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Why Aren’t Games Tied? Because Bob Melvin’s Hands Are

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Oakland Athletics
Seriously? No, seriously?
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

There was much hand-wringing yesterday as a potential comeback slipped away faster than you can say, “Oops, an 8-spot.” Much angst was directed at the manager who “let” the game get away just as the A’s were gaining momentum for what could have been another Latemagicfest.

What yesterday provided, though, was not evidence of a manager misusing pitchers nor a skipper giving up prematurely. It was an example of how the front office has constructed a bullpen that ties Melvin’s hands in games like Sunday’s.

The A’s have 8 relievers, who can easily be placed into one of three categories:

- Blake Treinen, Lou Trivino, and Ryan Buchter are “plus relievers” you want to see in the game if you’re an A’s fan.

- Emilio Pagan (trending sharply upwards) and Yusmeiro Petit (trending sharply downwards) are solid relievers who have been inconsistent.

- Chris Hatcher, Santiago Casilla, and Josh Lucas are, for lack of a diplomatic way to put it, terrible. Yet in the cases of Hatcher and Casilla, many relievers (from the dearly departed Wilmer Font to the AAA-dominant Bobby Wahl to the disappointing but talented Ryan Dull) have been bypassed so as to allow these two veterans to grace the roster all season.

So the A’s have no true long reliever, just a bunch of short relievers who can be stretched to a couple innings as need be, and have quantity in the form of 8 arms (16 if you want to the count the ones they don’t pitch with) instead of quality in the form of better depth. Really, the A’s are 5 relievers deep before every fan complains about the choice of arms because the manager has appeared to “give up”.

What happened Sunday was that Melvin in fact gave up less than a manager normally would. Down 3-1 after 6 innings, he deviated from script and opted to put in Petit, a reliever who has pitched in high leverage most of the season.

Petit was undoubtedly selected over Pagan because Pagan worked an inning, and threw 21 pitches, in the A’s Saturday win, part of a trend of the A’s best relievers being heavily worked over a 6-game winning streak in which most of the wins were games that were close late. So Treinen, Trivino, Buchter, and Pagan have all been maxed out this past week.

So it was only when still down 2 runs going to the 8th that Melvin yielded. Sure, with a day off Monday he could have gone to Trivino, but Trivino had pitched the previous Saturday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Do you want to ask one of your most prized arms to toil for the 6th time in 9 days, just for a shot at coming back when you’re down 2 in the 8th inning?

Why wasn’t Trivino better rested? Because Santiago Casilla, given a 5-run lead and one inning to soak up, was so bad — getting one out and then yielding a hit, walking a batter, and hitting a batter — that Trivino had to be summoned just to get a 7-2 9th inning lead to the house.

So in a sense, Casilla conspired on Saturday to rob Melvin on Sunday of a good option in the 8th. The only logical choice was to roll the dice with one of the A’s low leverage relievers and here is where Melvin can’t win. He has to utilize these guys but they are terrible.

How terrible? Hatcher has a 4.88 ERA that is actually in line with his career mark of 4.63. Sunday he came in and quickly put an end to any comeback hopes, facing 4 batters and retiring nobody. Casilla, fresh off of his Saturday meltdown, picked up where he left off Sunday adding 2 runs in the 9th to the eventual blowout. Casilla’s xFIP now stands at 5.84 thanks in large part to his 18 BBs and 4 HBP crammed into 28 IP. Lucas? Since his heroic relief effort when Brett Anderson left after 1 inning, he has settled into being the pitcher no one coveted (his ERA rose to 6.28 yesterday).

Look, back end relievers generally aren’t good. They just don’t have to be as awful or as plentiful as the not one, not two, but three options handed to Melvin to comprise 37.5% of his bullpen. Sunday, with Treinen and Trivino heavily worked, Buchter, and likely Pagan, strictly unavailable, and having already tried Petit in the 7th, Melvin was out of options — “out of options” seeming to be what keeps Hatcher and Casilla around to make the manager look bad every time he can’t go to the well for one of his “front 5”.

Could Wahl (33 IP, 17 hits, 51 K at AAA) wobble around so much with a lead that Melvin had to call on Trivino to rescue him? Sure. Could J.B. Wendelken (38 IP, 60 K at AAA) face 4 hitters and not get a single out? Absolutely. But these are young guys with good arms and ample talent, who are also likely to thrive at times and whose ability warrants a big league look. Long relief options, such as Raul Alcantara, also wait in Nashville as pitchers who may not be very good but who can at least offer you 4-5 IP to better rest your Petits and Pagans, Wahls and Wendelkens, along the way.

During a winning streak, your best relievers tend to pitch a lot and when the front office insists on sticking you with 3 relievers who make you shudder even when you’re down 2 runs, as a manager you just are not going to come out of it looking very good. Going to Petit in the 7th was a nod to the A’s ability to come back. Going to Hatcher, Casilla, and Lucas thereafter was a nod to one thing only: you can only use the guys you’re given, no matter how much you want to win and think you have a chance.

There’s no reason the A’s bullpen needs to have these 3 relievers in it, yet here we still are. Why? That’s not a question for Melvin, but it might be a fair one to pose to Mr. Forst.