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Is the Oakland A’s bullpen really this bad?

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Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Oakland A’s just got swept by the Texas Rangers. In all three games, Oakland held a lead in the 7th inning or later, but their bullpen coughed it up each time. That experience is enough to get any fan screaming at the TV, but let’s take a deeper look at the pen’s performance so far.

One thing that made the weekend particularly frustrating was that there wasn’t one pitcher who could easily be singled out as the culprit. When the A’s beat K-Rod two days in a row the previous weekend, it was easy to respond by suggesting the Tigers should simply shift the superior Justin Wilson into the closer role. Badda bing, badda boom, problem addressed at least, if not solved.

But the A’s woes weren’t so straightforward. Exhibit A:

  • Friday: Santiago Casilla blows save in 9th
  • Saturday: Ryan Dull and Liam Hendriks team up to blow lead in 7th
  • Sunday: Ryan Madson blows lead in 7th
  • Furthermore: Sean Doolittle and John Axford are on the DL

The obvious reaction to Friday’s heartbreaker was that the A’s shouldn’t use Casilla as their closer. Keep him in the 7th and maybe the 8th where he can be a plus, and use Madson in the 9th, right? But then Madson blew it two days later as well. And Doo is injured, so he’s out of the picture. Switch to the less experienced up-and-comers and see what they can do? But Dull has been shaky all year, and Hendriks also blew a lead against Texas. So ... what’s the answer?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a good one. The A’s have the pitchers they have, and for now we’ll have to hope they settle down and figure out their woes. There are some interesting prospects in Triple-A, including Bobby Wahl (already in Oakland for now) and Tucker Healy, but no hotshot we should expect to step in and immediately revolutionize the late innings.

So instead, let’s assess the damage and take stock of what Oakland actually has in the relief corps. Starting with the big picture, here are some MLB ranks:

  • T-22nd in ERA (4.73)
  • 19th in FIP (4.27)
  • T-9th in Blown Saves (6) (an 8-way tie)
  • 26th in Inherited Runners Scored (38%)
  • 22nd in WPA/LI (-0.59)
  • 30th in Clutch (-1.63)
  • T-6th in Avg Fastball Velocity (94.1 mph)

Allow me to interpret that list of numbers. The A’s bullpen is slightly below-average at preventing runs (high ERA), and that’s mostly earned as opposed to a small-sample fluke (FIP is nearly as high). However, they seem to wilt the bigger the situation gets — they are among the worst at stranding inherited runners, and their context-dependent Clutch score is far inferior to their context-neutral WPA/LI. (But hey, at least they throw hard!)

And yet, they’re still a solid middle-of-the-pack in actually holding leads. It feels like they’ve blown a ton of them, but last weekend accounted for half of their season total. They’re tied for ninth, but it’s such a big tie that it stretches all the way down to 16th — plus, Oakland’s unit has the excuse that they’ve faced more than their share of save/hold situations (T-9th at 39). Relative to MLB average, they’ve seen four extra chances and converted three of them. They’re essentially average in this metric.

How do they stack up individually?

  • Casilla: 6 saves, 2 holds, 2 blown (80%)
  • Madson: 1 save, 4 holds, 1 blown (83%)
  • Dull: 0 saves, 8 holds, 1 blown (89%)
  • Hendriks: 0 saves, 4 holds, 1 blown (80%)
  • Doolittle: 1 save, 5 holds, 1 blown (86%)

Note: Madson also lost a game in which he entered to protect a tie.

Sooo ... who’s the weak link here? Without looking at their actual numbers — strikeouts, walks, ERAs, etc. — there isn’t one villain who has been single-handedly steering the tank. Five guys have seen save/hold chances; each has generally been good, but none have been perfect; everyone has blown one lead; and the only pitcher who’s blown two is the guy who has seen the most chances. Nobody is even below 80%, which is a benchmark for acceptability.

Of course, the rest of their numbers do set them apart a bit:

  • Casilla: 5.02 ERA, 3.8 BB/9 (ouch)
  • Madson: 1.98 ERA, 1.62 FIP (nice!)
  • Dull: 6.28 ERA, 5.7 BB/9 (ouch)
  • Hendriks: 1.78 FIP, 7.2 hits/9 (nice!)

... but even Casilla and Dull have mostly been beating themselves via walks rather than getting hit all that hard. Their hit rates are low, and they’ve usually gotten in trouble via the occasional back-breaking, ill-timed homers — the unclutchiness, as previously mentioned.

Where does all this leave us? The A’s bullpen hasn’t been good, but it hasn’t been terrible either. All things considered it’s been only a hair below average, and last weekend in Texas was not a fair representation of their talent nor their overall performance. And of course, we can’t forget that they’re still pitching in front of arguably the worst defense in the entire sport, which isn’t helping them convert the big outs when they need them.

But one criticism still remains, and it’s one we already knew about entering the year: There isn’t that one top guy, whether a reliable closer or a lockdown multi-inning setup guy (like, say, Dull last year). It’s easy to start getting a 2015 feeling, with everyone pitching an inning later than they should be, though I think this group is clearly better than that nightmare.

Let’s finish with a look forward. For the time being, my solution would be as follows: put Madson back in the 9th, give Hendriks the 8th, and keep Dull and Casilla in the 6th/7th while they rediscover their command of the strike zone. It’s not a be-all end-all and it won’t lead to perfection in the pen, but it probably puts Oakland in the best position to hold leads right now. From there, we’ll have to hope someone gets hot, whether from that quartet, the currently rehabbing Axford, or rookies like Wahl or Frankie Montas.

Alternate solution: Stop building leads altogether, and only win via comeback walk-offs. Still working on a strategy for road games, though.