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Game 4 Offers Tough Lessons In Bullpen Management

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Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters v Oakland Athletics - Preseason Game
“Hmm...get me the bad pitcher I use too much. I think he’s Australian.”
Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

First off, let me say that I fall in the camp that believes Bob Melvin generally manages the bullpen well. That thought is underscored by the fact that I will spend the first part of this post pointing out the many ways in which last night’s meltdown was not the result of poor tactical moves.

Mostly, the A’s snatched defeat from the jaws of victory because one of their better relievers, Joaquim Soria, simply pitched terribly. I don’t even think Soria was left in too long, as all the damage occurred within 5 pitches and I would not suggest yanking your top relievers every time they give up a couple hits to start an inning.

However, last night Melvin overlooked two essential principles at the wrong time. One is that you generally don’t want to be too quick to yank an effective pitcher in order to gamble on “what’s behind door #2” and the other is that you want to use your closer when the game is on the line, not when the inning happens to start with a ‘9’.

Pulling Marco Estrada after just 77 pitches was defensible, given how early it is in the season and how starting pitchers are not yet stretched out to throw 100+ pitches. This is especially true of A’s pitchers whose spring was shortened by the trip to Japan.

On the matter of pulling Lou Trivino after 1 inning, though, it is context that makes this move flawed. The important context is that Trivino was pitching for the second day in a row and as a result was probably not going to be available Saturday anyway. It’s too early in the year to pitch your best relievers 3 days in a row, which is why you wanted to get what you could out of Trivino on Friday night while you were at it.

Trivino threw only 11 pitches in a customarily dominant 7th. He was simply a better choice than the unknown, which is any reliever you have not yet seen on the mound that day. This was, in fact, exactly the right time to ask more than 3 outs from Trivino, who was on his way to getting upwards of 6 outs on less than 30 pitches.

To be abundantly clear, I am not in favor of overusing plus relievers and this is not an argument that Trivino should constantly be stretched to pitch more than an inning. In fact I think he should be shut down tonight after throwing two days in a row. But this was precisely the time to get more than a single inning from him, especially after an 11-pitch 7th.

Perhaps the more clear blunder, though, was in warming up Ryan Buchter, then Liam Hendriks, and not Blake Treinen, as the game rather plainly hung in the balance in the 8th inning. You have 2 on, 0 outs, a 2-0 lead, and the top of the order up. This is the ballgame right here, folks.

Put in Treinen to face Trout and maybe you don’t have to issue an intentional walk (which, under the circumstances, I thought was the right call). Treinen is one of the few pitchers I would be fine with pitching to Trout there. Or even if you opt for the IBB, you still have a 2-1 lead with a force at any base and an extreme ground ball pitcher — as well as a strong strikeout candidate — on the mound.

Your chances there of escaping no worse than tied are very good, and you still have a shot at keeping the lead (especially if you can convince Ramon Laureano and Nick Hundley to bat for the other team). You can’t let the likes of Buchter and Hendriks navigate this highest-of-the-high leverage situation while Treinen sits idly by waiting for the 9th.

This moment screamed so clearly for Treinen that I actually worried that perhaps he was not available. Then I saw him warming up “just in case” as the A’s batted down 4-2 with a runner on. That’s when you get Treinen up?

Now you might say, and you’d be right, that unless you plan to ask 2 IP from Treinen then the cost of using him to squirm out of trouble in the 8th is to take a deep breath and ask Hendriks, or Buchter, or Rodney to try to save a close game in the 9th. Ask yourself this: if you have to count on Hendriks or Buchter, would you rather they try to navigate a clean inning or would you prefer they come in with the bases loaded and nobody out? Right.

In reality, I would have preferred Treinen to clean up Soria’s 8th inning mess and then turn to the forgotten man, Yusmeiro Petit, in the 9th. Sure Petit had a bad spring, but with veterans that doesn’t count for a whole lot, and his HR tendencies would have been mitigated by a cool night at the Coliseum combined with the softer half of the Angels lineup. Or just stick with Treinen, who threw all of 7 pitches yesterday.

Strangely, Melvin is managing as if the A’s haven’t played just 4 games in 12 days. Trivino may have been going in “back to back games” but the A’s had a week off of real games prior. The same was true of Treinen, who only threw once in Japan. Yes, Oakland has begun a stretch of 18 straight days, and perhaps this is too much in the forefront of the manager’s mind. You still have to look at the game in front of you and trust that the future games will sort themselves out.

It’s a lot more okay to have key pitchers unavailable tomorrow if you can tuck a win away today. The problem Oakland faces now is that Saturday’s game becomes more of a “must win” when you’re 1-3 — and you still don’t have Trivino. The bottom line is that in the context in which yesterday’s game occurred, TnT, as they’re called, should have gotten 6 outs in the 7th and 8th one way or the other, and really could easily have combined for the last 9 outs of the evening.

That all being said, good pitching tends to make managers look smart and bad pitching tends to make managers look dumb. Soria is a good pitcher who pitched badly and made Melvin look worse as a result, Buchter has struggled all spring and didn’t choose last night to turn the corner, while Hendriks and Rodney just aren’t very good. And if Melvin argues that he can’t lean on TnT again and again and again for 4, 5, 6 outs, he is absolutely right.

And that all being said, had Melvin managed properly in context likely the A’s would be 2-2 right now on the backs of their two best relievers, taking advantage of 8 days off in between games by properly leveraging two of the most dominant relievers in the league. A tough lesson, but hopefully one learned as it’s not yet April and 158 games remain. Turn the page, just don’t forget what you read last night.