Featuring Trevor Utley, Andrew Sanford, & Lou Kessler
By Trevor Utley
If you are a fan of sports cliches, or even if you aren't, you've heard the tried and true statement, "Defense wins championships." You can bring credence to that statement with the current hardware sitting at the facilities of the Seattle Seahawks, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Kings, and Boston Red Sox. Now I am aware some of you are already scratching your heads as to why I am talking about defense when the header picture is of a pitcher leaving the mound and not some infielder booting a ground ball. The majority of baseball talk surrounding defense involves the fielders surrounding the pitcher. I always have said though that the first line of defense in baseball is the pitcher. Just like a hot goalkeeper or shrewd secondary can atone for the sins of their compatriots, a competent starting staff and solid bullpen can mask the most error laden of defenses. However, while starting pitching has grown stronger through the 2000's, the bullpens have become progressively worse.
Constructing a bullpen is by no means an exact science. The fluctuation from year to year of pitchers moved from different roles in different cities makes it more of a crap shoot than any other roster construction in professional sports. It is no longer your grandfather's, or even your father's, baseball. The starters are lauded for going five innings and complete games are outliers on a pitcher's performance chart. A reliable bullpen is the key to a championship. Why then don't more teams do more to address their deficiencies in the late innings? It is a puzzling query with a varying array of answers, or should I say, excuses.
In my preseason baseball preview, I picked the Tigers and Dodgers to be the first and third best teams in the Majors. I had lofty expectations for both teams due to their respective lineups and prodigal starting staffs. They had both spent astronomical sums to construct said units. Pre-Opening Day, the Dodgers payroll was an ungodly $235 million while Detroit had just a shade over $162 million committed for 2014. After both of their unceremonious exits from the postseason, I bet both organizations regret not allocating more of those ridiculous bank rolls to their pens.
If you read this blog and check my Twitter feed (@TREVORutley) with any regularity, you should know the nature of my "relationship" with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Gibson's home run in the 1988 World Series was one of my earliest sports memories. Since then it has been very much a "waiting for the other shoe to drop" kind of kinship. The Dodgers have never truly bottomed out in my lifetime, but they always have a fatal flaw that they can never cover up when it matters. It always crops up at the most inopportune times and always leaves me feeling like Wile E. Coyote after he just chased the Roadrunner off of a cliff. That wart this year was the middle relief.
They had arguably one of the, if not the best, staff in the National League. Even if it was Clayton Kershaw, who had his own postseason woes that I'll address at another time, and four jabronis they would still be quite formidable. They had a tremendous closer in Kenley Jansen. He posted 44 saves and put to bed the notion that his health issues would suppress his full pitching potential. Getting from Point A to Point B though was no easy task. Kershaw imploded in a 10-9 Game One loss to St. Louis, I know that. I am not enough of a Kershaw apologist to not be able to admit that the Cardinals have his number and then some. I am enough of one to say that when a massive hemorrhage starts you don't put a children's band-aid on it. Even with the best pitcher in the world, you have to pull him when he gives up hits to five of the first six batters of an inning, right? You just have to do it. Don Mattingly didn't. He sat in the dugout and let a 6-2 lead evaporate into thin air because he couldn't trust anybody to come in and be a tourniquet instead of a Sponge Bob bandage. Pedro Baez came in after Kershaw exited and promptly issued a walk and gave up a three run home run ending the game in just seven pitches. Would Clayton have stayed in for as long as he did in Games 1 or 4 if the bullpen could be trusted? I say no.
The sad thing is, outside of bringing in Jansen in the seventh inning, Baez was the best option at their disposal. And the even sadder thing is that the majority of these guys will be back in the Dodger bullpen in 2015. It has proven many times throughout recent history that taking players who closed for other teams and putting them into the middle innings rarely works. Just ask the 2007 Red Sox and their fans about their heart rate spike when Eric Gagne would come in for the end of the sixth inning. They at least got a title. For all the spending the Dodgers have done in the past two seasons, Ned Colletti's inability to assemble a working bullpen instead of a gaggle of former closers will be his ultimate undoing for a team that has had raised prospects. He won't be the only person taking the heat for neglecting the seventh and eighth innings.
