Who Should Close For the Oakland Athletics?

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Just because you’ve done something before doesn’t mean you should do it again. But since baseball professionals tend to obsess over roles rather than skills, guys like Kevin Gregg will always land jobs as a closer.

The Milwaukee Brewers just re-signed Francisco Rodriguez to a two-year contract, presumably to serve as the team’s closer despite offering up a major league high of 14 home runs in 2014.

Even the aforementioned Gregg has found a home this winter with the Cincinnati Reds. Fun fact: Kevin Gregg was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in 1996 and spent the majority of his minor league career in the A’s farm system. I, for one, did not know that.

Even though Gregg isn’t directly relevant to the A’s anymore, stories like his and K-Rod’s are important when determining who should close for the Oakland Athletics.

Despite middling overall numbers, Rodriguez saved 44 games in 2014 and Gregg saved 33 in 2013, respectively. They were not even close to being their team’s best reliever and don’t posses the skill set you want from your team’s closer.

Nonetheless, since pitchers like Gregg and Rodriguez have some semblance of a track record of success, they will continue to find ninth-inning jobs.

This is important to the 2015 Oakland Athletics because our closer is out for the foreseeable future. Sean Doolittle, the unofficial face of the American League, is recovering from a shoulder injury and the team is unsure when he will return.

In his absence there are four candidates to earn saves, according to manager Bob Melvin.

My hope is that Melvin and general manager Billy Beane pick their interim closer based on skills, not previous years’ saves totals. How the candidates perform in spring training will tell a lot about who should step into the closer role. Past performance can also be a good indicator., so that is what we’ll go by for the time being.


Reviewing Oakland’s Closer Candidates

The Candidates: Tyler Clippard, Ryan Cook, Eric O’Flaherty, and Dan Otero.

Cook and Clippard are the pitchers with experience. With 51 saves between them (34 from Clippard in ‘12 and 14 from Cook in ‘12) they offer the tried-and-sometimes-true qualifier of having done it before.

Sep 30, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Oakland Athletics relief pitcher

Dan Otero

(61) throws a pitch against the Kansas City Royals during the eleventh inning of the 2014 American League Wild Card playoff baseball game at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Much to our dismay, Cook blew 7 of his 21 save chances in 2012. Even though he was an all-star that season as a rookie and posted his best overall numbers, the majority of his failures came when trying for the final out. Clippard had much more success in the save department during his season as the Washington Nationals’ closer in 2012, but the rest of his numbers disappointed including ERA, WHIP, and K/BB.

Otero and O’Flaherty are the inexperienced duo totaling just one save apiece, each coming in 2014. O’Flaherty was the “interim” closer when Doolittle succumbed to injury last season and was presented with just 2 save opportunities. Otero had four opportunities. Neither of these two exhibit the pitch arsenal or velocity you want to see from your closer, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t do the job.

Despite returning from Tommy John surgery mid-way through 2014, O’Flaherty pitched well, but was unlucky. His ERA of 2.25 was fantastic, but his 4.48 FIP is disheartening. However he showed improvement in other areas – K/9, WHIP, and K/BB – which makes me think O’Flaherty could find his way into some saves this season. Additionally, his HR/9 was the highest of his career at 1.4 and due to return to his career norm of 0.5.

Otero is a ground ball specialist, and you want your closer to avoid contact as much as possible, so I believe he should remain in the role that has proven successful each of the past two seasons.

O’Flaherty would be a promising option due to his career numbers, but left-handers don’t often occupy the closer role. Doolittle is one of the games exceptions.

That leaves us with Cook and Clippard.

As health concerns and his ERA rose, Cook’s chances of becoming a closer diminished significantly last season. However even in his “down year”- 3.42 ERA in 50 IP – Cook still posted an above average ERA, his second best WHIP, a 3.35 FIP, and a struck out a batter per inning. His walk rate climbed by nearly a walk per inning, which is troubling, but he claimed this spring that he is finally 100 percent healthy for the first time in his career. I’m not an expert, but I know pitching with an unhealthy shoulder and forearm can drastically alter mechanics, causing a pitcher to lose control.

Clippard is the total package when it comes to skills. He posted a high K/9, a low BB/9, and a very solid K/BB of 3.57 in 2014. He averages 78 innings and 87 strikeouts per season with a 2.88 career ERA and typically allows less than a base runner per inning.


The Result: Tyler Clippard Should Close

Clippard was brought in to set-up saves for Doolittle, but in this case he is best suited to take over closing duties while Doolittle is away. Usually I would be concerned about losing a premier set-up man. Getting to the ninth inning with a lead is as important, if not more, than getting through the ninth inning with a lead. In Oakland’s case however, having four closer candidates means you also have four men capable of setting up the closer.


Other Notable Arms

If Doolittle is unable to return soon, if at all, I expect to see rookie newcomer R.J. Alvarez and lefties Fernando Abad and Eury De La Rosa to be given a chance in high leverage situations. I also wouldn’t sleep on Jarrod Parker or A.J. Griffin either, as both could be options in the pen or rotation this summer.

Next: Jesse Hahn: Player Profile

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