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The Unanswered Question: WHY Are Bullpens So Volatile?

Dan Otero is so good that he can complete an inning in one pitch.
Dan Otero is so good that he can complete an inning in one pitch.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

I just got back from a 3-day, 2-night field trip with 7th graders, during which time the A's were kind enough not to make me miss a victory. What is an overnight trip with 7th graders like? Essentially there are lots of mood swings, and anything related to flatulence is inherently hilarious. So basically it's a lot like AN. The campfire was fun. We lit it with the A's bullpen.

Speaking of bullpens, as we find ourselves doing so often these days, it is hard to predict or explain which relievers will excel or tank from year to year, sometimes even from week to week. Today I put forth all the possible reasons I either have heard or thought of, for you to comment on which, if any, best explain the phenomenon.

Failed Starters

Occasionally a pitcher is groomed -- in extremely rare cases they may even be named Buddy Groom -- to be a reliever from the beginning. Huston Street comes to mind. However, typically relievers are pitchers whose starting pitching career took a left turn for some reason. Maybe they lacked enough weapons to handle a lineup multiple times, as we are seeing with Drew Pomeranz. Perhaps their control was not good enough, as we have seen with Ryan Cook, or possibly they could sustain their stuff for very long in a game, as befell Andrew Bailey.

If relievers are "the best of the rest" it's no wonder they are less consistent, and more volatile, than their SP counterparts. That lack of consistency, or reliability, or repeatability, could be the very quality that got them to the pen in the first place.

Strange Work Pattern

If you're a starting pitcher, you start about every 5th day and from that comes supplementary routines such as days you throw in the bullpen. It is regimented in a way that may be ideal both physically and psychologically. In contrast, relievers are like snowflakes. No, I don't mean they're like snowflakes in that Oakland hasn't seen a decent one all year; I mean that if you look at a reliever's game log from one week to the next there is an abundance of randomness to it. No two relievers' work pattern is alike -- in fact for any given reliever, no two weeks are even alike.

So if you're Evan Scribner or Tyler Clippard (both of whom came up as starting pitchers), one week your pitch count might look like 24, 0, 12, 14, 0, 0, 8 and then the next week it might look like 0, 0, 0, 18, 0, 0, 20 and then the next week it might look like 0, 21, 7, 15, 0, 0, 26.

I wonder if the strange patterns, which include "3 days in a row" stretches, "on a lot and then off a lot and then on a lot" and so on, take their toll on arms more than the routine of throwing 100 pitches or so every 5th day.

Maximum Effort

Starting pitching is more about the long view, easing into maximum velocity and often saving velocity for occasional essential moments. We have seen this from Scott Kazmir. As a reliever you come in with guns blazing from the first pitch. This enables many relievers to throw mid-90s who would be in the low 90s as starting pitchers, but it may also take its toll over time. The same is true of relievers, like Michael Wuertz and Luke Gregerson, who can throw slider after slider out of the bullpen where a SP cannot do the same.

Limited Repertoire/Skill Set

A reliever can thrive with only one or two really good pitches, but the flip side is that they have little margin for error if a given pitch stops working well for them. So when Dan Otero's sinker goes all Jeff Tam on him, or if Fernando Abad loses a couple ticks of velocity on his fastball, or should a wicked slider lose some of its bite ... it's a quick jump from dominance to batting practice.

Will Wade Davis be elite in 2016? Will Otero get back in one of those grooves where we want him to be put in rather than put down? Will we still be booing the same pitcher's wife at the Food Bank throughout the 2017 season? These questions and more on the next episode of ... SOAP. Which evidently stands for Summon Otero for A Pitch.

A's-Mariners at 6:10pm this evening, with Jesse Hahn vs. J.A. Happ. Should be funsies as always!