The Foundation of an Effective Bullpen


Grant Balfour has the Balfour Rage, Ryan Cook has the unhittable slider and the All Star Game appearance, Sean Doolittle has the incredible story of a converted first baseman turned reliever.  Those guys could be considered the “sexy” members of the bullpen.  They get all the buzz, they get all the glory.

October 3, 2012; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics relief pitcher Evan Scribner (58) pitches the ball against the Texas Rangers during the fourth inning at Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE

But there is a group of relievers who did just as important a job as the guys who dominated the late innings for the A’s in 2012.  The true middle relievers.  I’m talking about the likes of Evan Scribner, Pat Neshek, Pedro Figueroa, Jim Miller, and long man/spot starter Travis Blackley.  These guys worked often in those situations that Bob Melvin thought best to save the arms of the late inning guys for a night.  It wasn’t always pretty, but more times than not they got the job done.

Evan Scribner was claimed off waivers from the San Diego Padres during the offseason, and impressed during Spring Training enough to make the trip to Japan with the A’s.  He wasn’t on the roster, but he was with the team.  Once he did make it to Oakland he was more or less relegated to mop up duty, but he did quite well in that role.  Eventually he ascended the ranks and began to see time on the mound in higher pressure situations, and he continued to excell.  In the end he posted a 2.55 ERA in 35.1 innings, a very solid season for the right hander and he can expect to be in the Athletics bullpen in 2013 for sure.

Pat Neshek was an August acquisition from the Baltimore Orioles, he had been toiling away at their Triple A affiliate.  This was a flat out steal by Billy Beane.  Neshek posted a very impressive 1.37 ERA in 19.2 innings, and inspired us all by pitching in the ALDS just a couple days after the shocking and tragic loss of his infant son Gehrig.  Neshek may very well have found his new home in Oakland, and hopefully he can stick around for a while.

Pedro Figueroa was once thought to be one of the higher ceiling prospects in the A’s organization before arm problems derailed those plans.  But he fought his way back and made it into the A’s bullpen in 2012.  He did find himself bouncing back and forth between Oakland and Sacramento this year, but he had some measure of success in the show with a 3.32 ERA in 21.2 innings.  He did walk 15 batters in those innings, so his control must improve if he wants to achieve any longterm success.  I would expect him to bounce back and forth between Oakland and Sacramento yet again in 2013 until he shows improved control.

Jim Miller was right alongside Figueroa on the road to and from Sacramento all season.  He was never used in high leverage situations, but he succeeded for the most part in the times he was used.  Also like Figueroa he struggled with his control, walking 27 in his 48.2 innings of work.  But he was able to work around his control issues and post a 2.59 ERA.  He may never elevate himself to the top of the bullpen, but he can undoubtedly stick around in middle relief doing what he did in 2012.

Perhaps the best story of the A’s unheralded bullpen was that of Travis Blackley.  He did spend some time in the starting rotation as well, filling in for injured starters when needed.  Fifteen of his 24 appearances were starts, and in 102.2 innings he posted a 3.86 ERA.  His numbers may have been even better had it not been for the 2 horrific starts he dealt with in New York and Arlington towards the end of the regular season.  Blackley hadn’t won a game in the Major Leagues for 8 years before this season, so the fact that he went 6-4 is pretty remarkable.  His perseverance in not just winning those 6 games but fighting his way back to the Major Leagues really made him one to root for.  Not to mention he’s a darn good Twitter follow (@Travis_Blackley).  I expect Blackley to fill the same role in 2013 he did  this year, and having depth with guys who can start proves crucial to building a winning season.

There are always unsung heroes in every success story.  These guys may not get any of the glory, but the amazing season we witnessed this year could not have happened without them.  They supported every other pitcher on the A’s staff, and did so quite admirably.  Guys like them will play a big role in repeating the success of 2012 in 2013 and beyond.