How A's bullpen will dictate team's MLB playoffs destiny come October

How A's bullpen will dictate team's MLB playoffs destiny come October

Bob Melvin is exhausting his bullpen not because he wants to but because, as the manager, he has to. More than any other factor, it is the ‘pen that will guide this A’s team to its destiny.

The latest example came Thursday night in Houston. After starter Homer Bailey left in the sixth inning, Melvin needed 11 more outs to secure a win. He turned to five different relievers.

After taking the ball from Bailey, Melvin first went to lefthander Jake Diekman, who then handed it to Yusmeiro Petit, who then gave it to A.J. Puk, who then gave it to Blake Treinen, who then flipped it to closer Liam Hendriks, who ended matters with a whistling fastball past a gazing Michael Brantley.

That delivered a pulsating 3-2 victory over Astros ace Justin Verlander, allowed the A’s to take three of four games in the most imposing home yard in the American League and also moved them into the No. 1 wild-card spot for the first time this season.

On this night, the ‘pen was Melvin’s salvation, warming hearts in the clubhouse and across the fan base.

If the bullpen holds up, there will be October baseball in Oakland, and more than one game. Everything else about this club has been reasonably reliable, if not downright remarkable.

The frequent home runs – seven players have at least 20 bombs; 12 more would set a franchise record – are awe-inspiring, an impressive show of muscle. They light up the scoreboard, energize the dugout, build leads, wipe out deficits and deliver the occasional walk-off victory.

No real worries here.

The A’s have the surest gloves in the league, with first baseman Matt Olson, third baseman Matt Chapman and shortstop Marcus Semien having particularly stellar seasons. Fielding has not always been properly appreciated in Oakland, but this group is proving its importance.

No real worries here. At all.

The starting pitching has been better than it looks. Dominating performances have been few, but Oakland’s 73 quality starts rank fifth among MLB’s 30 teams. Sean Manaea, the most gifted established starter, has been almost unhittable in his first two starts since returning from shoulder surgery.

Oakland is, with good reason, as confident as it is formidable. The A’s believe in themselves and can find proof in their 10-4 record against the Astros and Yankees over the past four weeks. More to the point, their 68-35 record since May 14 trails only the East-leading Yankees (73-35) and is two games better than that of the West-leading Astros (67-38).

The A’s are a season-high 27 games over .500 as they float into north Texas for a three-game weekend series against the mediocre (74-74) Rangers, their opponent in six of the last 15 games. The other opponents are the definition of deficient: The Royals (three games), the Angels (two) and the Mariners (four).

But one of the lessons learned while reporting and commenting on hundreds of baseball games over the years is that no part of a contending team dictates fortunes quite like its bullpen. A good ‘pen adds points to the manager’s IQ, while a bad one subtracts from it.

A great bullpen wins championships.

Which brings us back to Melvin’s dilemma. His bullpen is good, but it also has an MLB-high 28 saves. It might be better if it weren’t so burdened. Of the six pitchers with the most appearances in the A.L., four are A’s. Joakim Soria is sixth, with 66 appearances. Hendriks is tied for third with 68, Diekman is second with 69 and Petit is first, with 73 – roughly every other game.

Though these foreboding numbers are somewhat mitigated by relatively short stints, they still indicate a heavy load.

Plenty of worries here.

The A’s last season, preparing for a playoff run, stacked their bullpen with veterans, collecting closers from teams without hope. Jeurys Familia from the Mets. Fernando Rodney from the Twins. They were setup men, handing off to Lou Trivino, who was solid, and Treinen, who was sensational as the closer.

Oakland’s postseason lasted one game, in which both Rodney and Treinen were abused.

[RELATED: A's make a statement to rest of MLB by winning final three vs. Astros]

This time around, the A’s decided to sit tight, adding only Diekman. There is more depth among the starters and also more trust.

But make no mistake, the fate of the A’s lies with their bullpen. It will, in the end, either warm hearts or break them.