Dave Dombrowski drew praise from everybody, including myself, for his work as general manager this year. Turning Prince Fielder's albatross contract into Ian Kinsler and acquiring David Price at the deadline for thirty cents on the dollar were both tremendous moves. It was a classic case of all style and no substance though. The bullpen's big moves in the offseason were Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan. On the surface, those looked to be good moves. They would turn out to be quite the opposite. I can't pile all the blame on Dombrowski for the Tigers' failings like I could on Colletti in Los Angeles. A great deal of the blame for the bullpen blunders of the AL Central Champions can be attributed to first year manager Brad Ausmus.
Ausmus anointed Joe Nathan "the guy" at the start of the season and never wavered from that decision. As closers around baseball lost their jobs due to futility, Nathan continued to blow saves and give Tigers fans liver damage in the ones he converted. When the Tigers acquired Joakim Soria from Texas, I thought he would give the Tigers a nice second option in the ninth inning. Soria could challenge for the closer's role as he showed his capability as Nathan's replacement in the Lone Star State. Instead, Ausmus utilized the former closer as a seventh inning guy and predictably it didn't work. The trade deadline came and went and though they picked up Price, there were no worthwhile additions to a sieve-like pen. They paid for it dearly in a sweep in the ALDS at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles.
Could these two teams have done more? Of course they could. Andrew Miller was had by Baltimore for a Double-A pitcher with a near 5.00 ERA at the time of his trade. That player, Eduardo Rodriguez, was Baltimore's third rated prospect. So many more non-closers were available, such as Joaquin Benoit, or every member of the Philadelphia Phillies, that would not even need a "haul" like that to make a deal. I guess Detroit thought the pitcher formerly known as Jim Johnson was a better option.
Like I said before, there is no consistent formula to assembling a pen. The thing that kills me year to year is the loyalty shown to players not carrying their weight. If you look at a team like the St. Louis Cardinals, they have zero tolerance when it comes to their relief arms. I can bet you if Trevor Rosenthal would have blown Game One against Los Angeles, Mike Matheny would have thought twice about bringing him in to protect the lead again in the NLDS. Fernando Salas was given a short leash in 2011 and when he began to slip up, Jason Motte was reinstated as closer. Joe Nathan and Joba Chamberlain's jobs in Detroit were never in jeopardy despite their constant torpedoing of leads.
The four teams left in the playoffs all have good bullpens. They also have managers that will not hesitate to make drastic changes if need be to secure themselves passage to the World Series. The two non-Missouri teams, San Francisco and Baltimore, have already uprooted their closers during the regular season and have juggled roles until they stuck. Brad Ausmus's ship caught fire and he just let it burn. Donnie Baseball's went up in flames but his GM only gave him faulty, expired fire extinguishers. The four teams left are there because they had the foresight to make a plan if the heat started to rise. While a tiny grease blaze took out arguably the top two teams in the sport, it is going to take a five alarm special to take out the Royals, Orioles, Giants, or Cardinals. I can assure you they aren't going to just roll over and burn to death either.
Image Credit: Joba Chamberlain (mlive.com)
By Trevor Utley
On April 14th, 2001, the band Thursday released their second album, Full Collapse. It is one of the if not the most popular album produced by the group. Then-label Victory Records registered the domain fullcollapse.com to serve as the band's official website that same year. The site is no longer in operation but it should be. It should be operated by the Oakland Athletics. This piece will recap what can only now amount to a lost season for the A's through the tracks of the album.
