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Blake Treinen just had one of the best seasons ever by a reliever

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The A’s closer posted historically great stats in 2018.

Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s enjoyed a Cinderella season in 2018. Entering the summer a realistic goal was to avoid last place, but instead they charged all the way into the postseason with their highest win total in 16 years. There were plenty of heroes along the way and a handful of historic performances, but the most amazing may have been closer Blake Treinen.

Sure, Matt Chapman is an easy pick for Team MVP with his 8.2 bWAR and 6.5 fWAR, and Jed Lowrie put together his second straight career year at age 34. Ramon Laureano did some things we’ve never seen out of an A’s rookie, and Khris Davis turned in one of the best slugging seasons in franchise history. But Treinen just had one of the best seasons by a major league relief pitcher, ever.

Let’s begin with his basic pitching line, which is sparkling enough that it barely even needs elaboration.

Treinen, 2018: 0.78 ERA, 80⅓ ip, 100 Ks, 21 BB, 2 HR, 38 saves, 1.82 FIP

Those numbers are as aesthetically pleasing to me as a vibrant sunset, or a majestic mountain landscape, or Daniel Mengden’s mustache. A wonder to behold. More importantly, though, there is historical significance to Treinen’s stats.

ERA

First up is Treinen’s ERA. Since 1990, these are the best ERA marks by any pitcher with at least 40 innings:

  1. Zach Britton, 0.54 (2016, BAL)
  2. Joey Devine, 0.59 (2008, OAK)
  3. Fernando Rodney, 0.60 (2012, TB)
  4. Dennis Eckersley, 0.61 (1990, OAK)
  5. Blake Treinen, 0.78 (2018, OAK)

Of course, we must take a moment to appreciate Oakland’s dominance on that list. Three of the five members spun their magnificent seasons in green and gold, and a fourth one is on the current 2018 squad. The only leftover, Britton, will face the A’s on Wednesday in the Wild Card Game as a member of the Yankees. Next on the list after those top five are Dennys Reyes (0.89, 2006, MIN) and Jonathan Papelbon (0.92, 2006, BOS).

That only covers the last 30 years, though. What about all time? If we keep the same arbitrary 40-inning minimum then Treinen falls to 10th place. However, if we raise the stakes to 60 innings, which could fairly be considered a full season for a standard modern-day reliever, then the list is basically the same as the one above. Just remove Devine, which shouldn’t be difficult since even most A’s fans would be hard-pressed to remember his amazing but fleeting performance.

And what if we raise the goalposts even higher? Treinen’s 80⅓ inning top everyone else on that list, which leads us to the first of his all-time records from this summer: Treinen posted the lowest ERA in all of MLB history for any pitcher with at least 80 innings thrown. There are a few with better ERAs in fewer innings, and a few who maintained sub-1.00 in more innings (all from over a century ago), but Treinen found a Goldilocks Zone in the record books.

Saves

It’s one of the dumbest stats in all of sports, but saves continue to be one of the chief mainstream measures of the best relief pitchers. There is value to the metric when expanded to include holds and blown opportunities, turning it into more of a rate stat. But on their own, raw save totals are about as useful as telling me how many runs a pitcher allowed in a season without mentioning how many innings he threw.

Nevertheless, in this case the saves stat serves our purposes here. Treinen finished with 38, which is a strong number but not historic on its own. The all-time record is 62, and the MLB-high this year was 57. But when combined with his microscopic ERA, the list quickly gets short again. Only three other pitchers have recorded this many saves while keeping their ERA below 1.00:

  • Eckersley: 0.61 ERA, 48 saves
  • Rodney: 0.60 ERA, 48 saves
  • Britton: 0.54 ERA, 47 saves
  • Treinen: 0.78 ERA, 38 saves

Yep, it’s just the same guys from the last section. Turns out they were all closers who also racked up a bunch of saves. Next on the list would be Papelbon, with 35 saves in his aforementioned 2006 campaign, and no one else topped 30 saves.

What about efficiency, though? Again, saves mean little without the context of success rate. Eck and Rodney each only blew two save chances, which makes sense for guys who didn’t allow runs. Britton didn’t blow any, finishing a perfect 47-for-47. Treinen blew five, which is more than the other trio combined.