Why new MLB rules could mean A's won't bring back Ryan Buchter in 2020


Why new MLB rules could mean A's won't bring back Ryan Buchter in 2020

Editor's note: Over the next two weeks, we will examine 10 A's players who may or may not return to Oakland next season. For each player, we will provide reasons why the A's should bring him back and reasons why they should not, followed by a final determination.

Ryan Buchter, LHP

Contract: Second year of arbitration (projected to get $1.8 million after earning $1.4 million this season)

Reasons to bring him back

Buchter did exactly what the A's brought him in to do -- retire left-handed hitters. The 32-year-old southpaw limited lefties to a .238 batting average, with 33 strikeouts and seven walks.

Buchter's overall numbers were respectable as well. He went 1-1 with a 2.98 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in 45 1/3 innings. That follows a 6-0 record in 2018 with a 2.75 ERA and 1.20 WHIP.

Reasons to let him go

With MLB changing its rules next season to require a pitcher to face a minimum of three batters, Buchter will lose a lot of value. The so-called LOOGY (left-handed one-out guy) role will disappear and lefty specialists will have to face some right-handers as well.

Right-handed hitter batted .274 off Buchter with 17 strikeouts, compared to 16 walks. While his overall ERA was under 3.00, Buchter allowed 15 of his 36 inherited runners to score, a rate of 41.7 percent. That's nearly 10 points higher than the league average of 32 percent.

Final verdict

Buchter had some good stretches over the past two seasons, but with rule changes and his high walk and hit rate, it's probably time for the A's to move on without him.

[RELATED: Why A's reliever Treinen could be non-tender candidate]

Right-handed hitters notched a .904 OPS against Buchter this season in 83 plate appearances. That will be an even bigger problem next year. Oakland can find better relievers for that $1.8 million price tag.

While $1.8 million is an affordable number, Oakland seems unlikely to bring Buchter back in 2020.

Why A's need to address bullpen this offseason, according to


Why A's need to address bullpen this offseason, according to

The A's bullpen relied on different faces in 2019, but it was once again strong. 

Liam Hendriks emerged as the team's closer, while one-time stalwarts Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino struggled to reach their 2018 heights. Still, the A's finished the season seventh in bullpen ERA (3.89), third in FIP (3.98) and fourth in WAR (6.9). In 2018, the A's ranked third, 11th and sixth in those respective categories. 

Oakland's relievers also led the majors in blown saves (30), and the group could be due for a lot of turnover in 2020. September call-ups Jesús Luzardo and A.J. Puk are headed to the rotation, while the A's will have to make decisions on Treinen, Jake Diekman and Yusmeiro Petit. Writing for Friday, Will Leitch argued that the A's should embrace change in their bullpen this offseason.

"The A’s keep falling short in the AL Wild Card Game, but considering where the Astros are likely to be next year, that may be their ceiling again," Leitch wrote. "So more arms might be the answer for a team whose lineup looks to be terrific top to bottom in 2020."

Relievers like Aroldis Chapman, Will Smith and Kenley Jansen almost certainly will be out of the A's price range this winter, but there is a long list of free-agent options to re-tool their bullpen on the fly. Plus, the A's have intriguing pitching prospects in Daulton Jeffries, James Kaprielian and Grant Holmes who conceivably could follow in Luzardo and Puk's footsteps by making their big league debuts out of the 'pen.

[RELATED: Ex-Athletic Maxwell still receives death threats after protest]

Given the rollercoaster nature of relief pitching, though, standing pat is an option. Now healthy, Treinen and Trivino seem like good candidates to bounce back in 2020, and regression to their respective career means would give manager Bob Melvin more options in the later innings. 

The A's surely would like more consistency from their bullpen in 2019, but the results weren't all that far off from the group that was Oakland's strength in 2018. A few tweaks might be just what the A's need for perception to match reality.