The 2015 Oakland bullpen was bad. Really bad. You just won’t believe how unfathomably bad it was.
The bullpen finished 2015 with an American League worst 4.63 ERA, and the club’s 19-35 record in one-run games is often attributed to the bullpen’s inability to hold on to a lead in close games. As a squad, the bullpen was the only section of the 2015 A’s that had a net negative WAR, with a combined -0.5 (and if you’re thinking it seems like it should be lower, I’m with you).
But the front office cleaned house with the bullpen.
Relievers who will not be returning to the A’s in 2016 include Fernando Abad, Ryan Cook, Arnold Leon, Edward Mujica, Eric O’Flaherty, Dan Otero, Drew Pomeranz, Evan Scribner, and Pat Venditte. The combined WAR of all of these relievers is -1.4.
The club did hang on to closer Sean Doolittle, and relievers Fernando Rodriguez, Ryan Dull, Daniel Coulombe, Angel Castro, and R.J. Alvarez. With the exception of Alvarez (who could benefit from playing in some low-leverage situations), these are all positive-WAR players, and in most cases were either struggling with injuries last year or were pitching in the majors for their first or second season. They all stand to have improved seasons in 2016. It seems like the office hung on to the right people.
And the reinforcements look several tiers better than the people they’re replacing.
The bullpen’s prize acquisition this offseason is Ryan Madson. Fans are justifiably skeptical of his signing because Tommy John surgery sidelined him for several seasons, but his return season in Kansas City last year was a gem. The 63.1 innings he pitched in 68 appearances was his highest innings-pitched total since 2009, and it proved that he had the endurance to be a reliable relief pitcher in the league’s best bullpen. His command of the strike zone garnered an 8.2 SO/9 and an exemplary 2.0 BB/9 in 2015, and he finished the season with a dominant 2.13 ERA.
This all resulted in a 1.7 WAR for 2015, which is an accomplishment for a relief pitcher. Remember when Sean Doolittle became the league’s premier all-star closer in 2014? Doolittle’s WAR that All-Star season was only 1.2. Madson and Doolittle represent the Athletics’ new late-inning bulwark.
The Blue Jays discovered that Hendriks’ stuff is a lot better in a relief role than in the starting role. 2015 was Hendriks’ breakout year, even if it wasn’t in the starter role that he had held since 2011. He mystified opposing batters while earning a 2.92 ERA, and his 2.14 FIP suggests that the Blue Jays defense could have done him a few more favors last year.
Axford had a tale of two seasons. Opposing teams couldn’t bump his ERA over 2.00 until his 23rd relief appearance last season. He finished the season with a 4.20 ERA, which is a bit higher than you want in a reliever, but most of that can be accredited to a rough patch of appearances in July. The key to Axford’s success will be whether or not he can command the strike zone. He has kept his BB/9 below 4.0 in his successful years, and it has hovered around 6.0 in his less successful years. We will see what his feel for the strike zone looks like in Spring Training.
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Marc Rzepczynski is an enigmatic reliever. He is a proven left-handed reliever that has an impeccable ability to get the important lefty out. He stifled lefties with a 2.70 ERA against them last season. The problem is that managers haven’t been able to resist the temptation to keep him in games against right-handed batters, even if it looks like he’s cruising through an inning. Last year, his ERA against righties was five whole points higher than his ERA against lefties.
Rzepczynski could be one of the league’s premier relievers against lefties, but astonishingly, managers have made him pitch to 233 more right-handed batters than left-handed batters throughout his career. Bob Melvin has the opportunity to use him the way he is supposed to be used, and he could be worth an extra win above replacement that way.
Conclusion: The front office parted ways with the relievers that couldn’t perform last year, and replaced them with four solid relievers. This, along with the healthy return of Sean Doolittle, should shift the pendulum in the A’s favor to the tune of five to seven wins.
If you assume that all of the A’s acquisitions will perform similarly to their recent seasons, the math follows that 11 wins better than last season is the conservative estimate of how the A’s will do in 2016.
It makes me optimistic, but still, I’ll only believe it when I see it.