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Athletics 2014 season review: Dan Otero quietly does the dirty work

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The faceless middle reliever lives a life of anonymity, his work noticed but not fully appreciated.
The faceless middle reliever lives a life of anonymity, his work noticed but not fully appreciated.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Next, we have another reliever who will still be in Oakland in 2015. Say hello to No. 61, Dan Otero, who is probably under-appreciated by even his biggest fans.

Player profile

Name: Dan Otero, aka (See footnote below)*
Position: RHP, relief
Stats: 72 games, 2.28 ERA, 86⅔ innings, 45 Ks, 15 BB, 4 HR, 80 hits
WAR: 1.8 bWAR, 0.6 fWAR
How he got here: Selected off waivers from New York Yankees
2014 Salary: $502,500
2015 Status: Pre-arbitration, under team control
2015 Salary: $512,500

* You guys, if/when Ryan Cook comes back can we please nickname our set-up duo Oreo and Cookie??

Season summary

Otero came to the A's via a waiver claim from the Yankees, but really he came from the Giants. It was San Francisco who drafted him and developed him and then inexplicably gave up on him. The Yankees claimed him but then waived him again the next day, and he landed in Oakland.

I'll never understand why the Giants didn't give him a chance, though they certainly did just fine without him. His career minor league numbers include a 2.02 ERA with no single season above 2.90, along with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 6.56. Sure, he was always old for his league, but at some point you have to look at a guy with that much uninterrupted success and wonder if he's just good at retiring hitters. His fastball sits in the low 90s, so it's not like he's a soft-tosser overcoming a stigma. He didn't get huge strikeout totals in the minors, but he got enough. He's just a guy who throws so many strikes that you can't walk against him and gets so many ground balls that you can't homer off of him. When you put it like that, his great stats make total sense.

Otero got his shot in 2013 and responded with a 1.38 ERA in 39 innings. That amazing performance earned him a spot in the 2014 bullpen, and he made the absolute most of that opportunity. He served as the workhorse, accounting for 18.5 percent of Oakland's relief innings (just under one-fifth), and he racked up a sparkling 163 ERA+ in the process. He recorded more than three outs in 31 of his games, and he reached at least six outs 14 times. Normally you have to choose between a guy who is lights out or a guy who can routinely go two innings at a time, but with Otero you get both of those things.

The story of Otero's season is told not through his game log, but rather through the underlying stats that show off his consistently excellent body of work. You probably know that Otero was (and is) good, that his ERA was low and that he pitched in a lot of big spots. But even that praise sells him short. He might have been the single most reliable arm in the pen, from start to finish.

Save situations

Remember, save situations don't have to come in the ninth. Those are "save opportunities," and that's a dumb and useless stat. When you come into the seventh looking to hold a lead, you're in a save situation.

Otero actually didn't do anything special as far as converting these opportunities. He entered in 16 of them, and he came out with 12 holds, one save, and three blown saves. That's an 81 percent success rate, which is totally normal -- not great, not bad, just normal for a good set-up man.

Ahh, but a deeper look reveals more. One of those blown saves should hardly count against him -- Jim Johnson loaded the bases with one out, and Otero merely allowed the sac fly that tied it; he even stuck around for two more innings to earn the win when the A's came back. I'd argue that he saved the team from a loss right there, and give him credit for 14-of-16 (87.5 percent). Another blown save was simply a solo homer by Torii Hunter, and he does that to pretty much every A's pitcher at some point. He'll hit a back-breaking homer against the A's the year after he retires.

So, if one of his blown saves was actually a great outing, and another was naught but one big swing off the bat of a notorious A's killer, then he must have been pretty good in save situations. Turns out he might have been Oakland's best, when looking at their numbers strictly in save situations (note that this omits tie games):

Gregerson: 33⅓ innings, 2.16 ERA
Doolittle: 29⅔ innings, 4.25 ERA
Otero: 20 innings, 1.80 ERA
Cook: 6⅔ innings, 10.80 ERA
Abad: 6 innings, 6.00 ERA

A couple things jump out at me here. The first is that, once again, I learn that Gregerson probably wasn't as bad as I think he was -- remember, every single one of his blown saves came while protecting a one-run lead, for what that's worth. The second thing is to do a double-take at Doo's ERA, but remember that he had one game in which he allowed a five-spot in a spectacular explosion and another in which he gave up a walkoff grand slam to Rajai Davis; those two outings accounted for most of his runs in this split, and without them his ERA in save situations would have been 1.55. Even if you replace them with normal failures -- says, an inning each with three runs combined -- he'd still be at 2.32. Those games happened and they count, and maybe Doo is in fact prone to an occasional severe meltdown, but for the purposes of this exercise they are such outliers that they skew the concept we are investigating. No matter how many runs you give up in a game, you can only lose it once.

But still, which one of those guys would you want entering in a tight spot? The guy who blew a bunch of one-run leads? The guy who is probably great but might vomit up a crooked number without warning? Or Mr. Consistent, who just plugs along and gets grounders and didn't even allow a homer for the first 60 innings of his MLB career? Otero only allowed three runs in a game twice all year, and in one of those outings he recorded seven outs.

