The future may have arrived for the Oakland A’s bullpen last week. On May 3, Bobby Wahl made his major-league debut in the sixth inning for the A’s in a game against the Minnesota Twins. Wahl’s debut was forgettable – he recorded only one out and was charged with a run – but it has been followed by two scoreless appearances. While Wahl is likely to handle a middle relief role for the A’s for now, he could be the anchor of future Oakland bullpens.
“We’ve always seen him with closer kind of potential,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said before the A’s game on Wednesday. “Right now, with [Santiago] Casilla down there, he’s [closing] for us, but when you are looking into the future two, three, four years down the road, that’s always what we have envisioned for him. He could be that type of guy.”
One year ago, Wahl’s big league future wasn’t as clear. The right-hander missed half of the 2015 season with a forearm injury that required surgery. Wahl had been with Double-A Midland at the time of the injury, but he was sent back to High-A Stockton to start the 2016 campaign.
A year before his big league debut, Wahl was re-establishing himself in Double-A. On May 4, 2016, Wahl threw two scoreless innings for the RockHounds to lower his Texas League ERA from 9.00 to 6.43. That outing began a stretch that put Wahl on the path to the big leagues. From May 4 until he was promoted to Triple-A on August 5, Wahl allowed only five earned runs in 35.2 innings (1.34 ERA). He continued to pitch well in Triple-A, allowing only one run over his first nine innings with the Nashville Sounds. In his final outing of the year, Wahl finally hit a speed bump, allowing two runs in two-thirds of an inning. He was sidelined for the final week of the season with a calf injury. For the year, Wahl posted a 2.65 ERA in 54.1 innings. He struck-out 65, walked 28 and converted 14 of 15 save opportunities.
Wahl’s strong 2016 earned him a spot on the A’s 40-man roster this off-season and put him in position for his big league call-up. After missing significant parts of the 2014 and 2015 seasons with injuries, Wahl says staying healthy was the biggest key to his standout 2016 season.
“It was pretty much my first full season where I have been healthy for most of it,” Wahl said on Wednesday. “Having that full year last year was awesome. I was really able to get into a groove just being able to throw every day.”
As a member of the A’s 40-man roster, Wahl was invited to big league spring training for the first time in his career. He says the time he spent in the A’s major league clubhouse this spring was invaluable when he was called up last week.
“I took in so much from big league camp. It wasn’t that I learned about baseball, but I learned a lot about coming in every day and being in a big league clubhouse,” Wahl said. “I think that has been the biggest learning experience is to see how everyone goes to work and their routines. Especially here, we have such a veteran bullpen so I look to those guys and pay attention to how they go about their day. Just to have those guys in the bullpen with the veteran presence we have, I’m really fortunate to be in the position that I am in.”
Melvin says Wahl made some finishing touches to his overall game in the past year.
“I think what has made him a little bit better is his confidence in his breaking ball. He also used to be a little slow to the plate, now he’s quicker to the plate,” Melvin said. “Those are some of the things that at the big league level you need to develop. He’s done that. He had the surgery that set him back a little, but at this point, it’s his time right now and he’s taking advantage of it.”
Wahl says that over the past year, he has learned a lot about pitch sequencing.
“I think it is a combination of things, but mainly it’s knowing when to use my fastball, knowing when to use my breaking ball and knowing when to mix in my change-ups,” Wahl said. “I think that has been a good learning thing for me. It’s not about going out there and thinking ‘okay, I need to throw my fastball and my breaking ball and my change-up’ but having a purpose behind why I am throwing each pitch and setting up one pitch to throw another. Learning that from the veteran guys, even the guys in Triple-A, it’s been pretty helpful.”
Wahl’s major-league debut came in the sixth inning of the A’s 7-4 loss to the Minnesota Twins. The outing included a little bit of everything: Wahl caught a bunt back to the pitcher, allowed two hits and hit a batter. He was charged with a run. Wahl rebounded in his next outing, however, working an 11-pitch, 1-2-3 inning against the Detroit Tigers during which he struck-out Victor Martinez and Justin Upton. Wahl admits nerves played a part in his shaky first outing and that getting a strong appearance under his belt did a lot for his confidence.
“At first, especially during my debut, it was one of those surreal moments, but since then, it feels normal again,” Wahl said. “It feels like baseball. The plate is 60 feet, 6 inches away and I’m going to go out there and we’ll see what happens. But definitely after that first one, it feels a lot more normal. I was really happy to get that one clean inning where nobody is on base and you can be nice and relaxed. It was good to get one of those out of the way and to prove to myself that ‘yeah, I can do this.’ I think that was huge.”
Wahl followed that outing with a two-inning scoreless appearance against Detroit during which he struck-out two – including Miguel Cabrera. In his three outings, Wahl’s fastball has averaged 95 and topped out at 97, according to Fangraphs. Melvin says Wahl has earned a spot as an option in tight games.
“I have confidence in him. When we use him will just depend on the bullpen composition that day,” Melvin said. “[On Tuesday], if we were ahead in the later innings, he was going to have one of those later innings, probably the seventh. Based on his last two times out, he’d put himself in that position for that role. We do have some guys ahead of him. He had a little bit of a rough time that first outing, but he was really good in the next two outings. He even gave us two innings and went through the middle of the order twice against the Tigers. That lends for some confidence for him going forward. This is a guy who we always thought had a bright future with us.”
Wahl began his career as a starter, but he has relished the opportunity to pitch at the end of games.
“I love closing. It’s so much fun. That spike in adrenaline you get in the ninth inning is great,” Wahl said. “I was a starter in college and a little bit in the pros, but then I had some injuries and going into the bullpen allowed me to save innings and once I made the move, I found that I really liked it. It’s been great how it has worked out.”
Wahl is part of a group of prospects that have moved through the A’s system together and are starting to make an impact on the organization at the big league level. Currently, Wahl is one of three members of the A’s 2013 draft class on the current Oakland roster (Chad Pinder and Ryon Healy being the other two). Wahl has also played at several levels with 2012 A’s draft picks Ryan Dull and Bruce Maxwell, who were in the Oakland clubhouse when Wahl arrived last week.
“It made it a lot easier to make the transition,” Wahl said of having so many familiar faces on the A’s roster. “Playing with all of these guys that I came up with has been great. It’s a lot of fun. When we got drafted, it seemed so far away, but now that we are here and are able to play in the big leagues together, it’s a great feeling. To come up with those guys has been really cool.”
Wahl also knew A’s starter Kendall Graveman, who was his teammate, along with Healy, in the Cape Cod League in 2011. Wahl squared off against Graveman several times in college when he was at Mississippi and Graveman was at Mississippi State.
“It’s pretty funny because baseball is such a tight-knit community that at some point you have probably played with somebody,” Wahl said. “Playing against Kendall when he was at Mississippi State, it was fun to be playing with him now.”
Wahl has had plenty of familiar faces in the stands early in his big league career, as well.
“My dad flew in from London and my mom and my brother flew in from Virginia and my cousin and his wife and their seven-week-old daughter and my wife came in for my debut,” Wahl said. “I also had a longtime coach fly in for the Tigers series. He’s been my coach since I was in eighth grade, and he was itching to come out and see me throw. We had a good time. Just to have the support system that I have, I have been really blessed in my life.”