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Since You Didn’t Ask: Bullpen Roles

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MLB: Oakland Athletics at Texas Rangers Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

The A’s are meeting today with their relievers to spell out roles, but clearly whoever is in charge of these meetings is not very well organized. The meeting is just hours away and somehow I still have yet to get my official invitation. Yet clearly everyone agrees that these decisions should be made by "some dude on the internet".

Before the A’s announce their actual decision, let me share how it would go if I were king. I am going to include, in my analysis, Santiago Casilla, even though after watching him throw last night from a strangely low arm slot, lob in sliders that had less than usual velocity or bite, and get a visit from the manager and trainer, I have a hunch Casilla will be moving to the DL soon and opening up a spot for the loser of the Opening-Day-roster sweepstakes. But no alarm bells have been sounded, so his spot on the April 3rd roster is presumed to be safe.

My premise begins with the acknowledgment that Frankie Montas was, pretty much hands down, the A’s best reliever in March and has positioned himself as being too good to send down to AAA. AAA would make sense if he were being stretched out to start, but given the (wise, in my opinion) decision to leverage him as a reliever before transitioning him to the workload of a SP, Montas is best utilized in the big league bullpen.

I also feel that as a solid defensive CFer, and the only one Oakland has behind Rajai Davis, a LH bat in which the A’s are in short supply, and as someone who impressed throughout the exhibition season, Jaff Decker should be the 25th guy even if at the expense of lefty reliever Daniel Coulombe. My reasoning, in starting Coulombe at AAA, is largely that it is just a temporary move — sooner than later Coulombe will be up (cough Casilla DL cough) and likely will spend most of the season in the big leagues. It doesn’t have to be in early April. Remember that your #6 SP and your 8th reliever often wind up spending more days on the MLB roster than some of the guys who beat them out for Opening Day roster spots.

So the bullpen, in a world where "some dude on the internet" gets to decide, has, in alphabetical order, Axford-Casilla-Doolittle-Dull-Hendriks-Madson-Montas. Here’s how I would set up that bullpen, balancing the need for flexibility with the understanding that many relievers insist they do better when they know their roles...


To the surprise of some, and almost certainly in contrast to what the A’s will actually decide, I would begin the season naming Ryan Dull as the official closer. Yes it is Madson, Doolittle, Casilla, and Axford who have MLB closing experience, but it is Dull who offers the most consistency, who throws strikes and is hardest to hit. Did you know that in his career so far, Dull has held RH batters to a .156/.176/.341 slash line? And that LH batters have hit only .244/.320/.367?

It is now acknowledged that the highest leverage situations do not always manifest themselves in the 9th inning, but it is also being recognized that you don’t have to use your closer based on "official save situations" — so if used properly, Dull might not always close out a 3-run lead in the 9th and he might come on to snuff out an 8th inning rally on the way to a 4-out save.

Where the 9th inning is the "most important" is that psychologically — and certainly as a fan you have experienced this — no loss is more demoralizing than the one in which you fight hard for 3 hours to secure a lead, only to walk off a loser on the final pitch. Dull isn’t perfect, but as someone trying to bring leads to the finish line he is as consistent as any A’s reliever, holding the opposition to a career .228 OBP by throwing quality strikes and not really having any big weakness that can get exposed.

Set Up/High Leverage:

As for high leverage in the 7th and 8th, I would start with giving Sean Doolittle and Liam Hendriks the nod. Since Doolittle doesn’t have big platoon splits, it’s not especially necessary to swap those two around based on which inning features more or fewer LH batters. Give Hendriks the 7th and Doolittle the 8th and they "know their roles," but in reality not every game lines up for 3 relievers to pitch one inning each anyway, so that’s just a template. They are your "one inning high leverage" set up guys.

Where Montas initially fits in is exciting. He is your two-inning wipeout guy bridging the SP and Dull on selected days. Maybe Hendriks throws the 7th and Doolittle the 8th one day, and the next day they rest as Montas bulldozes through the 7th and 8th on his own. So you have two templates for high leverage set up: Hendriks and Doolittle, or Montas and moar Montas.

Rest of the pen:

This leaves Madson as a luxury middle reliever for medium leverage situations, slotting in for either Hendriks or Doolittle on a day they might not be available, pitching in higher leverage in the 6th if a SP can’t go deep into a game or keeping the A’s close in some of the lower leverage innings that someone needs to manage. That slots Madson in lower than you might expect, but that is ideal compared to last season when as a closer he was stretched beyond his abilities.

At the back of the bullpen, luxuries as #6 and #7 relievers, are Casilla and Axford. With a strong arm and little command, Axford is really best suited to lower leverage and can go multiple innings if need be. Let Casilla pitch his way into higher and higher leverage once we see what we have, but at the moment I think there are other relievers better suited to anchoring the bullpen late in games. When up, Coulombe becomes an available LOOGY who has shown he can also throw 2-3 IP if there’s a need. Ultimately the team needs a long reliever — probably that is ultimately Raul Alcantara’s best role — but until Sonny Gray returns the team can get by with the group it has.

Eventually, the idea would be for Montas to grab the closer’s role unless Dull and Montas are thriving so much in their roles that you want to leave well enough alone. But Montas is the one who truly profiles as a "lights out closer" and there’s no reason he can’t move into that role mid-season. For now, though, I prefer his utility as a 2-inning specialist and I like Dull in the Huston Street closer role of "the fastball’s 90MPH but it plays like 93MPH, they know the slider’s coming but they still can’t lay off, other closers have more impressive stuff but he’s the one who gets the job done."

So that’s how I would do it if I were the manager. Which I’m not. Thoughts?