For the last few years, Evan Scribner has been the extra guy in the Oakland A's bullpen. He shows up when someone else gets hurt or when the team needs a fresh arm, and he's usually only tasked with low-leverage innings. That trend seemed to be continuing in 2015, as his first two appearances came with an eight-run lead and an eight-run deficit, respectively. But then, something strange happened. Scribner started showing up in the eighth inning.
On Monday against the Angels, Kendall Graveman was pulled early but Dan Otero mopped things up through the seventh while maintaining a two-run lead. Scribner was called on in the eighth to face Albert Pujols, Matt Joyce and David Freese, and he retired them on seven pitches; Tyler Clippard closed things out in the ninth, but he needed 21 pitches. Scribner's next appearance came with yet another eight-run lead, but then on Friday against the Astros he served as the setup man once more. Scott Kazmir had gone seven frames, and Scribbles was the first man called on from a fully rested pen to preserve a scoreless tie. He retired George Springer and Jed Lowrie, then gave up a dinky single to Evan Gattis before the inning ended on a baserunning miscue. He took 10 pitches to record three outs.
It was not by design that Scribner ended up in those eighth innings. Sean Doolittle is out, and in his place Tyler Clippard has more walks (5) than strikeouts (4) -- Doolittle walked only eight batters all of last season. Ryan Cook is in Triple-A*, Eric O'Flaherty has an 11.37 ERA, R.J. Alvarez is at 12.00, and Dan Otero is showing himself to be better suited for the middle innings and efficient long relief. Scribner was merely the next dart being thrown at the wall in the hopes that something might stick. He earned this specific shot mostly due to being the last man standing, but that doesn't take away from what he's accomplished so far when given that opportunity.
Scribner recorded six outs on 18 pitches in his two eighth-inning appearances, and 15 of those pitches were strikes. He looked in control at all times. Anyone can have a couple good games, though, right? Here's what I had to say about him in my review of his 2014 season:
There's not much else to say about Scribner. He's a two-pitch guy -- his fastball has some zip but not enough movement, and his curve is good but not amazing. He's a totally solid 29-year-old, with nothing to suggest he can take a big leap forward but no reason why he can't go right on being solid for the indefinite future.
There was nothing to suggest he could take a big leap forward. At least, not at the time. But then -- and stop me if you've heard this one -- he added a cutter to his repertoire. If there is anything I've learned from baseball, it's that whatever is wrong in life can be solved by adding a cut fastball. Owe back taxes? Car won't start? Boss riding you at work? Just learn a cutter and everything will get better. Look! Jesse from Fontana, CA, did it and now he has money and the respect of his peers. He's living the dream! Not every source agrees on the specifics -- Brooks and Fangraphs think Scribner is throwing a slider, while PITCHf/x and Bob Melvin himself both label it a cutter. Melvin is probably the one who would know best. Regardless, Scribner has added a new pitch that he's throwing nearly a quarter of the time, and when a hurler does that and then suddenly improves there is reason to pay attention and see if it might be for real.
It's not just a coincidence that Scribner's resurgence has coincided with the addition of his new weapon. For whatever the tiny-sample metrics are worth at this point, the cutter has been by far his best pitch, though all three of his offerings have rated as strong positives. He used it to get a weak groundout from Pujols on Monday, and he got Springer to chase it for a lazy fly on Friday. His fastball is still his primary tool and his curve is still his biggest secondary pitch, but the cutter is giving him a second "out" pitch with which to put away batters.
The knock on Scribner before was that he was just a two-pitch guy. His fastball wasn't good enough to get you on its own, so if you could solve his curve then you had a great chance against him. But now he has three different offerings that go at three distinct speeds and act in three completely different ways. (The four-seamer averages 91 mph, the cutter 85, and the curve 71.) That ability to mix his pitches allows him to keep hitters guessing about what might be coming next, which isn't something he could really do before. We need to see a lot more before we can declare that Scribner has taken an official step forward, and it should be noted that he's already allowed a pair of homers in his first seven outings, but the stage is set -- he made a significant change to his game, his early performance has been particularly excellent, and the team is trusting him with more important innings than he used to receive. That gives us something to keep an eye on.
The A's bullpen appears to be in the middle stages of burning to the ground right now, and it's not the first time nor will it be the last. But every time the ashes settle, a new fireman always emerges from them, and it's not always the person you'd expect it to be. I completely dismissed him as a known (and underwhelming) quantity during the spring, but Scribner is currently poised to be that bright new hope. Against all odds, we might look up in a few weeks and realize that Evan Scribner is our setup man. And we might be totally okay with it.
* Ryan Cook was recalled from Triple-A as this post was being written. Cook made five scoreless appearances for Nashville and issued only two walks. He figures to factor into the setup conversation, but the fact that he had to reprove himself in Triple-A probably means the team won't be rushing him back into the eighth inning any faster than it has to.