Given the 162-game grind of the regular MLB season, it doesn’t take much to see why it’s conventional baseball wisdom that a deep bullpen is needed to go deep into the playoffs — and it’s there that the Oakland Athletics are arguably concerned with most as they look to lock up another AL West title in the final week of the season.
Make no mistake here: this A’s team is one of the most formidable going down the stretch, at 8-2 over their last 10 thanks to a revitalized offense and timely surges from folks like Bartolo Colon. Once they lock up a playoff spot for good, they will more than likely streak into the postseason as equals to the preseason favorite Detroit Tigers.
If Bob Melvin and co. were going to be beaten anywhere, however … it might just be in the late innings.
In some ways, the performance of the team’s league-leading starting rotation (2.59 ERA through 114.2 IP in September) has done the A’s a disservice in masking the shortcomings of the bullpen’s 19th-ranked 3.92 ERA through 57.1 innings this month. The relievers’ collective 1.61 WHIP (27th-ranked) suggests that the ERA may already be generous, however, and their 28th ranked .281 BAA sure isn’t what you’d call relief.
But the man who might just be able to hold it all together? Sean Doolittle.
It might seem a little strange to say that the team’s bullpen would be relying on anything except their closer — supposedly the best reliever — to turn things around, but the fact is that someone needs to get the ball to the ninth inning without giving up too much damage and adding extra pressure; besides, with a 4.50/1.50 ERA/WHIP and .269 BAA in his six September outings, Grant Balfour is arguably part of the problem.
Yet, the ninth inning will be his because of his success in the past, though with one of his setup men Ryan Cook struggling mightily (8.44/3.00 ERA/WHIP, .448 BAA over 5.1 innings in nine appearances), Doolittle’s performance this month has been the catalyst that’s keeping the late innings in A’s games from being a danger to the cardiac health of Oakland fans.
It’s not that he hasn’t went through his own ups and downs (his ERA in June and August were 6.57 and 6.75 respectively), but with nine out of his 10 appearances being scoreless and five of them being flawless, a return to his dominant couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the A’s.
Let’s just put it this way: as a whole, the Athletics bullpen has a 13th ranked 0.6 fWAR in September. Doolittle and his 0.90/0.50 ERA/WHIP through 10 IP are worth 0.7 wins above replacement this month alone.
Yes, that is to say that without the contributions of the left-hander, the A’s relievers would be a below replacement level bunch, doing the team’s aspirations more harm than good. Relievers and bullpen numbers tend to be streaky because they work in small sample sizes, but assuming that things don’t turn around right away (and there’s not much time to) for the playoffs, you can imagine how much more important Doolittle and become.
Could he become more than just a setup man in the postseason if he remains the hottest hand? Well, he did already poach a pair of saves this month from Balfour …