Why the A's decided to keep Burch Smith

On Tuesday morning, the Oakland A’s designated middle reliever J.B. Wendelken for assignment in order to call up left-hander A.J. Puk, replacing Wendelken in the bullpen and giving manager Bob Melvin another lefty reliever. Melvin will now have three lefties to pick from in Jake Diekman, Andrew Chafin, and Puk, with Puk possibly able to go multiple innings if need be.

Those who have been watching the Oakland Athletics over the past couple of seasons have been anxiously awaiting the return of Puk in some capacity, with most understanding that due to health reasons, the bullpen is where Puk would be able to help the 2021 Oakland A’s. The jury is still out on if he’s ultimately going to stay there, as he was groomed to be a starter on his ascent to the majors, and the shine has worn off of him some, but that’s a different story.

Bringing up A.J. Puk meant the A’s needed to cut bait with someone, and management decided on Wendelken, which caused A’s fans to express confusion, surprise, and hesitation due to Wendelken’s solid track record over the past few seasons. Since coming off of Tommy John surgery and missing all of the 2017 season, Wendelken has a 2.81 ERA in 99 innings pitched, striking out 105 batters and walking 38 while only allowing 7 home runs. That is solid production from a middle reliever, with Wendelken’s best season coming just last year when he put up a 1.80 ERA in 21 games. Expectations were raised, with some even suggesting he could handle more high-leverage, setup duties to help ease the loss of star closer Liam Hendricks.

The 2021 season has been a completely different story for Wendelken, however, as he’s missed two months of the season already to go along with a step back in performance. In 26 games for the A’s this year, Wendelken has a decent 4.32 ERA/3.69 FIP in 26 games, with his strikeout rate falling 7 points and his walk rate getting ridiculously high at almost 5 walks per 9 innings. His ground ball percentage is only down slightly, but he’s also allowing more hard hits at a higher clip while also stranding less runners than he did a year ago, with a 10-point drop in left-on-base percentage.

He had actually gotten off to a solid start to the year in the A’s ‘pen, pitching to a 2.61 ERA in his first 13 appearances before two back-to-back shaky outings led to a placement on the IL with the strained left oblique, a notoriously finicky injury for athletes to recover from. Upon returning, Wendelken continued to slide, posting a 4.26 ERA in 12.2 innings pitched since being activated while walking even more hitters than before.

On the flip side, there have been positive signs as well as negative ones for Wendelken. His walk rate is high, yes, but he has continued to keep the ball in the ballpark, as evidenced by only allowing two home runs on the year. Wendelken might also have been unlucky in the form of a .355 BABIP, but a quick look under the hood suggests that might not be a matter of luck, though, as a major rise in line drives and hard hits off Wendelken suggest that batters are seeing the ball really well from him right now, which matches what the eye test is seeing right now.

The only other obvious option would have been fellow righty Burch Smith, the owner of a 4.99 ERA/ 3.69 FIP. Like Wendelken, Smith has also been able to keep the ball in the yard, too, with a miniscule 0.59 HR/9 and a 4.8% HR/FB ratio. Smith hasn’t struck out nearly the amount of hitters Wendelken has, but he’s also not walking nearly as many, either, with Smith having a better K-BB ratio than Wendelken. He’s also not giving up nearly as much hard contact as Wendelken, with lower hard-hit and line drive percentages than his fellow right-hander. To boot, Smith has the ability to pitch more than one inning, while Wendelken is almost exclusively a one-inning pitcher.

In short, a quick look might suggest Wendelken has been the better pitcher not only this year, but over the past few, but a deeper dive allows you to see why management made the pick that they did. Wendelken is getting lit up right now, in the middle of a pennant race, while Smith is pitching a touch better at the moment and has the ability to consistently eat two, three innings if the A’s need him to, such as in the San Diego game where he went three innings in mop-up duty in an 8-1 loss.

Yes, Burch Smith has an option and could have been sent to Triple-A and kept Wendelken in the organization, but that wouldn’t have given Melvin the best possible arms in the bullpen down the stretch run and Smith can still be optioned next year if he doesn’t get sent down between now and the end of the season. Mop up duties fall to the guys who can pitch multiple innings, and Wendelken just doesn’t offer that sort of flexibility for BoMel.

With as much demand for middle relievers with a track record like Wendelken’s, it’s almost assured that a team out of the hunt like the Diamondbacks or Pirates will take a flyer on him. The likely loss of Wendelken means that the only player left in the organization from the infamous Josh Donaldson trade tree is Zack Erwin, acquired alongside Wendelken in exchange for Brett Lawrie, and it’s unlikely the A’s will see him since he’s currently stalling out at Double-A. There was hope among some the A’s could salvage the Donaldson trade by coming away with a stud reliever in Wendelken, and at times he was that. The A’s don’t run the team like that, though, and making the move to cut Wendelken instead of Smith is right in line with the emotionlessness that the A’s front office has become so well known for.

Good luck on your next adventure, J.B.!