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Athletics 2014 season review: Ryan Cook takes a step backward

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Cook's secret ingredients were walks and forearm pain.
Cook's secret ingredients were walks and forearm pain.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Man, this series was not supposed to extend into spring training. This was supposed to be the thing to fill time during a long, slow offseason. Instead the Oakland A's offseason was filled with more huge news than most teams' regular seasons. So, here were are in March of 2015, looking at the 2014 performance of No. 48, Ryan Cook. At least he's still on the team.

Player profile

Name: Ryan Cook, aka Cookie
Position: RHP, relief
Stats: 54 games, 3.42 ERA, 50 innings, 50 Ks, 22 BB, 32 hits, 3 HR
WAR: 0.4 bWAR, 0.3 fWAR
How he got here: Acquired from Arizona D'Backs prior to 2012
2014 Salary: $505,000
2015 Status: 1st-year arbitration, under team control
2015 Salary: $1.4 million

Season summary

Cook emerged as a bullpen force for the Oakland A's during the 2012-13 seasons, posting a combined 4 bWAR, 3 fWAR, and 169 ERA+ in those two campaigns. However, the team rode him really hard both years, and it showed when he had nothing left for the playoffs in either year. It also showed when he started the 2014 season on the DL with a shoulder problem, but he returned promptly and made his 2014 debut on April 7.

He was plugging along just fine for about a month, but he went down again on May 7. He was pitching in the first game of a doubleheader against the Mariners, and the A's had already lost Coco Crisp to his major neck injury earlier in the contest. Cook worked himself into a jam, and instead of working out of it he had to be removed entirely due to forearm tightness. I was sure that meant he was headed for Tommy John surgery, but he managed to escape that fate and still has not yet succumbed to it. I think it gets more and more inevitable with every passing day, but that's a story for another column. In reality, he just went on the 15-day DL.

Cook missed about a month while he let his sore arm calm down, but the A's had some decent depth in their bullpen and they survived just fine. He returned on June 6, and he pitched as normal for the rest of the season. There were long stretches of scoreless work, and there were occasional rough patches, just as any normal reliever would have. When all was said and done, he'd had a perfectly acceptable season. Not great, not bad, just solid. He didn't pitch in the Wild Card game, so you are spared from that memory for another day.

To evaluate Cook's season, let's take a look at some key reliever stats, including a couple that I've been using to judge other pitchers in recent posts.

ERA/ERA+

Cook's ERA and ERA+ by year:

2012: 2.09, 187
2013: 2.54, 153
2014: 3.42, 109

You should expect relievers' ERAs to fluctuate, since they work in such small samples. However, you still don't want to see one of your young guns get consistently and markedly worse each season. His 2012 stats were never sustainable, but I was hoping to see him settle in closer to an ERA around 3.00. Perhaps we can cut him some slack due to his injuries, since bouncing on and off the DL probably makes it tougher to get into a season-long groove, but health is an important trait for a pitcher as well so that's not the best excuse in the world.

What we can't do is blame his higher ERA on bad luck. His FIP went up right along with his ERA, from around 2.80 in 2012-13 to 3.35. His BABIP wasn't a problem, as he actually returned to his elite 2012 level of hit supression. His strand rate did go slightly down, but only to about an average level. No, he earned those extra runs by issuing extra walks, which leads conveniently into our next section.

Strikeouts and walks

The strikeouts were still there -- exactly one per inning, just like in 2013. Unfortunately, so were the walks, and they brought friends. After settling around 3.3 walks per nine innings in his first two years (~9% rate), he jumped up to 4.0 per nine in 2014. His 10.9% walk rate ranked in the top 30 among all MLB pitchers with 50 innings, which is not where you want one of your key set-up men to be. Most of the names above him were relievers who exploded (Johnson, Balfour, Nathan, Brothers), injured starters (Wilson, Masterson), guys known for high walk rates (Cahill, Ubaldo, Liriano, Dice-K, Peacock, Axford), or unhittable hurlers who strike out so many batters that their walk rates don't matter (Chapman, Cecil, Walden, Rosenthal, Bastardo). Only one of those groups is a good one to be in, and Cook doesn't strike out enough hitters to qualify for inclusion. His walks were too high, and if they don't come down then they will prevent him from reestablishing himself as a top late-inning arm.

Save situations

Not save opportunities, but save situations; any situation that can potentially earn you a blown save by giving up a lead. Cook entered in 10 of them, and he converted 8-of-10 (1 save, 7 holds). That's actually perfectly fine. He's the anti-Gregerson; his individual numbers slipped, but he did just fine when it mattered most. His career conversion rate is 81%, so he was right on target.

Inherited runners

I gave Gregerson a lot of flak this winter for his inability to strand inherited runners last season, even though it was just a one-year blip on an otherwise fine career track record of escaping jams. He'd always sat around 20% of inherited runners scoring, and he jumped up to 40%. More than likely, he'll move back toward his career norm in Houston in 2015.

Cook, on the other hand ...

2012: 8-of-25 scored, 32%
2013: 15-of-30 scored, 50%
2014: 12-of-29 scored, 41%

Even when he was good, he was bad at this particular thing, and he's only gotten worse. He's legitimately bad at stranding inherited runners, and I don't know if there's a reason for that or what that reason may be. You'd think that a guy who keeps the hits down would strand more runners, since entering and walking a batter probably won't plate an inherited runner as often as allowing solid contact will.

This is a crucial area for a set-up man. Ideally, you'd like to give each pitcher his own inning, like Cook/Clippard/Doo in the 7th/8th/9th, but of course it doesn't always work out that way. Your top relievers need to be able to enter to clean up a jam, or else they aren't really your top relievers (or you just have a bad bullpen). Furthermore, since inherited runners don't count against your own personal record, your ERA won't reflect them; a pitcher with a great ERA but who can't be counted on to strand runners might not be so great, and a pitcher with an average-ish ERA and the same problem might actually be a below-average presence. If Cook is going to keep losing everybody else's inherited runners, then he needs to keep his own ERA super-low to make up for it.

***

As you can see, 2014 was a mixed bag for Cook. There were injuries, as well as worrisome trends in his peripheral stats, but his results were totally decent. He definitely took a step backward, but it wasn't a huge step and it's one that he can potentially recover from.

2014 season grade, relative to expectations: C- ... He was supposed to be one of the top arms in the pen. Instead, he missed several weeks and was merely adequate when he did pitch. The grade is harsh because he was supposed to be more on this particular team.

2014 season grade, overall: B- ... Solid, above-average reliever who got the job done more often than not.

Video highlights

There aren't very many Cook highlights on MLB.com, but this is easily the best. He entered with the score tied and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth against the Angels, and he got Mike Trout to ground out to force extra frames. Cook wound up taking the loss in the 10th, but he's also a big reason why they got that far in the first place.

This is possibly the worst way to blow a save, and it highlights one reason why it's bad to have a late-inning arm who has poor control of his pitches.

This is the pitch that sent Cook to the DL. Watch that and tell me he doesn't look like he's going for Tommy John surgery the next week. And yet, he survived.

So as not to finish things off with a bummer of a video, here's Cook picking off a runner at second.

***

Cook is one of the few remaining stars from the magical 2012 A's, and he'll always have that going for him. Time will tell if his 2014 was a bump in the road or the beginning of an early decline.