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Whether Or Not By Design, A’s Are Unveiling The Future Of Bullpens

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Kansas City Royals v Oakland Athletics
Don’t get the Puk outta here!
Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

I have long insisted that the future of rotations and bullpens is not the flawed “opener”/”follower” system, but rather the “multi-inning reliever,” and here the A’s are demonstrating in the real time how powerful this method can be.

The “opener” is an ill-advised fad made popular by the Rays, who only proved that if you assemble a bunch of really good relievers and a bunch of really good SPs, you can pitch them in any order and thrive. Who knew?

Other teams have discovered, the hard way, the drawbacks of using a top reliever in the 1st inning only to find they are in a 6-1 game and didn’t need to use him, opening with a middle reliever and wishing they had thrown better options in a tight game, dutifully yanking their “follower” because it was the third time through the order even though he was on a roll, and getting their SP out of routine in ways that did not bring out the best in him.

What the A’s are doing right now, and should continue right into 2020, is sustainable, and that is to assemble a bullpen such that each time through the rotation there is always a 2-3 IP reliever — a SP well suited to relief — available to bridge the innings from the SP to the “plus relievers”.

No longer are the A’s forced to throw 4 different relievers out there to back a 5 IP start, hoping to avoid an implosion by any one of 4 guys. (Consider that if each of 4 relievers avoids implosion 90% of the time, you will still see gascannery 36% of the time.) No longer are the A’s compelled to throw one-inning relievers on back to back days nearly as often.

In building a pitching staff, be it the A’s for 2020 or any team any time, the goal should be to identify a trio of pitchers who can serve as 2-3 IP relievers while awaiting a chance to join the rotation should the need arise. Essentially you are building an 8-man rotation, only you don’t need to find 8 quality starting pitchers as 3 of them can be best suited to shorter relief, can be young pitchers not yet ready for the workload of the rotation, out of options pitchers you don’t want to lose.

For Oakland right now, each time they have gone to the 6th or 7th with a chance to win and needed to select a reliever, either Jesus Luzardo or A.J. Puk has been available to answer the bell. Yusmeiro Petit can also go 2 IP when sufficiently rested, and now Chris Bassitt has joined the bullpen for a potentially similar role. These are innings previously split amongst relievers no one had the greatest confidence in, such as Lou Trivino, Blake Treinen, Ryan Buchter.

Now it’s Manaea-Luzardo-Hendriks and Roark-Puk-Petit in high leverage, and the rest of the league is none too thrilled. Their starting pitchers are starting the games, going as deep as they are effective, and able to yield to an electric arm to help navigate the 3rd-4th time through the order as needed.

Is it easy to find enough quality arms to pull this off? It’s not necessarily easy but whether by design, necessity, or luck, the A’s do have the guys to make this practice a habit going forward.

I expect the A’s will sign a SP in the off-season (my hope is a re-signing of Tanner Roark), but even as is Oakland’s depth chart begins with Montas-Manaea-Fiers-Luzardo-Puk. Bassitt is an ideal swing man, effective as a SP but (as we saw last night) able to dial it up to a dominating 97MPH out of the bullpen. Daniel Gossett’s track record suggests he profiles as a failed SP but perhaps a quality reliever, Jharel Cotton’s stuff might play up best in shorter doses, and in 2020 some “multi-inning bullpen arms” could include James Kaprielian, Dalton Jefferies, Grant Holmes — all potential starting pitchers long term but also possibly dominant bullpen arms next season as they return from injuries.

Note that this model is distinct from the “tandem” or “piggy-backing” notions sometimes put forth. Right now Luzardo is not linked with Manaea; he just happened to be available on a day Manaea pitched and Luzardo made sense. Luzardo was available last night but did not pitch because the game was well in hand, so he will likely be used today. The idea is not to pair pitchers, it is to make sure you have enough quality “2-3 IP arms” to have one available on any given day.

Right now it’s Luzardo, Puk, and Bassitt who are backing the quintet of Fiers-Manaea-Anderson-Bailey-Roark. That has potential dominance of the highest leverage innings, yet it is a group one can well assemble year to year with good planning. We’re not talking about 2 established aces, 2 high priced free agents, 2 stud you have to empty the farm to add, and 2 prospects you need to tank for years in order to draft.

The A’s are sitting pretty at the moment, because as an opponent you can’t get through a game without having to face a quality SP for at least 5 IP, followed by an elite arm airing it out for 2-3 IP, with Petit and Hendriks usually available at the back end. Joakim Soria is a luxury keeping Petit and Hendriks from being overworked, while the most inconsistent relievers are there to soak up innings when the game has gone south ... or really far north.

This is the future of effective pitching staffs, in my opinion, and if the A’s want to continue to be “ahead of the curve” they should do exactly what they are doing: ignore the ill-advised fad of the ‘opener’, aim to get their SPs through 6+ IP when they can, and fortify their staff with multi-inning relievers whose stuff plays up in 2-3 IP doses. It’s sustainable, potentially dominant, and I suspect that by 2023 “everyone will be doing it” — because it works.