Win Probability Added (WPA)

Win Probability Added measures how much a player's single-game performance increased his team's chance of victory that day. Otero first shows up at No. 4 on the list, with an outing against the Yankees on June 4 in which he cleaned up a one-out jam and then stuck around for another inning. He clocks in again at No. 8 (May 17, recording 11 outs to rescue Scott Kazmir after the starter was ejected in the second inning), No. 9 (Sept. 8, pitched the 10th and 11th in the Tyler Flowers game vs. White Sox), and No. 12 (June 28, pitched the 10th and 11th in the Jeff Francis game, vs. Marlins). In total, he had five of the top 15 games, and nine of the top 21. That's nearly half of the very best relief outings; Doolittle himself only had five of the top 21, though that's partly because his job was to come in and start the ninth rather than enter mid-inning in a big jam and clean it up. Nobody else had more than two games above that WPA cutoff, and therefore it should be no surprise that Otero led all A's pitchers in that stat overall for the season. He often entered in tough spots, and he was better than anyone else on the team at converting those tough spots while also blowing as few as possible.

Eschew homers and walks

Otero's game is based around throwing strikes and getting grounders. He walked only 4.3 percent of the batters he faced, which was among the best few dozen walk rates in the whole sport regardless of the size of the workload. Dootlittle was a tick better in that regard, of course, but he also didn't come within 20 innings of Otero's total.

But as impressive as the low walk rate was, his groundball tendencies were even more extreme. His rate of grounders was 56.4 percent, almost exactly what he'd done in 2013. Among pitchers with at least 60 innings, that ranked 13th; move the bar up to 80 innings, and Otero was third in MLB, behind Cleveland starter T.J. House and Houston ace Dallas Keuchel. (Orioles closer Zach Britton led overall with an absurd 75.3 percent, in nearly 80 innings.)

There are plenty of pitchers I like who aren't control artists or ground ball specialists. I also love strikeouts. A pitcher doesn't have to be like Otero (or Tommy Milone or Kendall Graveman) for me to like him. But I hate giving up walks more than anything, and allowing home runs is pretty lame too, so throwing lots of strikes and keeping the ball on the turf are two big keys to my heart. Otero does both of them as effectively as pretty much anyone in baseball.

Inherited Runners

Here's one shaky stat. Otero's job is to clean up the mess you left him, so it makes sense that he led the team (by far) by inheriting 55 runners. He allowed 19 of those men to score, for a rate of 35 percent. That's better than Cook and Gregerson, the guys I've been chiding all winter (they were both above 40 percent), but it's nothing to write home about. However, I'm willing to give Otero a bulk discount on this one -- he inherited so many more runners than anyone else, was so consistently thrown into those jams, that his strand rate isn't even comparable with anyone else's. Just as you wouldn't give a guy credit for matching someone's batting average in half the number of at-bats, let's give Otero some benefit of the doubt for getting so many more chances to blow things than anyone else but still holding steady.

***

So, what we have here is a guy who avoids walks and induces grounders as well as anyone in baseball, and can do those things for multiple innings at a time while also not giving up homers. He is at his best in save situations, and he can be your middle-inning fireman without letting the blazes get out of control. And, when all is said and done, his body of work may do as much as anyone's to put your team in a position to win. Oh, and he was acquired for free and will earn league minimum in 2015.

Doolittle was the All-Star last year, and he probably was the best reliever on the team. But Otero was close on his heels, a lot closer than I think anyone realizes.

(Note: Otero took the loss in the Wild Card game. He got through the 11th, but in the 12th he gave up Eric Hosmer's triple, which maybe could have been caught by a real outfielder. Then he gave up a 50-foot single to drive in the run, and then he hit the showers. Of all people in that game, it would never occur to me to point to Otero as the loser. He was just fine.)

2014 season grade, relative to expectations: A ... Expected him to be good but figured he'd take a step back. The step back was much smaller than I thought it would be. Could have earned an A+ by somehow seizing the closer role, but really not much else I could have asked from him.

2014 season grade, overall: A ... Huge workload and tiny ERA, and good in save situations. What else is left to say?

Video highlights

Regardless of the numbers, this was Otero's biggest game of the year. Kazmir was booted in the second inning because the umpire decided to be a petulant child, but Otero stepped in and cleaned up like he always does. He went 3⅔ innings, and needed only 32 pitches to get there thanks to three double plays.

This was one of the worst calls of the year. Angel Hernandez-level bad. Aybar should have been out for, like, five different reasons, and instead he got the obstruction call. The short version is that he had the entire basepath to work with but instead veered into Otero, who was not standing in the basepath. Aybar caused the entire collision. It was 100% his fault. This is the exact opposite of how obstruction works. He should have been out.

Otero is so good that even Alberto Callaspo can turn double plays on his grounders.

***

Someone will need to step up even further in 2015 with Doolittle and Cook out of the picture for now. Otero is as primed as anyone to do so.