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Bullpen Management: How Melvin Can Get The Most Out Of What He Has

Oakland Athletics Photo Day
A Petit with a grande role.
Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

8 relievers and not a long man in the bunch. But as Opening Day demonstrated, the A’s do have some depth as on Thursday they coaxed 6 shutout frames from their pen without even going to one of their high leverage relievers, Emilio Pagan.

It’s a long season and Bob Melvin has to balance putting his team in the best position to succeed with keeping fresh the best arms he has to work with. This is especially tricky on a team that figures to have more than its fair share of shorter stints from its starting pitchers. You can anticipate that the A’s will have a lot of games in which they are in a position to compete yet the starting pitcher lasts only into the 6th inning.

Make no mistake about it, this presents daily challenges for a manager who cannot, as many fans would, manage each game as if it were a one-game wild card. Here is the template I would like to see Melvin follow, using the current octet as examples...

Blake Treinen: 3-4 out closer. Amongst Treinen’s many good qualities is that he thrives on more work, so he is someone Melvin can stretch a bit so long as it is done mindfully. Treinen will be the traditional “closer” coming in to try to save games Oakland leads by a little entering the 9th. but as we all know sometimes the highest leverage does not come in the 9th. Melvin cannot repeatedly ask Treinen to get “4, no 5, how about 6?” outs but if the game hangs in the balance with the A’s leading in the 8th, there is nothing wrong with bringing in your best arm to “save” the 8th inning. 3 out saves should be the norm, but 4 out saves should be on the table.

Emilio Pagan: Primary set-up man. Thursday, Pagan was passed over for Chris Hatcher, which might have been a nod to the veteran but also reflected that Oakland needed someone good to be available for a long extra inning affair. You need someone you can give the ball to in the 12th and say, “How long can you go?” and that guy was Pagan (who was loosening up when the A’s walked off in the 11th).

As the season develops, though, Pagan really should be the main 8th inning guy, only unlike the traditional “set up man” he can go multiple innings for a 4 or 5 out “hold” as needed. This will be especially necessary given the predicted shorter starts by SPs in winnable games.

On days where he is sufficiently rested, Pagan should be a key option to help snuff out a 7th inning rally, continuing on to pitch the 8th. Other days he can be a key “8th inning option” when the A’s are tied or ahead.

Pagan has true “high leverage stuff” with a high octane fastball that comes in with great life. Before long he needs to be considered the A’s second best reliever.

Yusmeiro Petit: Pagan’s understudy. Petit and Pagan are beautifully complementary, because both can go upwards of 2 IP in high leverage, meaning that you can stretch one knowing that the other can be available the next day. Having Petit ready to go 2 IP in high leverage the next day allows Melvin to utilize Pagan as needed for 5 or 6 outs, and vice versa.

The combination of Pagan and Petit should enable the A’s to get 3 IP from “the P’s and Treinen” pretty much any day, meaning the SPs need only to go 6 IP to ensure you will get directly to your top 3 relievers.

Ryan Buchter and Danny Coulombe: Super LOOGYs. Where do the lefties fit in? In high leverage, they can be the bridge from the SP to the “big 3 relievers,” coming in to get a lefty out in the 6th, a common scenario given the presumed number of “5.1, 5.2 IP starts” anticipated by the starters, 4 of whom are right-handed. Having Coulombe come in to go left-on-left, with runners on base and two outs in the 6th, is a classic bridge from SP to “big 3”.

Buchter may be used longer, e.g., for 3 outs, but it does not necessarily have to be a clean inning. More useful is to pick a sequence of hitters that begins with a lefty, but let Buchter continue on a few hitters even if it bridges across two different innings. This allows you leverage the left-on-left matchup in a key moment while also getting a little length from a lefty reliever who can get right-hand batters out pretty well.

Being realistic, you may need Buchter and Coulombe to eat up some lower leverage innings. That’s fine, because absent one available on a given day you have the other. So part of the lefties’ role has to be the ability to swallow up a mop-up inning for the cause on those bleak days when the SP gets knocked out early.

