Dominant Bullpen Carrying the Oakland A's
The Oakland A's have won 17 of 20 games. Yes, the A's. They've soared from a couple of games below .500 to the third best record in the AL by only losing one game a week for the past three weeks. The lineup and the starting rotation have had their ups and downs (mostly ups) this season, but as Oakland surges back into contention in the AL West, it might be time to give some credit to the unit that has been the most consistent and best group on this team, the bullpen.
Overall, the A's bullpen has arguably been the best in the American League. The relievers have combined for a 2.84 ERA. They have allowed opponents an AL low .286 on base percentage thanks to a WHIP of just 1.17. The Oakland relievers haven't exactly been strikeout machines but they also rarely walk opponents, resulting in a 2.76 strikeout to walk ratio that is third best in the league.
Setting the Table
The bullpen's stellar first couple of months has truly been a collaborative effort. Of the five relievers who have thrown 20 or more innings, only Sean Doolittle has an ERA over 3.00 and he's currently sitting at a very respectable 3.08.
Doolittle and Ryan Cook first snagged national attention last year in the final series of the regular season against the Rangers and then again in the ALDS. They were the setup guys who come in and shut down an opponent in the seventh and eighth innings, and they have largely continued to do that this year. Cook is the one true strikeout guy in the pen, K'ing 28.2 percent of the players he faces. Oh yeah, he also hasn't given up a home run this year in 27.0 innings. Doolittle, meanwhile, walks only 4.0 percent of opposing batters and allowed opposing teams to hit just .196 against him.
Cook and Doolittle continue to be the most revered relievers on the team not named Grant Balfour, but as good as they've been, there is one guy who is better. Jerry Blevins (the longest tenured member of the team) has an ERA of 1.65, a walk percentage of 3.9 percent and has allowed opposing players to get on base at a clip of just .223. As a southpaw who has dominated left handed hitters for most of his career, it's a little tempting to slap Blevins with the "one out left handed pitcher" label and move on.
But the reality this season is that he has been much more than that. He's pitched more innings than anyone in the bullpen (27.1) and right handed batters are only getting on base in two of every 10 plate appearances against Blevins. That's an aberration from what we've seen most of his career, so he may be due for some regression, but as long as he can continue to handle right handed hitters as well as left handed ones, he'll be a lights out reliever.
Slamming the Door
I would be remiss if I didn't mention how dominant Grant Balfour has been. With 14 saves in 14 opportunities and an ERA of just 1.42, he's been an unsolvable riddle for opposing lineups. It's not so much that guys can't get on base against the raging Aussie (he's giving up a walk rate of 10.7 percent, which is not good). Instead, they can't do much when they get there. He's allowing a batting average of only .200 and more importantly a slugging percentage of just .333. He might make some mistakes and allow a base runner or two, but good luck getting an extra base hit to drive them home.
The A's are playing pretty well across the board, but the bullpen's role in that has been a little overlooked. They protect leads that the starters give them, and sometimes (as happened in last night's contest with the White Sox), they can stem the bleeding and give the lineup a chance to work their way back into games. In other words, they do exactly what the bullpen is supposed to do, and so far they've done it as well as anybody in the AL.