The thirty-six second introductory track to the album has only nineteen words, which is more than was said about the Oakland Athletics this offseason. To be honest, they probably liked it that way. For a team that had a major motion picture made about their organization, the A's like being off the radar. While their American League compatriots New York, Texas, and Seattle splashed cash all over the free agent field, Oakland played their usual game of Moneyball in their acquisitions. Trades netted Oakland a brand new back end of their bullpen in Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson, and Drew Pomeranz. Low risk, high reward signings Scott Kazmir and Eric O'Flaherty also entered the fold. Top-15 MVP finishers Josh Donaldson and Coco Crisp were returning on club friendly arbitration figures and club options respectively. Oddsmakers had the Athletics at 20-1 odds to win the World Series, a figure commensurate with the Reds or Pirates. I, as many others, had tempered expectations for the 2014 Athletics. Their start to 2014 made all our of our pensiveness look foolish
"Understanding In A Car Crash"
This is probably the most popular track on the album. It is still a part of Thursday's set list today and after thirteen years is a fan favorite, quite a statement for a record that got massive amounts of radio airplay as the first single released. Like the first actual "song" on Full Collapse, the Athletics' first month of play garnered them popularity and respect in the media and around baseball. They were 18-10 after April and were scoring runs at will. Sonny Gray was the American League Pitcher of the Month. They became the darlings of the Majors and overtook Detroit as the favorites to represent the American League in the World Series. I am aware that one month does not a season make, but the A's seemed to have their house in order. They didn't waste any time avoiding their own car crash in removing their most expensive player, Jim Johnson, from the closer's role when his early season woes threatened to derail Oakland's season when it was just one week old. They understood what they needed to do to keep the pole position in the race to the pennant. It seemed early on that there was nothing that could knock them off their course.
It is not to say that Oakland didn't have flaws. It was just that through the first few months they were very good at covering them up. Once Johnson was ousted as closer, Sean Doolittle became an All-Star as his replacement. The starting pitching continued to flourish, as I noted in my article on May 27th, and the lineup just kept on hitting. So I am telling you that their closer was an All-Star, their starting pitching was the best in the sport, and their lineup scored more runs than any other team in the American League; what could possibly be their flaws? The lack of a Plan B. They had the horses to win a title, but as with any sport you need to have reserves in the stable just in case. No team goes through an entire season unscathed and lack of a bench and flexible bullpen arms can doom even the most talented of teams. One would see as Oakland's horses rounded the first turn, the home stretch was a lot farther away than they realized.
"Autobiography Of A Nation"
Oakland began the summer still in first and in control. The Athletics Nation had no semblance of panic in their hearts. Why would they? The division favorite, Texas, had been bitten so many times by the injury bug that they were closer to the bottom of the American League than the apex. The Angels were nipping at their heels, but all too often were reverting to the their under-performing ways of the past couple years. Seattle had not proved themselves worthy adversaries. With the Dodgers and Giants both winning with great regularity in the NL West, talk of 1988 and 1990 World Series rematches became more and more common. I for one, was one of them. There was even a photo set done by a Bay Area studio called "Do The Oakland A's Ever Lose?" Even with all these good feelings swirling in the Bay Area, Oakland seemed uncomfortable with their role as the alpha dog. Eventually they would embrace that position.
"A Hole In The World"
Remember when I talked about a lack of depth being Oakland's paramount imperfection? Oakland wasn't unaware of it. They were just misguided as to where they were lacking said depth. On July 5th, Billy Beane traded his previous two first round picks, shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney, along with starting pitcher Dan Straily to the Cubs for starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The saying goes that you can never have too much pitching, but having an embarrassment of riches in lieu of filling other holes is always a potentially combustible strategy. The two former Cubs immediately entered the A's rotation, sending Tommy Milone (6-0, 2.92 ERA in his previous 11 starts) to Triple-A and left Drew Pomeranz, Jesse Chavez, and Brad Mills looking over their shoulders. Samardzija and Hammel were both capable, proven arms, but would the stirring of the rotation pot pay dividends? Or would the additions create unnecessary dissent and tension in the ranks of a squad that seemed to be perfectly gelled? The A's would barely have their answers before they would again ask the question.
