The Oakland A’s successful 2018 season was no fluke. The team came from out of nowhere to win 97 games and steal the second AL Wild Card spot, but it wasn’t just a lucky run — the team was very talented.
While the team’s defense was fantastic and its lineup ran deep, Oakland’s strength was undoubtedly its dominant bullpen. Closer Blake Treinen put together one of the best relief seasons in history, while the A’s front office made aggressive moves at the deadline to add veterans like Shawn Kelley and Jeurys Familia.
But the all-important bridge for that bullpen was relative unknown Lou Trivino. The righty was once a decent prospect as a starter, but fell off the map once he was moved to relief. His upper-nineties fastball proved unhittable in the minor leagues and after a clutch three-inning outing in just his second MLB appearance, he earned a spot in the major league ‘pen.
Trivino was incredible for most of the 2018 season, and despite a rough second half, he rebounded nicely with three dominant innings in the Wild Card game. The A’s might not have been competitive without his contributions in the first half, and he entered 2019 as the primary set-up man to Treinen.
The 27-year-old wowed in Spring Training, showcasing a brand new split-changeup with absolutely wicked movement. He was one of the best relievers in the league in April, posting a 1.42 ERA (1.88 FIP) in 12.2 innings.
But since, the wheels have fallen off. After another rough outing on Sunday, his season ERA sits at 5.01. He already has four losses and three blown saves and looks nothing like the Trivino of old. While the bullpen as a whole has been inconsistent at best in 2019, Trivino looks like the worst offender, especially as of late.
The A’s will need Trivino to perform if they want to be competitive this season, and now that more than a third of the season has passed, they’re running out of time. So what exactly is going on with Sweet Lou?
We’ll start with what’s still working for Trivino. The first place to check is his velocity, and luckily, it’s fine. While down just a tiny bit from last season, his four-seamer is still averaging about 98 MPH and his cutter still hovers around 93.
Let’s look a bit closer at some of his pitches. By pitch values, his four-seam fastball and his curveball have actually been better this season. In limited usage, his changeup has also been a very effective pitch, inducing a 26.5% whiff rate. He’s still locating his curveball extremely well and getting good results.
Next, not all of his results are trending in the wrong direction. His home run rate is actually down a bit, and his infield fly ball rate is way up. He’s also throwing first pitch strikes two-thirds of the time.
His quality of contact data is also encouraging. Minimum 90 batted ball events, Trivino has the lowest average exit velocity (82.9 MPH) and barrel rate (1.4%) in the league, as well as the fourth-lowest hard hit rate (26.1%). His .323 wOBA and .255 xwOBA suggest that positive regression may be in Trivino’s future.
Still, Trivino is clearly not who he used to be. While he is still striking out a batter per inning, his strikeout rate is down from 27.4% in 2018 to 23.4% in 2019. His walks are also up a bit, from 10.4% to 11.4%. Almost all of Trivino’s plate discipline numbers have gone in the wrong direction — decreased zone rate, increased contact rate, decreased swinging strike rate, etc.
Perhaps most concerning is how often he just loses batters altogether. He already has six four-pitch walks this season, tied with Wily Peralta for the most among all MLB relievers. Too often, Trivino isn’t even giving himself a chance.
His batted ball data is also going backwards. He is no longer the ground ball pitcher he was last year, and now induces fly balls at a rate well above league average. This hasn’t burned Trivino so far, but it suggests his low home run rate may actually be lucky.
For as great as Trivino’s four-seamer and curveball have been, his other pitches have taken significant steps back. His cutter and sinker both have negative pitch values, and it isn’t hard to see why.
When he’s locating, Trivino’s cutter is unhittable. But too often it becomes a 93 MPH cement mixer. He’s actually locating it well against righties, getting chases down and away. But to lefties, he’s putting it right in the crush zone.
It seems clear that Trivino is trying to jam lefties inside with his cutter. But instead of getting in on the hands, he’s leaving it over the plate or down, where it’s getting smacked. He’s having a similar problem with his sinker.
More often than not, Trivino misses arm-side with his sinker, throwing either a ball or a very hittable pitch. Strangely, his sinker usage is up from 19.3% to 22.8%. It has been a highly ineffective pitch for Trivino this season, allowing a .308 batting average and .615 slugging percentage.
If Trivino doesn’t change anything, his season will likely start to turn itself around. The numbers suggest he’s inducing a ton of weak contact and getting unlucky. Anecdotally, two of the four hits he allowed on Sunday were infield singles.
But he clearly isn’t the same pitcher he used to be, and I think he might just be trying too hard. As a reliever, he doesn’t need five different pitches. He should probably ditch his sinker in favor of more changeups and curveballs.
He also needs to locate his cutter against left-handed batters. Rather than try to bury it, he should throw it up and in on the hands to jam hitters, and occasionally backdoor it to steal a strike.
He’s never really been a command guy, and I’m assuming his increased walk rates are a result of mechanical issues. But it certainly won’t hurt if he throws the pitches he commands best — his curveball, changeup and four-seamer — more often.
Trivino has some adjustments to make, and with his ERA over five, I don’t think anyone would disagree. But his success in the first half of 2018 and April of 2019 was no fluke. He has what is takes to be an elite reliever, and it seems like he’s just a few tweaks away.