. Blame Luke? No
The final tally:
- Blame Luke: 4
- Partial blame: 1
- Don't blame Luke: 3
It's worth noting that every single one of these appearances came in a one-run game. Another way of looking at it is that every time Gregerson was handed a lead of more than one run, he held it. As for the blown saves, two of them were really blown by the team (one by defense, one by Abad), and another was the fault of crappy umpiring. Furthermore, the worst ones all came in the first couple months of the season; perhaps that poor first impression triggered our confirmation bias and made us more prone to point at Gregerson later in the year, even when someone else was really to blame.
Let's start with the four blown saves that were definitely his fault, and then conservatively assign him the partial one as well because bad luck happens to everyone sometimes. Five blown saves sounds a whole lot better than eight, and along with a sparkling ERA we're back to talking about a top late-inning reliever. But then, he also blew a pair of tie games late in the year -- one on a three-run rally by the Twins (including a Josh Willingham homer), and one on a walk-off solo shot by Adrian Beltre. The defense didn't let him down in those losses. Now we're back to seven blown games.
And of course, we have to factor in the Wild Card game. I'll keep it quick this time. He entered with a three-run lead in the eighth, allowed a line-drive RBI single, plated another run with a wild pitch, and then got out of it with a walk and two strikeouts. He didn't technically blow the lead, but he squandered the cushion and clearly did not get his job done. You know how that one ended.
Of all those regular season blown saves/ties -- there were 10 overall -- the A's went on to lose nine of them. That's nine games in which the A's lost after turning to Gregerson to lock things down, and six or seven of those losses can be fairly pinned on his poor pitching. To make matters worse, his low ERA masks the fact that he struggled to strand his inherited runners -- he let 10-of-23 cross the plate, a rate of 43%, which is nearly twice as high as both his career average and his previous career high.
So, how do you grade Gregerson's season? He was great at run prevention, but bad at timing those runs. He was on the mound for a lot of late-inning losses, but they weren't all his fault. His inherited runners scored en masse, but that was uncharacteristic for him. Was he good? Was he bad? Something in between?
Here is how I see it. Gregerson pitched well, but he was not effective at his specific role, which was holding late one-run leads. In my eyes, that means that he had a bad 2014 season, but it does not mean that he is a bad pitcher. While his strikeouts-per-nine rate dipped from the high-8s to low-7s, and I've been outspoken about my dislike of relievers who rely primarily on sliders, the fact is that most everything that went wrong with Gregerson's campaign looks like a one-year fluke. A few more grounders turn into outs instead of hits or errors, more sliders miss bats rather than hanging like pinatas, and Gregerson could be right back to being an ace set-up man in Houston in 2015.
But as for 2014, Luke is my unsung goat for the year, the guy who doesn't get enough credit for his role in the A's falling short of expectations. Lots of things went wrong -- Johnson flopped, Moss disappeared, Coco got hurt, Lester fell apart in the one inning that mattered most, and more. But the porous bullpen was the one consistent weakness from Game 1 to Game 163, the one thing that never worked properly, and Gregerson was the poster child for having a low ERA that didn't lead to team victories. It may not be a fair way to look at his performance, but it seems to me the most realistic.
2014 season grade, relative to expectations: B ... I expected a lights-out set-up man. Take him on ERA and strikeout-to-walk rate, and he's got an A. Factor in all the leads he blew, and he drops down. Remove two blown saves, and I'd have knocked him up a notch to a B+, and so on.
2014 season grade, overall: B ... Nothing much to add here.
It all started out so well.
Although this review has been largely negative, Gregerson did come through most of the time. Here is he is getting Dustin Pedroia to roll over and ground out in a tough spot.
This is from the game he blew against the Rangers. Before he exploded, though, he made a great defensive play to break the Rangers' squeeze attempt.
But sadly, I have to leave you with a bad memory of Gregerson. It's one thing to allow key runs in late innings. It's another thing to hand them to the opponent via a run-scoring wild pitch. This was the single most unacceptable thing he did all year, because of what it was and when it occurred. Maybe it was Derek Norris' fault, but that pitch missed by a lot.
Let's see, I wonder who's next on the list. Gregerson was No. 44, so who was No. 45 ...
** Note that a save situation and a save opportunity are two different things. A save situation is merely any instance in which a reliever is protecting a lead, which may result in a hold or a save or a blown save; for example, if Gregerson enters with a lead in the 7th, he will still be in a save situation, even though we all know Doolittle will come in for the actual save in the 9th. "Save opportunities" are simply saves-plus-blown-saves and are an utterly pointless number with zero possible useful purposes because they are incomplete pieces of information that provide only partial looks at a greater picture and are thus deceptive and stupid.