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A’s Doing Great, But Need To Be Smarter About Pitchers

MLB: Houston Astros at Oakland Athletics
Funky Cole Irvina!
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

First off, let’s not kid ourselves about how lucky A’s fans are. If David Forst and Co. were not doing a great job, The A’s would not be coming off three consecutive seasons with a .600 winning percentage (ok fine, .5988), and now in first place in the AL West. And if the front office were to give Bob Melvin a 50 year contract extension, most A’s fans would rightfully rejoice.

However, right people sometimes do wrong things and today I am here to caution that in one area the A’s brass needs to get a bit smarter going forward.

On May 23rd the A’s sit 1.5 games up on the Houston Astros, a small lead thanks to a 3-7 season series so far. In fact, though, despite they’re wonderful start that included the four-game shellacking at the hands of the Astros, in reality Oakland is a very decent 3-4 in A’s-Astros games not started by Cole Irvin.

Irvin was a bizarre choice to start in all three series, considering that he is a left-handed pitcher who does not get by on swing-and-miss stuff. The Astros simply eat up left-handed pitching in general, yet in April Daulton Jefferies was bypassed twice, and in May James Kaprielian once, in favor of throwing Irvin (to the wolves).

Here are the Astros by the numbers so far in 2021:

vs. LHP: .289/.349/.449 (.799 OPS)

vs. RHP: .258/.326/.419 (.745 OPS)

It’s a dramatic difference that showed up as soon as the Astros left Oakland and were held to 1 run in 6 innings by RHP Kyle Gibson and have lost the first two games of a series started by a couple righties.

It was fun watching Kaprielian carve up the Angels lineup with his excellent stuff from the right side, and at the same time it was frustrating to think that this turn in the rotation actually came up Tuesday when he could have opened the series against the Astros. Apparently it was fine to throw him at Fenway Park for his major league debut, and for his second start to come in his home area of Southern California, but somehow a mid-May start against a division rival was too much to bear.

Meanwhile in the third week of May Bob Melvin managed like it was game 2 of a playoff series, where you need leave nothing to chance and put your best relievers in even when you have little reason to think the game is at issue.

The score was 6-1 in the 8th inning when is Yusmeiro Petit threw in the bullpen despite having pitched yesterday. He entered the game with Oakland leading 6-2 to face Anthony Rendon with just a runner at 3rd and 2 outs, a spot that screamed for Sergio Romo or Burch Smith.

Certainly either of those two RHPs could have worked the 9th with the A’s up 4 runs and the Angels past Ohtani and Rendon in their batting order. it was not a spot that called for Jake Diekman to pitch on back-to-back days as yet there he was facing a weak line up with a four-run lead. Diekman has made 21 appearances (20 IP), Petit 24 appearances (26 IP), and it’s not even June.

These are spots for your “Tier II relievers,” guys who are not your plus relievers but are far better than your mop up guys. Smith, Romo, and arguably Deolis Guerra, are worthy of the J.B. Wendelken role of getting “plus lite” action so as not to wear down your most trusted relievers.

Could Burch Smith give up four runs in the bottom of the ninth to some mediocre hitters? Of course it’s possible, but it is also extremely unlikely — and you always have time to get Diekman up before the inning gets out of hand.

Moving forward, I would like to see the A’s brain trust show a little more savvy around matchups and around how best to utilize those important “Tier II relievers” in whom you have to show sufficient confidence even if you know they are not great. Their role in a bullpen is a vital one and they can be leveraged much better.

That being said, when Oakland and Houston go head-to-head it looks like a mismatch and yet here sit the good guys in first place, so a lot of people are clearly doing a lot of things right and deserve due credit. Just a few details need sharpening up so that the good guys are also in first place at the end of the season.