Wild Card Preview: Battle of the Bullpens

With Jon Lester and James Shields squaring off in the Wild Card game on Tuesday, it is possible that neither the Oakland A’s nor the Kansas City Royals will need to make a call to the bullpen. However, chances are greater that both teams will look to their bullpens at some point in the game. How do the two teams’ bullpens stack-up?

It’s rare that teams reach the post-season with bad bullpens and the Oakland A’s and Kansas City Royals are certainly not exceptions to that rule. Both teams boasted above-average bullpens in 2014. The A’s bullpen featured a collection of solid relievers, while the Royals counted on a trio of shutdown relievers at the back-end of their bullpen. We take a look at how the two teams’ bullpens stack-up below:

Oakland A’s

Starting August 1st through the end of the season, the Oakland A’s went 22-33, a slide that nearly cost them a trip to the post-season. Although the A’s were one of the worst teams in baseball during that stretch, they weren’t being blown out by their competition. In fact 15 of those 33 losses came by one run (six of those wins were by one run, as well). (h/t to @BillyFiesta on Twitter).

American League Wild Card
A's vs. Royals
When: September 30 at 5:07pm PT
Where: Kaufmann Stadium

Teams that are on the wrong end of one-run losses often have bad bullpens. Some of the A’s most memorable losses during the final two months of the season came in games when the bullpen blew a late lead. However, despite the blown leads and the one-run losses, the A’s bullpen actually had a lower ERA as a group during the second half of the season (2.75 in the second half; 3.00 in the first). For the season as a whole, the A’s bullpen posted a 2.91 ERA and a 3.25 K:BB in 467 innings. They allowed 41 homeruns and had a 1.07 WHIP.

Some of the decrease in ERA in the second half corresponds to the A’s release of right-hander Jim Johnson, who began the year as the A’s closer but was by far the team’s least reliable reliever. He was the only reliever to post an ERA above 4.00 among those A’s relievers to throw at least 15 innings (Johnson’s ERA was 7.14). As a group, A’s relievers posted almost identical peripheral numbers during the first and second halves. The A’s margins for error were so much smaller during the second half because of their offensive struggles that whatever mistakes A’s relievers made were magnified.

A’s relievers did pitch worse in save situations this season than in non-save opportunities. In 38 such situations, A’s relievers posted a 3.94 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP. In non-save situations, A’s relievers struck-out fewer batters, but they posted a 2.61 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP.

The A’s bullpen threw significantly fewer innings during the second half of the season than they did during the first, a trend that directly coincides with the A’s addition of starters Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. If Lester is on his game on Tuesday, the A’s won’t have to dip far into their bullpen, but given the importance of the win-or-go-home game, A’s manager Bob Melvin won’t be afraid to micro-manage match-ups late in the game.

The A’s bullpen will likely have some additional faces on Tuesday in the form of starters on the roster but not scheduled to pitch. Hammel and Drew Pomeranz are both starters with significant experience as relievers and both should be available on Tuesday. Samardzija also has significant big league experience as a reliever, but it isn’t clear if he will be on the Wild Card roster given that he threw seven innings on Saturday. Scott Kazmir has been a starter throughout his career, but he could still be used in a situation where the A’s were looking for a strike-out. He did struggle in two starts versus KC this season, so Kazmir probably won’t be a top option out of the bullpen for this game.

Closer Sean Doolittle sets the tone for the A’s bullpen, something that was very evident while he was on the disabled list in late August and early September. Doolittle had a historically good season for the A’s, striking out 89 and walking only eight in 62.2 innings. He had an ERA+ of 137 and a FIP of 1.71 (his ERA was 2.73). Doolittle faced the Royals once in 2014 and he allowed a hit and a stolen base in one scoreless inning. He struck-out one. That was his only career appearance versus the Royals. Doolittle has had an up-and-down history in the post-season. He has pitched in seven post-season games over the past two years (all against Detroit, of course), and Doolittle has allowed five runs in seven innings, although only three were earned. He struck-out 11 and walked two, but his WHIP was an uncharacteristic 1.42.

