It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Specifically, it was the best of times for the lineup, and the worst of times for the pitching staff. And even more specifically, it was the worst of times for the bullpen, which sports an AL-worst 5.16 ERA, an AL-Worst six blown saves, and an MLB-worst nine relief losses. The starters have actually been top-10 in MLB, but the bullpen has been an absolute mess. And with that in mind, I would like to tell you a tale of two Fernandos.
The A's bullpen was supposed to feature six key members -- five strong holdovers from last year, and one All-Star acquisition. Unfortunately, closer Sean Doolittle hasn't thrown a pitch yet, TJS survivor Eric O'Flaherty is back on the DL (though not for his elbow), established set-up man Ryan Cook has been sent down twice already after three strong seasons, Dan Otero's ERA has jumped by 2.5 runs and Fernando Abad's has gone from 1.57 last year to 5.79 so far in 2015. Abad's FIP is even worse, at 6.26.
Meanwhile, Tyler Clippard has only seen four save situations and has already blown one of them. Individual relievers come and go, and they rise and fall, but it's truly remarkable to see an entire bullpen simultaneously disappear like this. If you're looking for hope that the 12-21 record is a filthy mirage, then consider that it has been entirely due to the relievers* and that the pen is the easiest thing to fix on a team, especially when it was supposed to be good in the first place.
* Also defense, but the relievers have made this a losing team on their own even without the errors.
So, out of six guys, two are on the DL, one is in the minors, and two have been utterly ineffective for no apparent reason. (Clippard hasn't been great, but he's been fine and he gets a free pass for the rest of the article.) Abad has been as perplexing as any of them -- his strikeouts are down, his walks and hits are up, he's getting torched by left-handed batters, and he's generally failing to get the job done in any situation. What might be wrong with him? Let's see if he's doing anything differently than last year.
In 2014, Abad relied on an arsenal of fourseam-curve-sinker, with a few changeups mixed in. His fourseam velocity is down a bit, but it's not unusual for velocity to be low early in the season so I'm not ready to chalk anything up to that. His arsenal is also different, though, because he's added a cutter. It's not one of his primary pitches, but according to Fangraphs pitch values it has been terribly ineffective. Adding a new pitch makes sense when it has a positive effect, like when Jesse Chavez learned a cutter, but it seems Abad isn't getting any benefit from his new offering. Granted, all of his other pitches have been less valuable this year as well, so maybe we just need to be patient with him. It's also not hard to create a theory to explain the new pitch -- for example, perhaps he's learning this cutter now so that he can begin shying away from his fourseamer before it starts to lose velocity when he hits his 30s. I just made that up to show that there can always be other explanations we don't know about. But at the moment, this situation looks most curious.
Hey, Dan Otero added a cutter this year too. He's throwing it over 10% of the time, and it's been his worst pitch. Are the A's just having every pitcher learn a cutter now, whether they're good at it or not, since the pitch has worked for so many guys? Should we have more patience as they master this new pitch, or are we right to prefer them to work on it on the side and then unleash it when it's ready?
I don't want to jump to any conclusions since there is so much info that We The Public don't know. But from where I'm sitting, this is what I see. The bullpen is ruining the season so far, and a couple main culprits have been two stars from yesteryear. These stars appear healthy and the biggest thing that seems to have changed for each has been the addition of a new pitch that has provided negative value. This almost seems like too easy of a solution, but ... stop throwing that pitch and go back to what you did last year? It's just crazy enough to work. It's also almost certainly not that simple, because Dan Otero's groundball rate did not go from 56% to 40% just because he added a new complimentary pitch. But it's a starting point in what will hopefully not be a season-long investigation.
Fernando the Good
Enter Fernando Rodriguez. For those who are not familiar with him, here's the short version: He was the extra piece the A's got when they acquired Jed Lowrie from Houston, but he had Tommy John surgery right away. He returned last season, had an excellent year in Triple-A, and succeeded in a few MLB innings as well. He's a hard thrower who mostly relies on his mid-90s fourseam fastball, but he also has a curve and a cutter (note: the cutter is not new!). At his best, he's striking out a batter per inning and limiting the hits; at his worst, he loses his control and piles up the walks and homers. He's never had a full, good MLB season, but it's not unheard of for a 31-year-old reliever to finally harness his stuff and make the leap (whereas I would be less enthused about a 31-year-old hitter who was still looking for his big break).
Rodriguez represents the second wave of relievers. He's not the only reinforcement -- Evan Scribner has taken a bigger role, Edward Mujica is now on board, and Angel Castro is apparently a thing. But he's a great example of the depth that might save this unit, or at least buy the regular guys enough time to get back into their grooves. There are others in Triple-A, too: R.J. Alvarez has struggled but has also struck out 16 batters in nine MLB innings, Pat Venditte has a 1.47 ERA for Nashville, Chris Bassitt is ready if needed, and Sean Nolin is back on the mound. They aren't the names we were hoping to rely on, but between those 14 guys (plus Kendall Graveman, Arnold Leon, and even Barry Zito) there's probably a combination of seven pitchers who won't collectively blow 30% of their save/hold situations.
As for his actual performance, Rodriguez has been a revelation. In his first two outings, he faced 12 total batters; he struck out half of them and allowed only one hit. He wasn't as sharp his next time out, but he still retired Nelson Cruz to escape an inherited jam. He might not keep it up, but then the fallen stars may yet rise as well.
It sucks to see so many wins squandered by poor relief work, but the good news is that Billy Beane isn't sitting around letting it continue. He's doing everything he can to find a solution and he's leaving no stone unturned in his quest. Will it get better? I mean, it can't really get worse, right?
(With my own speculation for the role designations)
Tyler Clippard (closer)
Edward Mujica (RH set-up)
Fernando Abad (LH set-up)
Evan Scribner (middle/set-up)
Fernando Rodriguez (middle, could become set-up)
Dan Otero (middle/long)
Angel Castro (emergency mop-up)
DL: Sean Doolittle, Eric O'Flaherty
Triple-A: Ryan Cook, R.J. Alvarez, Chris Bassitt, Arnold Leon, Pat Venditte, extra staring pitchers
It's not the bullpen we expected. But hopefully it's on the way to being the bullpen we need.
(Try not to pay attention to the fact that Luke Gregerson is 7-for-8 in saves, and that Jim Johnson has a 105 ERA+ and has converted his 11 save situations into 9 holds, 1 save, and only 1 blown save. Because WTF?)
Welcome, Edward Mujica
Quick note on Edward Mujica, the new acquisition, rather than making a whole new bullpen post to soak up even more of our tears.
Mujica's one best skill seems to be his low walk rate, and that's something the A's could use right now. That's something I could use right now. He served as a closer for the Cardinals a couple years ago, and although he lost the job toward the end of the year his numbers were still excellent -- the demotion was partly just due to the emergence of Trevor Rosenthal, as I understand it (I could be wrong). He has a career 86.6% success rate in 142 save situations (including 49 career saves), and even last year when he wasn't as good he still only blew one in 13 tries.
I'm sure there are reasons this guy has been bouncing around all these years, and I'm not expecting a savior. But he's got late-inning experience, he's got a solid track record, he's not too old, he doesn't appear to be injured, and he's got at least a three-pitch arsenal (for those who have grown wary of one- and two-trick ponies). He might suck, but at worst he's worth a shot, and at best Billy Beane just found a steal to help shore up the pen. Remember how quickly the Angels' pen went from being a laughingstock to a strength last season.