But wait! There is context to offer. Here were Treinen’s five blown saves:

  • Apr 6 (vs. LAA): Treinen enters in the 7th to escape a jam in a 9-7 game, with runners in scoring position and two outs already on the board. He induces a routine groundout to Matt Chapman, the best defensive player in all of baseball. Instead of recording the third out to end the inning, Chapman botches it for an error and the tying run scores.
  • Apr 18 (vs. CHW): Treinen enters in the 9th of an absurd 11-10 marathon. He gets two outs, but then allows a double and a single to tie the game.
  • Jul 10 (vs. HOU): Treinen enters in the 11th, up 5-4. He puts the first two runners on base, on the corners with no out. With the infield drawn in, the next man hits a sharp grounder within reach of shortstop Marcus Semien. He fields it and throws home, but it short-hops catcher Jonathan Lucroy and the runner scores to tie it up. Even a decent throw would have had him. The next batter flies out. Then Alex Bregman hits his infamous two-foot dribbler for one of the most ridiculous dumb-luck walk-offs in baseball history. Could have been (should have been?) the first out at home, the second out on the flyout, and the third out on Bregman, game over. Instead, the Astros won.
  • Jul 21 (vs. SF): Treinen enters in the 9th, up 3-2. He gets the first two outs, and then he strikes out the next batter. However, catcher Josh Phegley can’t handle Strike 3, and it bounces so far away that the batter reaches base on the error. On the next pitch, Hunter Pence doubles (ChairGate!) to drive him in and tie it up.
  • Sep 25 (vs. SEA): Treinen enters in the 9th, up 8-7. The A’s clinched the Wild Card the night before, so the game is mostly meaningless and everyone is probably a bit hungover from the celebration. He gets the first two outs, then allows a single to Nelson Cruz. The next batter (Ryon Healy!) hits a routine grounder to Matt Chapman, the best defensive player in all of baseball. Instead of recording the third out to end the game, Chapman botches it for an error and the next batter drives in the tying run.

Of the five blown saves, only one of them was truly Treinen’s fault. Two of them happened because the best defensive player in all of baseball booted the routine third out, another happened because the catcher dropped the final game-ending third strike, and another happened because some studio exec decided to film Astros In The Infield, a sequel to the ‘90s flick about divine intervention, right there in the middle of a real-life game.

Even if you want to blame Treinen for setting the scene for that fluke collapse against Houston, that would still mean he should have been 41-for-43 in saves by all rights. That he ended up with only 38 is in absolutely no way a reflection on him. He did his job the other times by striking out a batter or inducing a grounder to Chapman, which are two of the surest things a pitcher can do.

Strikeouts

Treinen finished the season with exactly 100 strikeouts, which is a neat number for obvious reasons. It’s nice and round and precise, and it’s also the threshold of triple-digits, which itself is a feat for a reliever.

In this case, it also gives him his second all-time record of the summer: Treinen is the first pitcher in MLB history to record 30+ saves, 100+ strikeouts, and a sub-1.00 ERA in the same season. None of the other guys on the aforementioned saves/ERA list topped 80 Ks. Granted, this distinction requires playing around with some arbitrary endpoints, but not everyone can massage the numbers enough to be the only player in history to do something great like this.

FIP and xwOBA

How real was Treinen’s run-prevention, though? The dark side of ERA is that it can be highly volatile in single-season samples, meaning it’s possible for luck and unsustainably fortunate sequencing to play a big role. Sometimes a low ERA isn’t as airtight as it seems, but rather a ticking time bomb that just never quite exploded.

That’s not the case with Treinen, though. His ERA was low because he outright dominated the competition. His 1.82 FIP was second-best in the majors this year, among pitchers with at least 40 innings (only Edwin Diaz was better, but we’ll get to him later). The main reasons he allowed only seven earned runs all year are that he struck out the world, kept the walks low, and allowed only two homers.

On top of Treinen’s excellence in the fielding-independent categories he could control, the universe also cooperated by converting all the weak contact he induced into a .157 batting average. It didn’t have to go quite that well, as his .237 xwOBA outpaced his actual .188 wOBA against, but that .237 was still second-best in the bigs this year (again, after only Diaz).

To be clear, these FIP and xwOBA numbers aren’t historic on their own. The xwOBA stat has only been around for four years, and Treinen’s .237 wouldn’t have led the league in any of them. As for FIP, the best endpoints I could find are as follows: He’s 13th all-time among relievers who threw at least 80 innings, but he drops to 41st if you lower the bar to 60 innings.

The point isn’t that he set records in these predictive metrics. Rather, the point is that the peripheral stats generally back up the notion that Treinen was truly as dominant as he looked this year. He didn’t just teach all his grounders to have eyes, or magically escape jam after jam by the skin of his teeth. He was great, for the simple reason that he pitched amazingly well and no one could hit him.

