Who will be the Oakland A’s closer in 2021?
That’s not a question to panic about, because the A’s always figure something out for the 9th inning. But it does need to be answered eventually, since the primary plan was dashed before the season even began with the loss of Trevor Rosenthal to surgery. Now the job is up for grabs, for at least half the summer while Rosenthal recovers.
In a convenient twist, Oakland got some extra time to figure out their next move. For the first 11 games of the season, they didn’t see a single save situation. Seven were losses in which the A’s more or less never led at all, three of the wins were by four or more, and the other victory came in extra innings after a late comeback. They’d picked up a few holds during tense 7th or 8th frames, but by the 9th it was never in much doubt.
Finally, on Tuesday in their 12th game, it happened. They took a late lead, but only by a margin of two runs, and somebody needed to close it out.
Two Aprils ago, suggesting Lou Trivino as a closer candidate would have sounded completely normal. The right-hander was coming off a brilliant rookie campaign as a lockdown setup man, in which he’d teamed with All-Star closer Blake Treinen to basically carry the upstart young A’s to a postseason spot, and then chipped in three dominant innings in the Wild Card Game. Trivino had more team control remaining than did Treinen, so he was situated as a natural successor.
- Trivino, 2018: 2.92 ERA, 74 ip, 82 Ks, 31 BB, 3.69 FIP, 4 saves, 23 holds, 5 blown
But then Trivino hit a wall in 2019. His ERA spiked more than two runs, his underlying FIP elevated by a run, and he blew five leads against just 17 holds. His stuff still looked and rated as nasty as ever, but he wasn’t commanding it as well as before and opponents were hammering it.
- Trivino, 2019: 5.25 ERA, 60 ip, 57 Ks, 31 BB, 4.53 FIP, 0 saves, 17 holds, 5 blown
After that performance, Trivino moved down the leverage spectrum instead of up. He only got one hold chance in all of the short 2020 campaign, and he didn’t even convert it, blowing a 6th-inning lead on a homer by Shohei Ohtani. But overall he quietly had a rebound year, settling his ERA and FIP around the middle of his best-case 2018 and weirdly disastrous 2019.
- Trivino, 2020: 3.86 ERA, 23⅓ ip, 26 Ks, 10 BB, 3.92 FIP, 0 saves, 0 holds, 1 blown
The resurgence stopped being so quiet this spring. He was one of the hottest arms on the team in the Cactus League, tossing 7⅓ scoreless innings and retiring 22 of the 26 batters he faced, including eight via strikeout.
- Trivino, 2021 spring: 7⅓ ip, 0 runs, 8 Ks, 3 BB, 1 hit
So far that hasn’t been a mirage, as he’s continued into the regular season without missing a beat. Through his first 31 batters he’s allowed just six baserunners, and only two of those came on actual hits. His only blemish is a homer by Yordan Alvarez, and otherwise nobody has been able to touch him.
- Trivino, 2021 opponents: 2-for-27 with 9 Ks, or .074/.194/.185
Then came Tuesday. In the wake of Rosenthal’s injury, Trivino was already being whispered about as a possible closer candidate, and now it was time to make a call. Manager Bob Melvin went with the righty, and it paid off. Trivino got the first batter to ground out, then issued a walk, then got another grounder for a double play. The A’s had their first save, and Trivino had his first since July 2018.
- Trivino, 2021: 1.04 ERA, 8⅔ ip, 9 Ks, 4 BB, 3.95 FIP, 1 save, 1 hold, 0 blown
The ERA won’t stay that low all year, but his peripherals are back to the levels we saw in his good years.
Perhaps the most interesting message comes from Statcast. While his production was flying all over the map, here’s what his xwOBA was doing.
- 2018: .293
- 2019: .288
- 2020: .291
- 2021: .290
Just based on his batted ball data, he never changed in quality at all. In fact, the league xwOBA for relievers has risen each year, from .305 up to .328 currently, so his stationary mark represents slight improvement over time. In 2019 his BABIP spiked up 60 points to .320, even though opponents’ exit velocity didn’t increase.
His arsenal also didn’t change much either. He’s lost a tick off his fastball since his rookie year but still averages a spicy 96, and his overall pitch selection hasn’t added or subtracted any of its five offerings (sinker, cutter, 4-seam, curve, change) beyond slight adjustments in frequency. He’s now using his sinker and curve a bit more than usual, but not by enough to become an entirely different pitcher.
That doesn’t mean his 2019 slump was a fluke, though. There are other factors.
- 2018: 2.65 K/BB, 14.2% swinging strikes, 9% launch angle
- 2019: 1.84 K/BB, 12.4% swinging strikes, 16% launch angle
- 2020: 2.60 K/BB, 11.9% swinging strikes, 15% launch angle
- 2021: 2.25 K/BB, 7.3% swinging strikes, 7% launch angle
His strikeouts and walks both went in the wrong direction during his slump year, more of his contact was elevated, and he didn’t miss as many bats, partly because they stopped chasing out of the zone as often. He never did recover those lost whiffs last summer, but he did at least cut the extra walks back out, and it has shown in his improved results.
In 2021 he’s getting even fewer whiffs, but that feels like a small sample for now. He’s getting so many called strikes that it’s more than making up for it, nearly one-quarter of all the pitches he throws, and batters will need to start swinging at those or else keep taking slow walks back to the dugout. He’s also getting the ball back on the ground when they do hit it.
It might be weeks before we truly know who the primary closer will be, especially since there’s another great candidate in lefty Jake Diekman. It’s possible the pair could even share the role long-term in a platoon matchup capacity, which would be a very Creative A’s thing to do, and indeed that’s the official word for now until or unless an updated decision is made.
But the record books now say that Trivino got the first turn, and that might be an even more classic A’s development. It’s not quite Liam Hendriks getting DFA’d and then making the All-Star team the next year, but it’s not uncommon for the next A’s closer to be someone you used to know was great but had forgotten about for a while. There’s plenty of reason to hope Trivino could be following that path right now.