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How Best To Leverage This Bullpen In September

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MLB: AUG 29 Athletics at Royals
It’s not time to throw in the towel just yet.
Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Sunday’s debacle just highlighted what we already know: If games were 6 innings long the A’s would be World Series bound, but oh that last third of the game...

Bob Melvin has struggled mightily to squeeze a “right combination” out of a bevy of relievers whose only consistency is their inconsistency. Cross your fingers and throw Lou Trivino, Blake Treinen, Jake Diekman, or Joakim Soria out there and you never know what you will get — throw 2 or 3 of them on a given day and your odds are not good.

However, there is an avenue to keeping the right relievers on the mound in high leverage without overusing Liam Hendriks, Yusmeiro Petit, or anyone else. It relies on two starting pitchers, out of the seven Oakland has at its disposal, joining Hendriks and Petit as the “high leverage quartet”.

Your September starting rotation is Mike Fiers, Sean Manaea, Tanner Roark, Brett Anderson, and Homer Bailey, which leaves Chris Bassitt available to move to the bullpen along with September call up Jesus Luzardo.

Note that if the A’s were to opt for a 6-man rotation with Bassitt starting, you could replace him with A.J. Puk in this analysis and not miss a beat. Or if you didn’t trust Luzardo yet (I think he’ll debut far more polished than Puk, but it’s currently an unknown), you could slot Puk in his place for now.

Here’s the plan that gives the A’s quality and reliable arms, as needed, in the 7th-9th on a daily basis:

Hendriks can reasonably be asked to pitch about 3 IP each week, closing out games in which the A’s have a save opportunity or a tie game late. Petit is good for about 4 IP each week in a less defined pattern — perhaps it’s 1 IP here, 2 IP there, 4 outs as needed, back to back days — but you know you can ask 4 IP or so from Petit each week.

So that’s 7 IP of high leverage the A’s already feel comfortable with. Now add Luzardo and Bassitt (or Puk) as guys who can be asked to give you a 3 IP appearance once through the rotation in lieu of an actual start. These become “high leverage” stints much like Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton provided famously for the Astros in the 2017 post-season.

Suddenly now you’re up to 13 high leverage innings each week without relying a whit on the rest of the relieves, now available to handle medium or low leverage. Bullpen management is extremely fluid, dependent on the unique events of each game that cannot be fully predicted.

So here’s a look at how the plan might play out in a given week:

- Fiers gives 7 strong innings, leaves leading 4-2. Petit has the 8th, Hendriks the 9th.

- Manaea pitches well but throws 93 pitches in 5 innings, A’s lead 2-1 after 5 innings. Luzardo pitches the 6th, 7th, 8th, Hendriks the 9th if still ahead.

- Roark goes 5.2 IP, but leaves trailing 3-1. Enter Trivino, Treinen, Soria as the A’s try to come back.

- Anderson gives you a strong 6 IP, A’s lead 5-2. Enter Bassitt for the final 3 IP.

- Bailey goes 5.2 IP, game is tied 3-3. Diekman goes L on L to get the final out of the 6th, if the A’s don’t fall behind it’s Petit for the 7th and 8th, Hendriks the 9th.

As you go through the rotation again, Luzardo is now available and Bassitt will be in a couple days, Petit and Hendriks have not been overworked and Puk is fresh (as is Blackburn) if you needed someone to mop up several innings.

Why does this work multiple times through the rotation? Because in a typical week you don’t usually need more than 13 high leverage innings in the 7th, 8th, and 9th. Not shown above are the games you lead 7-1 and the games you trail 6-0, ones in which you can freely use Puk, Trivino, Treinen, Buchter, Blackburn et al just to get the game to the house.

How would Sunday’s game have gone had the 6th, 7th, and 8th simply been turned over to Luzardo or Bassitt? How much more available would Petit and Hendriks be on the other days to reliably take the 8th and 9th? How much of a luxury is it to have Soria in medium leverage instead of as a primary set-up man, where his lack of consistency has been costly?

I believe that what I am describing is, in fact, the future of effective bullpens and pitching staffs. It’s not “openers” and it’s not exactly “tandem pitchers” — it’s a couple relievers you can count on, a couple others who can dominate in 2-3 IP stints every few days, and the rest pushed back to lower leverage because they (like most relievers in any given season) are talented but inherently unreliable.

The A’s, with 7 legitimate SP candidates currently in the mix, are perfectly set up to slot two of them into “high leverage multi-inning relief” and lean on them, along with Petit and Hendriks, to handle the most essential late innings the A’s have the rest of the way. It becomes especially key when a SP can only give you 5 IP (such as Manaea yesterday) and you have several innings to bridge to get to the 9th.

Going forward, the A’s really don’t need to cross their fingers and hope the likes of Trivino, Treinen, Diekman, and Soria can bring their A-game on a given day when we know the odds are spotty at best. They just need to slightly reinvent what high leverage looks like and how they can narrow down the field of how many different arms they have to rely on when most of their relievers are highly volatile.

Give me Luzardo, Bassitt, Petit, and Hendriks for the last 9 outs of games the A’s are in position to win, and I feel good about Oakland’s chances of holding onto enough games to secure a wild card spot. Lean much on the rest, and ... well, you’ll win some of them, but may well lose a couple when you can’t afford to in a 4-week season with 3 teams separated by exactly 0 games in the loss column.

Get creative, get smart, embrace the 2-3 IP fireman while you have the arms to do it and can still preserve a solid rotation. The opportunity is there, and the A’s need to seize it before they throw away one too many games to gain admission to an October dance.