WPA

When analyzing the past performances of relievers, sometimes the basic numbers aren’t enough. More than any other position, you need to know when your closer was effective, because you specifically need him to be at his best in the highest-leverage situations.

That brings us to Win Probability Added from FanGraphs. The concept is that at any given moment in a game, each team has a certain probability of earning the victory, based on the score and the inning and such things. Every time a pitcher records an out or allows a hit or whatnot, the probability changes, and the player is credited with the difference he caused (whether positive or negative). Enter with an 90% chance of winning and seal the save to take it to 100%, and you’ve earned 0.10 WPA. Blow it and lose and send the other team to 100%, and you get negative-0.90 WPA.

This season, Treinen led all MLB relievers with a 6.47 mark, and it wasn’t particularly close. Second place was 5.30, fourth place was 3.83, and he more than doubled the seventh-place finisher, out of a list of nearly 200 hurlers who threw at least 40 innings. By this measure no reliever did more to move his team toward victories in 2018.

What does that number mean in the context of history, though? Among all relievers ever, it ranks seventh all-time:

  1. Willie Hernandez, 8.58 (1984, DET)
  2. Doug Corbett, 7.58 (1980, MIN)
  3. Dan Quisenberry, 7.09 (1980, KC)
  4. Rich Gossage, 6.94 (1975, CHW)
  5. Keith Foulke, 6.62 (2000, CHW)
  6. Troy Percival, 6.54 (1996, CAL)
  7. Blake Treinen, 6.47 (2018, OAK)

That’s a hell of a list. Hernandez won the Cy Young and MVP that year, and Gossage is a Hall of Famer. Quisenberry and Percival are both all-time great relievers too.

More importantly, though, the top four on that list all threw at least 130 innings in those seasons. Relievers simply don’t do that anymore in today’s games. Even the vaunted super-closer Andrew Miller has never reached 80 since he quit starting. Since WPA is a counting stat, comparing Treinen to the firemen of the ‘70s and ‘80s is sort of apples and oranges because their opportunities for workload were so different.

Instead, I’m going to apply another arbitrary endpoint. I’m pinpointing 1988 as the year that the short reliever was born, with Tony La Russa using Eckersley to lock down just the last inning and almost never asking him for more than two frames. Cutting down to just those last three decades, the WPA list would be Foulke, Percival, and Treinen, all neck-and-neck at the top ahead of Britton’s aforementioned 2016 campaign.

Over at FanGraphs, Craig Edwards marveled at the greatness of Treinen and Diaz, and he pointed out the triumvirate of performance (FIP), results (ERA), and situation (WPA) as a comprehensive way to judge relievers. Using the Baseball-Reference Play Index, there have been five relievers who posted an ERA+ of at least 400 (four time better than league-average), a FIP of 2.50 or better, and a WPA of 5.0 of more: Eck, Rodney, Britton, Treinen, and Papelbon, the same list we keep coming back to over and over. (Note that B-Ref’s version of WPA differs from FanGraphs’, so Rodney and Eck were slightly below 5.0 according to the latter.)

WAR

Next up is Wins Above Replacement. I don’t normally care much about WAR for relievers, since it’s too blunt of an instrument to capture the finer details of their small-sample, context-dependent work.

This year, Treinen ended up with 4.3 bWAR and 3.6 fWAR. Those are mammoth numbers for a reliever. and both versions led the majors among that demographic. As for all-time history, once again this is a counting stat so the rankings are littered with 20th-century firemen carrying borderline starter’s workloads. If we return to our 1988 cutoff, though, then here are the leaders (highs are 5.0 bWAR and 4.7 fWAR):

# bWAR fWAR
1 Papelbon ('06) Gagne ('03)
2 Rivera ('96) Rivera ('96)
3 Montgomery ('89) Dibble ('90)
4 Foulke ('99) Ward ('91)
5 White ('00) Lidge ('04)
6 Montgomery ('93) Dibble ('89)
7 Davis ('89) K-Rod ('04)
8 Treinen ('18) Jones ('88)
9 Rivera ('08) Gagne ('02)
10 Betancourt ('07) Treinen ('18)

Note: Robb Nen (‘98), Billy Wagner (‘99), and Kenley Jansen (‘17) are all tied with Treinen in fWAR, as is Gagne (‘02). In bWAR, the final two spots (Rivera, Betancourt) are also tied with Treinen.

