And now for something completely different than what we saw in the 2015 season.
Bullpens have become a hot topic over the last couple years. The Royals have been to two straight World Series thanks in large part to their untouchable relief corps. The Yankees made headlines this winter by constructing what might be the best trio of relievers in history, at the same time that the Red Sox and Astros were paying king's ransoms for elite closers of their own.
And on the other side of the spectrum, the 2015 A's had such a toxic unit that the team underperformed by about 10 wins, best illustrated by their 19-35 record in one-run games. They blew 25% of the save/hold chances they were given, and only one other team even broke 20% in that category (Detroit, 21.6%). By measure of Win Probability Added, they were the least clutch pen baseball has seen since 2010. When your bullpen is that bad, you enter every game assuming that you will lose, no matter how well the rest of the team plays.
Given that glaring weakness, Oakland made big changes over the offseason. They didn't go after the expensive top prizes eventually scored by the Yankees (Chapman) or Sox (Kimbrel) or Astros (Giles), but they brought in four quality veterans to supplement the return of their own All-Star closer. At the very least, the expectation was that the new group would be alright, a neutral presence instead of the pair of cement shoes the A's had previously been wearing.
Well, we're a week in, and so far the revamp has worked. Really, really well. Over at MLB.com, they have created a new series called MLB Bullpen of the Week. It's not a subjective judgment, but rather it's based on a formula that resembles Bill James' Game Score metric, but for relievers instead of starters. You get credit for outs, strikeouts, and saves. You get docked for hits, runs, walks, and blown saves. The standings in the first week:
Whaaaat? The Oakland A's have the best bullpen in baseball through the first week of the season. That sentence just sounds absolutely bonkers. I don't care if it's only a tiny sample of one week's worth of games. There is no way that last year's relievers could ever have topped this leaderboard last year, not even for one week; I'd have been shocked to even see them in the top half for a full week.
How did we get to this point? Here are a few numbers to highlight what the bullpen did in the opening week:
1. Only 2 walks in 26⅓ innings
Two other ways to put that are 0.7 BB/9 (walks per 9 innings), or a 2.1% walk rate (percentage of total batters faced, stylized BB%). Walks are the worst thing a reliever can do, in my opinion. Homers hurt more, sure, but at least if you give up a homer you were probably throwing strikes and challenging the hitter. At least you were on the right path. Issuing walks is like forfeiting the game, because your team has to sit idly by and watch helplessly as the opponent slowly circles the bases. According to my calculations, leadoff walks come around to score 110% of the time, so I'm thrilled to see Oakland eschewing these free passes.
2. Only 2 relievers have allowed a run so far.
In one of his four outings, Sean Doolittle allowed a solo homer. In another game, which the A's already trailed, Liam Hendriks let a few more runs across. That's it, through the first week. The other five guys are yet to give up a run, meaning they've combined to go scoreless in 22 of their 24 individual outings so far. And it's not just their own records, either; they've inherited 10 runners and stranded all of them. What is happening here.
3. A's are 3-2 in one-run games
Inspired by a recent comment by AN member "miky10hrusa," here's how long it took last year's team to win three one-run games:
1. Game 28, May 5 (1-run record: 1-7)
2. Game 40, May 18 (1-run record: 2-13)
3. Game 50, May 28 (1-run record 3-15)
It took seven games to do so this year. And neither of the losses came on blown saves, either. The first occurred when a comeback from a larger deficit fell one run short, and the second loss happened when Doolittle allowed that homer in a tie game -- that last one is still a bummer, but it's not as bad as entering with a lead and leaving with a loss. Doo and Ryan Madson earned the saves in the victories, and including a hold for John Axford, the pen is now 4-for-4 in save/hold situations.
Dr. Sean Doolittle, late-inning surgeon (who can also talk to possums). Ryan Mad Dog. John Axman. The Liam Hendriks Experience. Marc "Led" Zep. Ferrrrrnando. Ryan Sharp. Look out for these guys. In the most delicious twist of irony, they are suddenly the best bullpen in all of baseball until further notice.
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