The Oakland A's are the worst team in baseball and everyone who watches their games knows why. It's not the hitting, as the lineup is actually third in the AL in scoring. It's not the starting pitching, as Oakland starters lead the AL in ERA and rank among the top teams in innings pitched and quality starts. It's a little bit the defense, which ranks dead last in MLB in errors and UZR*, but all those miscues have led to a total of 22 unearned runs -- a lot, but not enough to sink a team to the cellar on their own. No, it was the bullpen killed the beast in this tragic tale of a season so far.
By my count, the A's pen has now entered 18 different games that could be considered "vulnerable" -- that is, either the game was tied at the time, or the A's led to a small enough degree that a successful outing would earn the pitcher(s) a hold and/or a save. The A's have won five of those games, giving the pen a success rate of 5-of-18 (28%). They've been even worse lately, too, as they've blown six of their last seven vulnerable games dating back to May 2. Their eight blown saves and 12 relief losses are the most in baseball and their 5.13 ERA is the highest in the AL, and their 1-13 record in one-run games is so mind-boggling unlikely that I can't believe it's real. This is a 13-25 team that could easily be 18-20 and still describe itself as an unlucky squad with a weak bullpen.
But what is there to do? Sean Doolittle and Eric O'Flaherty are hurt, and Ryan Cook has been so fried that he's in the minors. Fernando Abad and Dan Otero have both consistently been trainwrecks after each spending two seasons being consistently excellent, and it hasn't helped that they've often been miscast as a lefty specialist and a setup man, respectively. R.J. Alvarez (shaky control) and Chris Bassitt (can't throw strikes to lefties) weren't ready for the bigs. Evan Scribner and Fernando Rodriguez looked like they might emerge as saviors, but both have turned back into pumpkins lately -- Scribner blew saves in two of his last three appearances and has only been good once in his last five games, while Rodriguez has been bad in three of his last four outings after bursting onto the scene. Tyler Clippard has been the lone bright spot, but even he has blown a save. Newcomer Edward Mujica has a pair of scoreless outings under his belt, but he also hasn't been given a lead to protect yet. We can't even make jokes about Ike Davis filling in, because even he is on the DL.
There's not much help on the horizon, either. Angel Castro, whom none of us had heard of entering the year, is already pitching in Oakland and has already earned a loss. Pat Venditte has a 1.23 ERA in Triple-A but shaky peripherals; there's a good chance that he will just provide a more entertaining way of walking the bases loaded en route to more losses. Sean Nolin is back from the DL and off to a good start for Nashville, so perhaps he could help or could push Drew Pomeranz out of the rotation and into shorter work, but that's not going to help the A's tomorrow. Nope, unless Billy Beane swings more deals for outside help, who you see is who you will get.
It's tempting to blame Beane's wild offseason dealings for the team's failure, but that wouldn't make much sense. None of his trades cost him any relievers from last year's squad, and only two key members of the 2014 pen didn't return: Luke Gregerson (who led MLB in blown saves), and Jim Johnson (who posted the worst ERA+ in Oakland A's history). Both pitchers had been excellent in their careers before donning green and gold, but Johnson fell apart and Gregerson consistently failed when it mattered most; I doubt any A's fans were upset to see them go or considered their departures to be losses. And yet, everyone else who remained on the team has either gotten hurt or has inexplicably become a gascan. In fact, the only good one has been the guy who was acquired as a result of the offseason deals, so, thank goodness Beane made all those trades or else this mess could be even worse!
Oh, and just to show you how utterly random and unpredictable relievers and bullpens are, get a load of this. While all of Oakland's good relievers from 2014 are getting different kinds of torn apart, here are last year's villains:
Luke Gregerson, 2015: 9-of-10 in saves, 3.38 ERA
Jim Johnson, 2015: 11 holds, 2 saves, 1 blown save, 2.95 ERA
Yep, they're both good again. In fact, Johnson has more holds than the entire A's pen combined (10). With them on board, Oakland would certainly be a winning team. Granted, perhaps Johnson wouldn't be faring quite as well in the AL, but on the other hand Gregerson is still right here in the AL West and he's doing fine. To make things even more unfair, Gregerson has twice entered with a three-run lead, then allowed a pair of runs but still held on to convert the save. In his one blown save, he allowed two runs to tie it but then the Astros came back and he was credited with the win. Their opponent that day? The A's, of course. Even when Gregerson has been bad, he's still come through, sort of like how even when Abad has made an excellent pitch Robinson Cano has still doinked it off the end of his bat for a seeing-eye game-tying double.
Life isn't fair, and bullpens are mostly the reason for that. Relievers can look great one year, terrible the next, and great again after that, all for no apparent reason. You can pick all the right guys and have it all go wrong in any given year, or month, or game. I'm sure coaching can have something to do with it, but I don't think anyone is doubting either the tutelage of respected pitching coach Curt Young or the A's general ability to develop pitchers. I've been less than happy with some of Bob Melvin's in-game usage patterns, but considering that he brought a skeleton crew to a dog park it's hard to completely blame him for more than a tiny bit of this. It just is what it is, a reasonably talented unit that is pitching as poorly as I've ever seen a bullpen perform, even worse than I ever imagined a bullpen could perform.
What else is left to say about the pen? This abysmal showing can't possibly continue, unless it does. I can't tell you which reliever will break from his malaise first, and I can't promise you that Sean Doolittle will be the elixir that cures all. The only thing I can say is that at least some of these pitchers will once again be good in their careers, and there's no telling when that might happen. Perhaps it won't come until they're wearing different uniforms next season, like with Gregerson and Johnson, or perhaps it will start on Sunday. We've seen how quickly a bullpen can turn into goo, and we saw last year how quickly the Angels' unit became a strength. It can happen in the blink of an eye, and the heroes can be unlikely. The good news is, at whatever moment the most easily fixable part of the team is fixed, the rest of the squad is ready to make noise. We can only hope that the pen works itself out soon enough that the season can be salvaged, and that will take all the fAith we can muster.
* But the defense ranks 11th in DRS, at plus-6!
** A meltdown is a relief appearance that costs the team at least 0.06 in WPA value, courtesy of Fangraphs.