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A’s May Be In Position To Rewrite Bullpen Norms

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Detroit Tigers
“AAA-OOOOOOOO!!!!!!” Good dog.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Once upon a time there were 9-inning SPs and 3-inning closers, until — prepare for deep and thoughtful analysis here — there weren’t. Tony LaRussa once took a two-time 20 game winner, with a no-hitter on his ledger, and turned him into the league’s most dominant “one inning closer”. Since then many teams have followed suit, spinning their failed SPs into plus relievers.

Every era (not ERA) has its understood “way we do things” and with baseball tending to be old school, change tends to evolve slowly. Yet eventually change still occurs because once someone not only says “launch angle!!!!!” but then also backs it up by doubling his HR total, people begin to listen. One minute contact is all the range and the next minute it’s all about “grip it and rip it,” then it’s all about developing a young core until it’s all about building a deep bullpen of power arms until it’s all about...let’s see, what did the most recently successful team/organization do?

Bullpens are tricky because they are inherently volatile. Relievers’ performances tend to vary from year to year, game to game, inning to inning. Perhaps that’s why they’re making their living in the bullpen instead of in the rotation, or maybe it’s just the karma relievers bring to the baseball table.

Whatever it is, the trend of SPs not getting as deep into games, attention to platoons and matchups, and the lean towards power arms good for about 20 pitches, have caused the daily parade of 4-5 relievers on so many nights. Relievers more often pitch less than a full inning than they extend beyond one inning. As a result, the game is oft decided by which team puts in a reliever who is having a bad day, because if you try enough guys you will probably find a klunker and boy can one klunker do a lot of harm in little time. Case in point: Brandon Morrow, pitching on what I believe was his 47th consecutive day, coughing up 4 runs in the blink of an eye in the World Series.

Meanwhile, here are the A’s with an opportunity to piece together an unusual bullpen indeed. The good news is that if they play their cards right, it can be both unusual and also very talented and effective. I imagine the A’s will add a quality LH reliever before the season (Jake McGee, anyone?), but since we don’t know if or who, for now that slot goes to the lone lefty, Daniel Coulombe. As for the crew of RH relievers?

In the late innings, Oakland will not be lacking for stuff having complemented the 98MPH sinkerball stylings of Blake Treinen with another quality power reliever in Emilio “high spin rate” Pagan (50.1 IP, 39 hits, 8 BB, 56 K). Here’s what I would like to see behind those two “high leverage beasts”: a slew of relievers whose stuff plays up in 2 IP stints, who can actually be used to get 6 outs as often as 3.

Exit the flurry of inconsistent one-inning relievers whose good stuff belies the fact that you don’t ever know what you are going to get, just that you will not get it for very long. That means bidding a tearful (not) farewell to Chris Hatcher (who can be non-tendered) and Santiago Casilla (who should be the latest contract to be eaten Billy Butler style).

Enter Andrew Triggs, whose yeoman’s efforts as a SP hide the reality that he is probably going to be most durable, and most effective, in the pen. But unlike many relievers, Triggs is far from a “one-inning guy”.

Enter Chris Bassitt, coming back from a TJS in which he was initially ahead of schedule and then hit a wall. Perhaps Bassitt has a future as a SP, but in 2018 he is likely best served building back his arm strength and innings as a reliever, where he could hit mid-90s in 1-2 IP stints and be stretched out well beyond an inning on days where he is dealing.

Enter Frankie Montas, whom the A’s have “seen as a SP” but who can’t stay on the field long enough to build up innings, and whose repertoire still remains that of a reliever. Air it out for 2 innings, though, and at 99MPH with a swing-and-miss slider, Montas still has the potential to be dominant. Sure, he also has the potential to be R.J. Alvarez but the talent is there and pitching in relief Montas probably stands the best chance of staying healthy.

Enter Raul Alcantara, who showed flashes, in his latest big league trial, of the stuff which made him a top prospect back when he had options. Alcantara can hit mid-90s in relief, and like the aforementioned pitchers can be dominant once through the order.

You could even add Pagan himself to this group, as he showed an ability to succeed in longer outings twice tossing 4 scoreless innings in relief and twice more throwing 3 shutout innings. His line for those four appearances? 14 IP, 5 hits, 0 ER, 3 BB, 14 K.

The beauty of having a few “SPs turned relievers” in the pen? You don’t need a “long man” assigned because you essentially have your choice of several, when needed, who can jump from 2 IP to 4+ IP if your SP has to be yanked early.

That opens up a spot for a Ryan Dull (who I personally believe will bounce back in 2018) or a Liam Hendriks or a second lefty, to join the mix. Note that I am not counting to exactly 7 or 8 because in reality a team is going to utilize at least 12 relievers (if not 38) over the course of a long season. Perhaps Dull begins the season at AAA simply because he has options or maybe Bassitt opens at AAA because he is still proving he is all the way back — there is room for many relievers to make an impact.

No more parade of pitching changes hoping no one tanks. If your SP goes 5 IP, you just need two of your power arms to get you to Treinen — or to get you the rest of the way, even. If your SP goes 6 IP, you need just one bridge to Treinen. Let a Bassitt be a 2 IP power bridge one day, let a Montas be it another day, let a Triggs or Alcantara fill that role another. You’re looking at guys who can be dominant once through the order, with enough stamina to give you quality multiple innings.

Yeah, your 6th inning guy should also be your 7th inning guy. Your 7th inning guy and 8th inning guy can be the same dude. In the right situation, a 3 inning save should be in the conversation. The A’s have the right arms to pull this off and it’s actually a safer way to leverage the talent in your pen. You don’t need to think of a game, or a bullpen, in terms of 9 different innings. It’s 27 outs no matter how you slice it, or if your SP goes the first 5.2 IP then it’s 10 outs no matter how you slice it.

Let’s reinvent the way teams think about bullpens. If leveraged properly, guys like Bassitt, Montas, Triggs, Alcantara (potentially Jesse Hahn, Daniel Gossett) have the tools to be exceptional “3-9 out relievers” — which works if you don’t need any one of them every day, and that happens if your bullpen has 3-4 of them and they are all quality arms in that role. I think the A’s have the right guys to pull this off and perhaps get other teams rethinking how their perceive best securing the later outs in the game.

Moneyball, meet your bullpen! Who has time to follow trends when you’re too busy setting them?