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Athletics Bullpen – Lucky Or Good?

August 1, 2012

Whenever anyone has talked about the Athletics the last three or four years there are two things you are going hear; 1) the ballpark situation and 2) how good the pitching staff and bullpen have been. This year, again, you are hearing the much of the same. The rather putrid A’s offense gets a little notice, but it is all about how the pitching continues to lead this team. Largely, that is a true statement. Having a starting rotation that can keep opposing lineups in check enough so that you can win games by scoring a little over three runs per game is nice. Every team would want that. However, there is always going to be something under  the surface, something that when you look at it just scares the living bejesus out of you. For me, that is the A’s bullpen. Long heralded as what Beane does best. Find cheap, interchangeable parts to fit in a spacious park. And this year, again, is no different. Or is it?

When I look at the Athletics bullpen, I see a ticking time bomb. And this goes beyond what the front office decided to do or not do at the deadline. Just adding one solid arm, does not a fix a larger problem. My Tarp Talk companion, David Wiers, touched on this a bit on Twitter and that got me to looking. So, let us pull back the curtain on the A’s bullpen. I will warn you, numbers and acronyms lie ahead.

When Sandy Koufax was asked what his best pitch he would always respond, “strike one.” As a bullpen pitch, this should be your motto. Off the top of my head I can not remember the exact numbers, but roughly the batting average difference between being down 0-1 and being up 1-0 is close to 200 points. That is a massive difference. It is imperative, coming out of the bullpen, to be able to get ahead of hitters. The more you have to rely on your fastball, the less chance you have a being effective.

So, how do the Athletics bullpen arms stack up in this situation? Start with the baseline. League average F-strike%, the percentage of first pitch strikes thrown, for relievers is 58.2%. The following is the A’s bullpen;
Balfour – 56.3
Cook – 48.9
Norberto – 54.4
Blevins – 54.2
Miller – 55.4
Scribner – 55.6
Doolittle – 60.7

Cook’s inability to get ahead has already reared its ugly head this season and will most likely do so again in the very near future. Of all of those pitchers, to only have one above league average is kind of scary. Having a bullpen that has to so often get back into a count any way possible is not the best for long-term success. Rhymer, I am.

Another good sign of a strong bullpen is their ability to miss bats. I know, and preach, that strikeouts are not everything (this is different from pitching to contact). However, in a bullpen when, in theory, you will be in high leverage situations, the ability to get the strikeout is almost paramount. For the A’s bullpen, this is a bright spot. League average SwStrk% (the percentage of swinging strike on pitches thrown) for relievers is 9.9. The A’s bullpen;
Balfour – 8.0
Cook – 11.6
Norberto – 11.9
Blevins – 11.3
Miller – 9.9
Scribner – 5.2
Doolittle – 13.6

Again, Doolittle outpaces the field. Cook’s 11.6% is what mostly saves him from his problems getting ahead. Scribner is starting to look like a pumpkin. Just mind-boggling how he is still around.

The underlying problem, for me, though is the huge discrepancy between the ERA and FIP. Yes a lot of the bullpen arms have nice, shiny, beautiful ERA’s, but I am not convinced that is a real measure of how good they are. Partly based on a couple of the reasons I have mentioned above, but also because having watched them enough they consistently play with fire and are about to get burned. Again, our baseline, league average ERA and FIP for relievers, 3.67 and 3.84 respectively. Again, the A’s bullpen;
Doolittle : ERA – 4.09 FIP – 1.08
Scribner : ERA – 1.93 FIP – 2.80
Cook : ERA – 1.81 FIP – 3.35
Balfour : ERA – 2.81 FIP – 3.69
Blevins : ERA – 2.20 FIP – 3.79
Norberto : ERA – 2.85 FIP – 3.86
Miller : ERA – 2.16 FIP – 4.64

If you believe in BABIP for this stuff, be careful of the rather large SSS(nake), the bullpen is just as absurd. League average of .290. The bullpen? .346, .275, .167, .209, .230, .235, and  .250.

Of relievers with 30 or more innings pitches, this will remove Doolittle and Scribner from the equation, the A’s bullpens have some of the highest flyball percentages in the league. Even being so lucky as to pitch in, some of those will find themselves in the seats, more so when they go on the road.

Again, among relievers with more than 30 innings pitched; Norberto, Balfour, Cook, and Miller rank near league worst in BB/9.

This is not a problem that you fix by a trade. Would it help? Yes. But it only holds off the inevitable dam bursting for a bit longer. Either you promote from within or hope that you can skirt the problem for as long as you can. If, and when,because it will happen and it will be ugly, the collapse of the bullpen happens it is not going to be pretty.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 1, 2012 7:28 pm

    I think it is fixable via trade. Rafael Betancourt would’ve been a nice little pickup.

  2. August 1, 2012 7:34 pm

    I agree that he would have been nice, but would replacing one bad arm with a better arm fix this problem? Just think it’s something that needs to be addressed a bit more than, “let’s acquire pitcher x.”

    • August 1, 2012 7:43 pm

      Yes and no. Improvement is improvement right? We are talking about improvement for next two months not some major organizational shift.


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