A's Bullpen A Big Relief

In 2009, if the Oakland A's had the lead when they made the call to the bullpen, they almost always found themselves in the win column. Despite not featuring marquee names, the A's bullpen was an elite group last season. We take a closer look at the A's relief corps inside...

The Oakland A's may not have had a winning team in 2009, but their bullpen was championship-caliber. Led by American League Rookie of the Year closer Andrew Bailey, the A's bullpen was tops in the AL in ERA with a 3.54 mark. A's relievers led the AL in strikeouts (514 in 559.1 innings), innings pitched, OPS against (668) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.65). Oakland relievers also blew the fewest number of saves (12) and allowed the fewest number of homeruns (42) despite pitching the most number of innings.

What is even more remarkable is that the A's bullpen managed to put up these numbers despite not having any marquee names. Nineteen pitchers threw relief innings for Oakland in 2009 and only one (Russ Springer) had more than five years of major league experience.

"As far as numbers go, strikeouts are probably the first thing we look at [when evaluating relievers], followed by walk rate – we've really tried to emphasize finding relievers that can come in and throw strikes consistently," A's Director of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi.

"We also do look at groundball numbers – that ratio doesn't always translate to the major league level, but is generally an indicator of good stuff."

Going into last spring, Joey Devine and Brad Ziegler were expected to handle the bulk of the closing duties. However, Devine went down in spring training with an elbow injury and Ziegler was felled early in the regular season by a bad case of the flu. While Ziegler eventually recovered and was an integral part of the success of the A's 2009 bullpen, Devine was lost for the season.

Before the start of the spring, the A's anticipated having Devine and Ziegler in the closer role, free agent acquisition Springer and A's veteran Santiago Casilla in a seventh/eighth inning role, Jerry Blevins in the lefty specialist role and low-profile acquisition Michael Wuertz in a middle-innings role. By early May, much of this plan had gone awry. Devine was out for the year, Ziegler was struggling with the flu, and Blevins was struggling, period, and had been sent back to the minor leagues. Casilla had a strong April, but he would fall apart in May (9.39 ERA) and by the second half of the season, he was no longer pitching high-leverage innings.

Despite the unraveling of the "master plan," as it were, the A's still managed to put together the AL's best bullpen on the fly. Bailey, who began the spring as a relatively unknown non-roster invitee, went from pitching in low-pressure situations to being the team's closer by mid-May. He would wind-up being an AL All-Star and the league's Rookie of the Year, posting a 1.84 ERA and an 0.88 WHIP.

Wuertz, who was acquired by the A's from the Chicago Cubs for two minor leaguers (Richie Robnett and Justin Sellers) who were traded away by Chicago before mid-season, became one of the AL's top set-up men. He led all AL relievers in strikeouts with 102 and posted a 2.63 ERA. The A's addressed the lefty specialist role in mid-May by combing the waiver wire and picking up Craig Breslow from the Minnesota Twins. Breslow would go on to appear in 60 games for the A's and he had a 2.60 ERA.

The A's continued to plug holes in their bullpen throughout the season. Springer was traded in July and his innings were picked up by rookie Jeff Gray, who had a 3.76 ERA in 24 appearances (note: Gray was traded this off-season to the Cubs). During the season's final month, Oakland found success using September call-ups. Blevins spent all of June through August in Triple-A, but he was outstanding after being called up to Oakland in September, posting a 2.30 ERA in 15.2 innings. Brad Kilby made his major league debut in September and he ended up being one of the A's top relievers the rest of the year, allowing only one run in 15 innings. John Meloan, another waiver-wire acquisition, joined the team in mid-September and he didn't allow a run in six appearances (8.1 innings), while top prospect Henry Rodriguez made his much anticipated debut in late September and he allowed only a run in four innings of work.

"You get a little energy with the young guys. They tell you where they are going to pitch. The Andrew Bailey story, that doesn't happen very often. That's kind of atypical to do that. The same thing with Brad Ziegler the year before. Those are nice, nice stories. When they happen, you are just thankful that they can do that," A's bullpen coach Ron Romanick said.

"Those guys kind of fed off of each other and you earn your innings. [A's manager] Bob [Geren] does a very good job of letting guys show what they can do."

The A's have had a knack for building successful bullpens for a number of years. The team actually posted a better bullpen ERA in 2008 (3.50), good for second in the American League, and in 2006, the AL West Division-winning A's led the American League in saves and were third in the AL in ERA.

While the A's 2009, 2008 and 2006 bullpens have success in common, they were all built with significantly different personnel. As the cost of signing relievers on the free agent market has risen, the A's have managed to find top relievers on the cheap.

"We really try to use a balance of scouting reports and stats when evaluating relievers. Obviously we look for guys with plus velocity, but I think the bigger issue is finding relievers with a 'weapon,' or plus pitch, which isn't always their fastball – an example being Wuertz's slider," Zaidi said.

"When evaluating relievers' minor league track records, we don't just look at their numbers, we look for a scouting explanation for their success. We probably place a little more emphasis on identifying those ‘weapons' rather than just stopping at the numbers than we did a few years ago."

The A's will be returning the core of their league-leading 2009 bullpen in 2010, but there is still a lot of healthy competition this spring to determine who will fill out the bullpen. In addition to September call-ups Blevins, Kilby, Meloan and Rodriguez, minor league free agent signings Marcus McBeth, Jason Jennings and Fernando Hernandez and prospect Sam Demel are all in the mix for spots in the A's Opening Day bullpen.

"Each year the personality [of the bullpen] is a little different than the year before. I'm looking forward to seeing how things mix out. We have some guys who are coming from the minor leagues and from other organizations who will influence that," Romanick said.

"You try to minimize the injuries and if everyone is a little salty fighting for innings, that is a good thing. I don't want guys to be complacent. I want guys to be competitive in a fun-spirited way and push each other. It is a competitive game and I want somebody who is mad if they are not pitching, in the right way. I want them competitive, but at the same time pulling for each other, and last year, that's what they did. They were a very good group.

Anything can happen. Andrew Bailey wasn't even on the radar last year. It took a zero ERA and some injuries for him to make the club, but he did. So he sets the precedent for the next guy that it can be done. You want to promote that so guys come up hungry and you address what they can do and what they can't do and you make sure that they get it done if they don't get that opportunity right away. I am always selling that. You've got to do what your talent will allow you to achieve up here and don't take shortcuts down there so that when you get up here you have to learn something and it's really hard. You don't want to learn a lesson that way."

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