Chris Hatcher: Luxury lower leverage. The A’s bullpen depth is revealed in Hatcher slotting in (as I map it out) as Oakland’s 4th RH reliever. This means he can step in for Pagan or Petit in higher leverage to avoid overusing the “killer P’s” and you could do a whole lot worse for a fill-in set up man.

But if everything is rolling right, Hatcher becomes a different luxury: a guy you can ask to pitch an inning when you’re trailing in the middle innings, which becomes important for a team very capable of coming back. The A’s figure to have a lot of games in which the SP gives up a few runs but the offense has some comeback fire in it, and Hatcher could help the A’s “steal” quite a few wins by keeping games from getting out of hand even when the SP stumbles.

Santiago Casilla: Depth in lower leverage. He may have begun 2017 as the A’s closer, but as erratic as he is and with little fastball command, Casilla is both Oakland’s most expensive reliever and arguably their least reliable or effective. However, he can still contribute by eating up innings when the A’s are trailing, maybe sometimes going more than just 1 inning, and helping the A’s by providing an unusually good arm — the stuff is there and the peripherals aren’t horrible — in lower leverage.

Liam Hendriks: Longer relief in lower leverage. Yes, Hendriks was a failed SP who had his best season when put in the bullpen for 1 inning set up appearances, but the reality, to me, is this: throughout his time with Oakland, Hendriks has pitched worse as the situation was higher pressure but he can dominate in medium to low leverage. He doesn’t offer the consistency you need from a high leverage reliever but at times he can be very good.

Most of all, he has a history of pitching multiple innings and so I think the A’s will get more value out of him in 3 IP low leverages than they would pushing him ahead of these other guys to pitch 1 IP in high leverage situations. Frankly, in 2018 Oakland is going to need some quantity and Hendriks is capable of providing it.

On days where the A’s SP is knocked out in the 3rd inning, I would like to see Hendriks take over and be asked to swallow 3 IP for the cause. The A’s flat out need someone who can do this, rather than cobbling 6-7 IP out of 5-6 different relievers and moving towards having multiple relievers often unavailable because they have worked too many days in the week.

Hendriks is best positioned to serve in this role and I would much sooner see him eat 3 IP at once than have 3 of his innings spread over 3 games, where he is asked to be something he is not: a good “pressure pitcher”.

Let’s face it: with a shaky rotation and a solid offense, the A’s are going to have plenty of games where they lead 4-3, or are tied 4-4, in the 6th inning. The good news is that they are well positioned to win an awful lot of these games. The road map I give above shows a clear avenue to winning these games without overly taxing each reliever, giving each reliever a clear role without getting so caught up in “you have the Xth inning” that you don’t put pitchers in the best position to succeed, and offering enough arms in medium and low leverage that you can get through a long season with SPs who may struggle to average 6 IP.

Are you with me, BoMel? Based on one game I would say pretty much yes. I thought Melvin made the exact right move letting Kendall Graveman face one batter, the RH batting Albert Pujols, before bringing in Ryan Buchter to face Kole Calhoun and a string of LH batters to follow. The move backfired when Graveman served up a HR to Pujols but it was still the right move to try to get that 16th out from his SP in a “right-on-right” matchup before going to the lefty. Letting Petit throw 2 IP was consistent with the template, and selecting Hatcher over Pagan was the only departure but could be explained by holding Pagan back for multiple innings had the game turned into an extra inning marathon.

So to me, Melvin is 1-0 in “employing the Nico-template” and I hope to see it continue to be used going forward.


Which agree/disagree statement most applies for you?

This poll is closed

  • 16%
    Pagan over Hatcher for primary set-up
    (29 votes)
  • 0%
    Hatcher over Pagan for primary set-up
    (1 vote)
  • 12%
    Use relievers to finish innings by using matchups
    (23 votes)
  • 3%
    Let relievers start clean innings and know their roles
    (7 votes)
  • 13%
    Use Hendriks for 3+ IP in low leverage
    (24 votes)
  • 5%
    Use Hendriks in higher leverage 1 IP at a time
    (10 votes)
  • 41%
    The Nico-template is awesome through and through
    (75 votes)
  • 6%
    The Nico-template is "don’t give up your day job" bad
    (12 votes)
181 votes total Vote Now