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Are A’s Reacting To A Problem, Or Causing One?

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MLB: Oakland Athletics at Los Angeles Angels
Wearing many hats, Rodney is a pitcher at full tilt.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The A’s strategy this past month has been clear: stockpile as many good relievers as possible to make an excellent bullpen even better and deeper. The “chicken or egg” question becomes: did the A’s make these moves because the starting pitchers can’t even toss 6 decent innings, or are the starting pitchers now tossing less than 6 IP because the A’s have so many relievers they’re excited to use?

The blueprint unveiled last night could have been a one-game coincidence, but it was also the first game with Fernando Rodney on the roster. Brett Anderson threw 5 IP and 63 pitches and was yanked in favor of Lou Trivino to start the 6th. The choice of Trivino was particularly interesting because even by the A’s accounts, adding Rodney was in part to ensure that Trivino is not overworked the rest of the way, having already hit career highs in innings and having recently shown signs of wearing down a bit.

No matter who you have in your bullpen, it’s hard to ask for 12 out saves night after night. Yet here were the A’s, needing 12 more outs and having just added Rodney and Kelley, planning to run 4 different relievers out there including Trivino, hoping that they didn’t catch one of those 4 on a bad day. A few minutes later they watched a flat Trivino cutter sail over the LF wall and so much for that plan.

Back when the A’s had “only” 3 plus relievers (Treinen, Familia, Trivino) along with 3 “solid relievers” (Petit, Buchter, Pagan), they were employing what I thought was a much more sustainable strategy of using 2 plus relievers to navigate up to 3 IP, resting the third, and slotting their solid relievers in as needed along the way to manage 6th innings, bigger leads and small deficits.

The idea was that you could strongly leverage your best relievers without wearing them out because each had a “stunt double” who could slot in for one another to keep everyone sufficiently rested and strong.

Instead, last night, what essentially happened is that Rodney did not slot in instead of Trivino, but instead slotted in for the starting pitcher’s 6th inning. More bullpen innings, more different arms, no rest for the wicked. Did the A’s pick up more good relievers so that they can create more bullpen innings, instead of just better rested bullpen innings? At least last night it seemed that way.

The bottom line is this: no matter how many good relievers the A’s have it is going to be in their best interest to seek more than 15 outs from their SP unless their relievers customarily throw 2 IP each. The practice of seeking dominance from 4 different guys (who are then not fully rested the next day) doesn’t become a good one just because you add more quality arms to the mix.

This is not specifically about Friday night’s game — perhaps Anderson was “spent” despite throwing only 63 pitches, maybe Melvin feels confident about trying to nurture another inning or two out of any other SP. It is about the question of whether the A’s acquired Kelley and Rodney in response to a belief that they need to turn games into a brief appearance from their SP followed by a parade of quality bullpen arms, or whether they are creating that model out of one that does not naturally need to exist.

If it were up to me, here’s where I would start, pedagogically:

- Having thrown a lot of flat cutters his last 5 or so appearances, and having reached unprecedented workloads, Trivino needs a few days off to reboot. Acquiring Kelley and Rodney was supposed to make this possible and the arm needs what the arm needs.

- Focus on really trying to get 6+ IP out of the SPs if you can, leaning on guys like Kelley, Petit and Pagan if you need outs to bridge the gap between the SP and 18 outs. Let your 3 best relievers (Rodney can stand in for Trivino short term) handle only the last 3 innings, but not in a “7th-8th-9th” parade that uses all 3. Lean on 2 of them to get up to 9 outs, resting the 3rd. With one always fresh, there is always an opportunity to lean on the freshest arm for 4, 5, 6 outs as needed.

- Ryan Buchter spares you some outs needed, either in the middle innings or in the late innings, in situations where you need a lefty. His entry into the 7th or 8th can reduce the number of outs you need from your “plus” reliever by 1-2, and his insertion into the game in the 6th can bridge the gap left by a SP who falls an out or two short of going 6 full.

Ultimately, though, these extra good relievers need to be slotting in for each other, not for SPs suddenly expected only to “open” and not to continue. That parade of one inning stints, be it for 3 innings or especially for 4, is not a recipe for sustained success. The rotating 4-6 out crew, with rest for others, the “Petit or Pagan,” the “Rodney one day, Kelley another,” utilizes depth because it also utilizes rest and presumes that your foundation, on any given day, is still your SP.

I liked the way the A’s were utilizing their SPs, and their RPs, prior to adding two more solid relievers. Let’s hope the additions will provide more quality and depth, but not an unnecessary shift in pedagogy. Let’s call it a “one game blip” and get back to what can work, repeatedly, over time.