The Oakland A’s bullpen was ready for a shakeup. Beginning a week ago Sunday, they blew saves in three straight games, and then a few days later they blew a tie in the 9th inning. Those slipups contributed heavily to a six-game losing streak that dropped the team out of Wild Card position.
Most bullpens go through a rough patch at some point during a six-month season, and now it was the A’s turn. But they shuffled some roles over the weekend, and on Saturday they snapped their skid, with a new face earning the save in the 9th. On Sunday they won again, with yet another different reliever finishing off the final frame.
The A’s pen has done a good job in 2021, all things considering.
The original plan was for Trevor Rosenthal to be the closer, but he got hurt at the beginning of spring training and spent all year on the injured list. Lou Trivino and Jake Diekman stepped up to share the 9th inning early in the season, with Trivino eventually assuming primary duties and Diekman teaming up with Yusmeiro Petit in setup roles.
That arrangement worked well for much of the year, and overall the pen ranks middle of the pack in key stats like FIP, WPA, and holding leads, to go with the sixth-best ERA in the majors. Trivino found success filling in as the closer, and before last week’s collapse he’d converted 21-of-23 saves plus another six holds. He had a case as an All-Star snub.
But that performance also came with a heavy workload for the high-leverage arms. Petit leads MLB relievers in appearances and is tied for third in innings, while Trivino is tied for 12th in games and 13th in innings. When Trivino blew the save Sunday before last, he was pitching for the third day in a row, and the fourth time in five days. When he blew another one Tuesday, it was his fifth time pitching in seven days. Three days later he took another loss.
When the A’s got a save situation on Saturday, they tried something new. Sergio Romo took the 9th inning, and despite giving up a homer he still held the lead for his first save of the year. On Sunday they switched it up again and used Andrew Chafin, just the second time he’s picked up the save since being acquired a month ago.
None of this means Trivino is out as the closer forever, but it was clearly time for a shakeup and so far it’s worked.
Bob Melvin said of using Sergio Romo for the save situation today: "We'll probably give Lou (Trivino) a little bit of a break." He added late-innings plan can be fluid.— Matt Kawahara (@matthewkawahara) August 28, 2021
Melvin went into more detail, via Matt Kawahara of the S.F. Chronicle:
“A lot of times, most seasons to an extent, you’re flipping things around from time to time. So it’s not uncommon. We just want to get (Trivino) a couple lesser ones. Our best team is with him closing the game so we hope to get him back there.”
In the meantime, Oakland has already identified the two best options to spell Trivino in the 9th inning.
Romo has more closing experience than the rest of the bullpen combined. Before joining the A’s he had 134 career saves for four different teams, and one of his three World Series rings came with him serving as closer in the postseason. He got off to a slow start this year but heated up quickly, and before allowing a homer on Saturday he’d posted an 0.78 ERA in 35 games since late-May. Take it back to late-April he’s been dominant in 47 games.
- Romo, last 47 gms: 1.81 ERA, 44⅔ ip, 48 Ks, 14 BB, 3 HR, 25 hits, 2.83 FIP
Those numbers come with a .249 xwOBA on Statcast, which ranks in the top 10th percentile among MLB relievers during the same time span. He’s been a championship closer before and he’s been pitching great for the past four months.
Chafin also fits the bill. The lefty has never been a closer before, but he’s had incredible success as a setup man, with 102 career holds to go with fives saves and only nine blown — an elite 92% conversion rate. He can retire lefty and righty batters alike, so he doesn’t require favorable platoon matchups to be effective.
- Chafin, 2021 MLB: 1.80 ERA, 55 ip, 52 Ks, 14 BB, 3 HR, 31 hits, 2.85 FIP, .254 xwOBA
Since arriving in Oakland at the trade deadline, he’s pitched 15 times and allowed runs just once, on a pair of solo homers. His only blown save for the A’s came when he entered a tough jam and allowed a sac fly. For the year overall he’s got 20 holds, two saves, and only two blown.
It remains to be seen how September will play out. Maybe Trivino will be back in the 9th by next weekend, or maybe Romo or Chafin will seize the role permanently, or maybe Oakland will stay on committee the rest of the summer, or maybe something entirely different will happen like Diekman getting 2020 hot. For now they appear to be taking it day by day, and that’s not a bad thing if it means putting the best and hottest arms in the biggest situations.