With the exception of right-handed set-up man Ryan Cook, the A’s bullpen mirrors their closer in terms of stinginess with bases-on-balls. Among the A’s regular relievers, only Cook has a walk-rate above 2.5 per nine innings (his is 4.0). As a unit, the A’s bullpen had a 3.25 K:BB and they struck-out more than a batter an inning.

According to San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser, left-hander Eric O’Flaherty has been battling a sore left elbow, which kept him out of games the past eight days. O’Flaherty threw a live bullpen session on Monday. If he isn’t available, the A’s will still have plenty of left-handers in the bullpen with Doolittle, Fernando Abad, Pomeranz and possibly Kazmir.

In addition to Doolittle, Dan Otero, Jesse Chavez, Abad, O’Flaherty, Luke Gregerson and Cook all made appearances against the Royals this season. Of that group, only Cook allowed any earned runs (three in 3.1 innings). Otero worked the most relief innings against the Royals, scattering five hits over five scoreless frames. A’s relievers walked just four Royals in 14 total innings.

Kansas City Royals

The Royals’ bullpen may not be quite as deep as the A’s, but Kansas City boasts arguably the most talented trio of back-end relievers in the game today. With James Shields on the mound as a starter, Kansas City isn’t likely to have to dip beyond set-up men Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera and closer Greg Holland in Tuesday’s game.

Previewing the Scheduled Starters

As a unit, the Royals’ bullpen posted a 3.27 ERA in 2014. They had a 2.61 K:BB and combined to save 53 games. In save situations, the Royals’ bullpen was especially tough, posting a 1.49 ERA and a 4.45 K:BB.

Right-hander Greg Holland recorded 46 of those 53 saves. He was so good this season that he remained the closer in a year when set-up man Davis had one of the best seasons for any reliever in recent MLB history. Holland struck-out 90 and walked 20 in 62.1 innings. He allowed just three homeruns and posted a 1.44 ERA. Batters collected just 37 hits off of him.

Holland’s two set-up men – Herrera and Davis – were equally good, if not better. Davis posted a 1.00 ERA and went nearly three months of the season without giving up an earned run. He struck-out 109 and walked 23 in 72 innings and he didn’t allow a homerun. Herrera had a 1.41 ERA. He didn’t strike-out as many batters (59 in 70 innings), but he was dominant nonetheless. All three right-handers throw extremely hard and are aggressive in the strike-zone.

The trio of Holland, Davis and Herrera dominated the A’s this season. They combined to toss eight shutout innings, striking out 14 and walking three. Aaron Crow threw a scoreless inning, and Francisely Bueno, Jason Frasor and Scott Downs each had scoreless appearances. For the A’s to have a chance on Tuesday, they will likely need to be leading before Kansas City gets to the Holland-Davis-Herrera portion of their bullpen.

If the A’s get to Shields early, the right-hander Crow is likely to be the first man out of the Royals’ bullpen. The former number one overall pick had a 4.12 ERA in 59 innings this season. Downs, a southpaw, was acquired mid-season to be the Royals’ weapon versus left-handed hitters and he had a 3.14 ERA in 14.1 innings for Kansas City after the trade. Left-handers hit just .225 against him this season. The Royals may try to use Downs against his former White Sox’s teammate Adam Dunn, who is 0-for-4 with a walk and four strike-outs against Downs in his career. Frasor had a 1.53 ERA in 17.2 innings with Kansas City after being traded from Texas. The longtime Blue Jays’ right-hander has had a lot of success in his career against hitters on the current A’s roster.

Starter Yordano Ventura threw on Sunday and isn’t likely to be available out of the bullpen, but Kansas City’s other three starters – Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas and Danny Duffy – could be available.

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