Treinen doesn’t top either list on its own, but if you take the two lists together then he begins to stand out. Only him and ‘96 Rivera show up on both versions, and this was when a young Rivera threw 107 innings as a setup man for John Wetteland. The closest anyone else came to making both was Betancourt (21st in fWAR) and one of the Dibble years (24th in bWAR). You know who else is missing from these WAR lists? Eck, Rodney, and Britton, though Britton only missed the bWAR rankings by one spot.

There are things I like about both versions of WAR, and I generally object to folks who only use one and ignore the other. I think they are best taken in concert, with one focusing on process and the other on results, and the elite performers will succeed on both scales like Treinen and Rivera did. In case you didn’t notice, that right there was a proper use of Blake Treinen and Mariano Rivera in the same sentence.

Wins

Pitcher wins are essentially a junk stat. They tell us almost nothing meaningful, and are every bit as likely to mislead us as they are to inform us in any way. But even here Treinen fares well, so let’s take a look.

Treinen ended up with nine wins this year. Normally I’d scoff at that, because quite often wins are a bad thing for a reliever. The easiest way for a closer to get one is to come in, blow the lead, then keep pitching long enough that his team comes back and retakes the lead, making him the accidental pitcher of record. It’s a positive stat often awarded for making things harder on your teammates, truly the definition of misplaced credit.

That’s not how Treinen earned his wins, though. Not a single one came as a result of his blown saves. All nine of his wins came from entering a tie game in the 8th, 9th, or 10th innings, and then pitching until the A’s scored again to earn the victory. Only twice did he do this while recording fewer than five outs. The pitcher-win stat is still dumb, but at least these examples fit the spirit of what it’s trying to measure.

A’s fans may remember Billy Koch, who back in 2002 became the first pitcher ever to notch 10 wins and 40 saves in a season (11 and 44, to be exact). Treinen is now one of only six pitchers with at least nine wins and 38 saves (Koch, Hoffman, Wetteland, Foulke, Hiller). The rest of them all had between four and seven blown saves, though, which may have contributed to the win totals, and as we already learned Treinen really should only have had one or two blown saves.

Oh, and that thing about how most of Treinen’s wins came by recording five or more outs? Edwin Diaz appeared in 73 games this year, and never once did he record more than four outs in a game.

Awards

That last note brings us to our final section. There is now a Relief Pitcher of the Month award in each league, which began in 2017. There are six months in the season, but only two AL relievers won this year — Diaz four times, and Treinen twice, in May and September.

This part doesn’t matter much, but I think it’s easy to argue that Treinen should have won in August, and probably in June too. It appears that save totals are far and away the top consideration, so basically Diaz got rewarded for his team playing more close games even though Treinen was objectively better in August and arguably better in June.

As long as we’re talking about the best relief seasons in history, it’s fair to wonder who the best of 2018 was between these two monsters. Diaz’s 124 strikeouts jump off the page, and he truly did an excellent job with all the save opportunities that were handed to him — 17 more than the A’s gave Treinen. He even got the best of Treinen in some of the peripheral stats we looked at earlier, like FIP and wxOBA, which helps bridge the ERA gap of more than a full run.

However, it’s not a coincidence that Treinen comes out ahead in so many other big-picture ways, like WAR and WPA. His ability to work multiple innings at the same elite level is an enormous advantage, and it led to tangible returns for Oakland in those nine extra-inning games he won. Diaz didn’t earn a single win all year. Add up Treinen’s 38 saves, nine well-earned wins, and the three blown saves that were zero percent his fault, and you could make a case that he really sealed 50 contests for the A’s, which is much more within range of Diaz’s gaudy total.

You might make a case that Diaz was the best closer in 2018, but Treinen was undoubtedly the best and most valuable reliever. He was like a new-age lockdown closer combined with shades of an old-school fireman.

Train comin’ thru

To recap, Blake Treinen did the following in 2018:

  • Lowest ERA in history in 80+ innings
  • Only pitcher with 30+ saves, 100+ strikeouts, sub-1.00 ERA
  • One of only two modern relievers in Top 10 of both bWAR and fWAR
  • Third-best WPA among modern relievers, 7th all-time among relievers
  • One of only six pitchers with 9+ wins and 38+ saves
  • Airtight FIP and xwOBA peripherals to back it all up
  • Fastball that sits 98 mph and tops out over 100, as part of devastating four-pitch arsenal (sinker, slider, four-seam, cutter)

Add it all up, and the picture is clear. Treinen just had one of the best seasons ever by a relief pitcher, in all of MLB history.

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