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September 20, 2012

Painting the Black

Attention Hollywood: The A's Bullpen Is Pretty Interesting

by R.J. Anderson

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Dear Self,

I write from the year 2012, 10 years ahead of your time. Much has changed about the world, as expected, but one thing should remain familiar to you: the Oakland Athletics are a good ballclub. They seem destined to make the postseason, and their bullpen leads the American League in ERA. If you think that’s incredible, just wait until you see who they’re winning with. I’ll let you find out for yourself, but let’s just say Billy Beane still has it. Now, about the purpose of this message: Only you can save our beloved planet. The first thing I need from you is…


- A letter from an Athletics fan to his past self. Probably.


Oakland’s rotation took another hit on Wednesday night, as Brett Anderson left his start with an apparent oblique injury. Anderson’s injury comes on the heels of Brandon McCarthy’s season-ending brain surgery and Bartolo Colon’s regular season-ending suspension. The A’s are dependent on young starting pitching. Preventing abuse of those young arms means relying even more on the bullpen. This is typically a bad thing, and true, it could spell the end of the A’s Cinderella run. All season long, the A’s bullpen has been there to pick up the slack when asked. They are, if not the driving force, at least a large reason as to why the A’s have won 59 percent of their one-run games.

This group of A’s relievers may remind some Oakland loyalists of the Moneyball Athletics, who employed Billy Koch, Chad Bradford, and Jim Mecir. The quartet of Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook, Jerry Blevins, and Sean Doolittle has stories worth knowing, even if they have not appeared on the silver screen—yet.

Grant Balfour
Season stats: 67 G, 19 SV, 65 2/3 IP, 2.88 ERA, 2.11 SO/BB

Pre-2012 career stats: 323 G, 10 SV, 335 2/3 IP, 3.57 ERA, 2.43 SO/BB

How the A’s acquired him: Via free-agent signing (winter 2010)

Why his story is worth knowing: Balfour is the Athletics’ closer. He leads the team with 19 saves, and therefore is the de facto face of the bullpen.

His story: Australian-born, Balfour’s big-league career is a rarity within itself. Earlier this season, he broke Graeme Lloyd’s Aussie record for most career saves. Balfour’s path to the ninth inning involved a few detours. He missed nearly the entire 2005 and 2006 seasons recovering from elbow and shoulder surgeries. Balfour’s original team, the Twins, decided to move on after the 2006 season, leaving him to latch on with the Reds. Soon thereafter, Balfour landed in Milwaukee via waiver claim. In July, 2007, the Brewers traded Balfour to the then-Devil Rays for a similar pitcher, Seth McClung. Balfour’s story from thereon is easy to recall, but it’s worth remember that the Rays exposed the Aussie to waivers the following spring. No one bit, Balfour reported to the minors, and eventually rejoined the Rays en route to one of the finest relief seasons in club history.

Ryan Cook
Season stats: 62 G, 62 2/3 IP, 2.44 ERA, 2.48 SO/BB

Pre-2012 career stats: 12 G, 7 2/3 IP, 7.04 ERA, 0.88 SO/BB

How the A’s acquired him: Via the Trevor Cahill trade (winter 2011)

Why his story is worth knowing: Cook might be the A’s best right-handed reliever.

His story: Cook spent three seasons in the University of Southern California’s rotation. He posted ERAs of 5.97, 5.06, and 5.11. The Diamondbacks took him in the 27th-round anyhow, and he spent the next two seasons as a middling minor-league starter. Then Arizona converted Cook into a reliever. His stuff played up in short spurts; his fastball gained a few more ticks than anticipated, and his weaknesses were no longer exposed. Even after the A’s acquired him, nobody expected this from Cook. Baseball America ranked Cook as the 18th-best prospect in Oakland’s system, behind fellow reliever Andrew Carignan. Kevin Goldstein wrote Cook’s slider was “solid” but that he needed to improve “in order for him to have above-average major-league value.” Cook started this season with 21-straight scoreless appearances.

Jerry Blevins
Season stats: 55 G, 58 1/3 IP, 2.47 ERA, 2.38 SO/BB

Pre-2012 career stats: 151 G, 141 2/3 IP, 3.75 ERA, 2.51 SO/BB

How the A’s acquired him: Via the Jason Kendall trade (summer 2007)

Why his story is worth knowing: He’s been the best lefty-on-lefty reliever in the pen.

His story: The Cubs drafted Blevins in the 17th-round in 2004 out of Dayton University. No other pitcher taken in the round, collegiate or otherwise, reached the majors. Blevins is a career reliever, making his success a little more improbable. He’s not used like your typical LOOGY. In fact, he’s faced about 60 percent right-handers for his career, and about 50 percent this year. Former A’s reliever Andrew Bailey once said about Blevins: “In the bullpen, he likes to speak his mind a little bit and talk to fans, and give them crap back, and it’s pretty funny to watch that out there.” The question was whether Blevins was an Ohio kind of guy.

Sean Doolittle
Season stats:  35 G, 37 2/3 IP, 3.35 ERA, 6.38 SO/BB

Pre-2012 career stats:  1 G, 1 IP, 9.00 ERA, 2.00 SO/BB (minors)

How the A’s acquired him: Via the draft (first round, 2007)

Why his story is worth knowing: He was a prospect a few years ago—as a hitter.

His story: Doolittle played first base as recently as 2009. Injuries and stalled progression led to his position change. He pitched in a game for the first time at the end of last season, and threw 25 more innings in the minors in 2012 before his promotion. Our own Sam Miller wrote in ESPN the Magazine about Doolittle’s conversion. When Miller asked Doolittle about the breaking pitch he used to complete a strikeout, Doolittle said, "It started as a slider, but it's starting to look more like a curveball." He continued, "I don't know when that happened. It could look totally different in two weeks. I'm not sure what I was doing to make it look like that." Doolittle has the A’s best reliever strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Those four are just the main cogs. The A’s have other underdog relievers making the most of their opportunities, too. Jim Miller has two player comments in the past five Baseball Prospectus annuals; he also has a 2.08 ERA in 39 innings. Jordan Norberto has overcome bad hairstyle decisions on his scalp and face in order to post a 2.77 ERA in 52 innings. Pat Neshek used to be popular with the Twins, and he’s back to being dominant with the A’s after a few lost seasons. Travis Blackley, another Australian that battled injuries, has given the A’s productive innings out of the rotation and the bullpen.

If you like rooting for a good story in the postseason, then consider the A’s. Not only do they have enough good stories to fill up a bullpen, but those guys could be the key to Oakland making the postseason. 

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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