When they write the story of the 2015 Oakland Athletics, sports historians will start with the bullpen. The A’s inability to get outs late in games has hurt them terribly this season, as time and time again, Oakland relievers couldn’t get anybody out when they needed to in order to preserve a lead and secure a victory.
Tonight, it happened once again, this time in Los Angeles against the Dodgers. With a 6-3 lead heading into the bottom of the seventh inning, the A’s relief corps proceeded to cough up seven runs in the final two innings on the way to a meaningless 10-7 loss. It’s meaningless to Oakland, of course, as the team has thrown up the white flag on the season, but as the Dodgers fight for another National League West division title, it means a lot to them.
This type of bullpen meltdown isn’t new, of course; it’s been happening all season. The A’s relievers now have a record of 10-19 with a 4.30 ERA through 102 games on the season. When your starters have a 3.15 ERA on the year, as Oakland’s do now, you’d expect a better record than 35-38 from that bunch at the top of staff. That’s how thoroughly the relievers killed the A’s postseason hopes this season.
In the end, one has to wonder what Manager Bob Melvin has been doing, seemingly throwing the same guys out there night after night to get shellacked. It’s hard to question Melvin, a two-time Manager of the Year, especially after three straight postseason appearances with Oakland—something another manager across the Bay hasn’t even come close to accomplishing, by the way, despite double the payroll on his roster.
We don’t have the solution to Melvin’s problems; only he and his staff do, really. The biggest frustration is that the bullpen just really hasn’t improved much over the course of the season, despite all the early-season meltdowns. Those implosions are still happening, clearly. There’s often no rhyme or reason to it, either, sometimes.
Tonight, it was Fernando Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz in the seventh, followed by Dan Otero and Eric O’Flaherty in the eighth. Now, the first duo have been solid this season in relief: Rodriguez has closer potential, and Pomeranz’s conversion from starter to reliever has been positive (1.40 ERA in 21 relief appearances before tonight). Yet Rodriguez walked two men in the seventh inning, and with two outs, Melvin went to Pommy.
Ooops: The veteran lefty gave up three straight hits with two outs as the Dodgers scored five runs in the inning. Then, Melvin went to Otero, and the righty couldn’t prevent all three of Pomeranz’s base runners from scoring, although he did finally get the third out of the inning. Yet in the bottom of the eighth, the veteran who has struggled all season couldn’t get the third out and left the game with a man on. Enter lefty O’Flaherty, another 2015 exploding gas can of relief—he gave up two straight hits to allow two more runs to score and put the game out of reach permanently.
Otero is making the league minimum (or close to it, at $512,500), and his career stat lines are a joke for a late-inning reliever (9.6 hits allowed and only 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings before tonight). O’Flaherty is making a ridiculous $5.5 million this year and will be a free agent at season’s end. It would be best to just waive him now, since he has no trade value whatsoever—and all he does is hurt the ball club almost every time he takes the mound.
These two pitchers, Otero (5.85 ERA now) and O’Flaherty (5.91 ERA now), have no business being in a game like this if the A’s are still trying to win … or even if Oakland is playing for 2016. As for Rodriguez and Pomeranz, this kind of random beating has been happening to A’s relievers all season: otherwise dependable guys suddenly pitching like high schoolers. Remember the meltdown in Boston? Remember the meltdown against the Angels? It just never ends for this Oakland relief corps, does it?
Somewhere, somehow, the buck has to stop with Melvin. He’s at the head of the coaching staff, and he’s pulling the bullpen strings. Melvin hasn’t been a maestro this year at all, and some of that isn’t his fault. Yet some of it is, like tonight’s use of the “O”-No! twins. If the Dodgers don’t score those two extra runs in the bottom of the eighth, then maybe Brett Lawrie’s ninth-inning solo home run means more in a closer game. Who knows? The point is at some time Melvin had to stop expecting positive things out of pitchers who have had nothing positive to offer all year—and that time never came for the A’s. It still hasn’t, obviously.
Crazy bullpen meltdowns happen once in awhile; that’s baseball. However, when they happen all the time to the same team in the same situations, it’s no longer a coincidence—it’s a pattern of some sort. Melvin has been unable to identify or change that pattern all season, and he hasn’t gotten any help from his pitching coaches or his general manager, really, in terms of better “materials” to work with on the roster.
That’s long been the story of the 2015 Oakland A’s, in a nutshell.