"Cross Out The Eyes"
"Cross Out The Eyes" was the second single released from Full Collapse. The Samardzija trade was big, but the second trade that Oakland made for a front line starter was even bigger. The trade deadline brought one of the biggest available fish to the Bay, left hander Jon Lester. The A's were still in first place in the West but their stranglehold on the division was loosening. The Angels and Mariners were mounting offensives but neither team made significant moves on July 31st. The A's decided to be proactive instead of following their pursuers' inactivity. I gave the deal an A+, and Lester won his first three starts for Oakland. However, giving up Yoenis Cespedes proved to be more costly than they had envisioned. They had starting pitching to burn but their once clutch hitting began to sputter. After Lester's third start, the Athletics' full collapse began.
"Paris In Flames"
Oakland's August was only the beginning of the fire. They started off by losing two out of three to the Royals before they seemed to right the ship with series wins over the Rays and Twins. After dispatching the lowly Twinkies, Oakland would only win consecutive games one more time the rest of the month. Oddly enough, that two game winning streak would come at the hands of the team hot on their heels in the AL West, the Los Angeles Angels. On August 16th, for the first time since April 27th, the hunted became the hunters again. With the aforementioned two game toppling of the Angels paired with a win over the Astros, the A's were able to claw level. It was a place that they'd never be again. Oakland was catching fire, and not in a good way. The bad thing is their September would make them yearn for August's inferno.
"I Am The Killer"
If you were going to describe Oakland's August as arson, you would classify their September as a murder. The A's, who had once been in the driver's seat in not only their division but the entire AL, were fighting for their playoff lives. The five game deficit they faced at the start of the month doubled by September 11th. The offense that had laid waste to the competition through the season's preamble, could only muster more than five runs five times over their last twenty five encounters. They couldn't get hits in close games, or get outs in them. The starters and the bullpen were equally inept. Most teams that endured what the A's did in September, such as the 2007 Mets and 2011 Red Sox, had their playoffs hopes were executed. By some act of clemency, the governor wasn't ready to send the A's to the chair just yet.
"Standing On The Edge Of Summer"
There was just one week left in the season and the A's were still clinging to the last Wild Card spot. It was improbable because of what I just described in the previous paragraph, but there they were one game behind Kansas City. Why were they allowed to be so horrible and still have a shot at the postseason? Well, that was because the efforts of the team beneath them were an even bigger clinic in futility. Now I am aware that 10-16 is a worse record than 14-13 but Seattle's pursuit of Oakland couldn't have gone worse. They started off September swimmingly by winning five of six including two wins against the Athletics. After that though, they were 9-12. They could only manage two wins from six games from Houston. They were nearly swept by another team in free fall, Toronto, including a 10-2 trouncing with King Felix on the mound. Every time Oakland would go on a lengthy losing streak, Seattle could never seem to gain ground. Oakland were to be rewarded for being the worst second half team in baseball with a spot in the playoffs.
The Athletics would win their final game of the season 4-0 against Texas. Sonny Gray, whose struggles had coincided with Oakland's downturn, pitched a masterful complete game shutout as only one baserunner reached third base. The bottom of the order supplied the offense with runs being driven in by Josh Reddick, Jed Lowrie, and Stephen Vogt. Normally over the final dreadful month, if the heart of the lineup didn't produce, the A's stood no chance. This was an encouraging performance to show their rabid fans that they still had a bit of fight left in them. Miraculously, after a two month stretch that had slain better teams before them, Oakland was off to Kansas City for the Wild Card game. They had a chance to show everybody that they weren't collapsing, but instead lulling their opposition into a false sense of security.
"How Long Is The Night?"
The AL Wild Card game between Oakland and Kansas City was being billed as a good old fashioned pitcher's duel. Jon Lester is statistically one of the best postseason pitchers of any era. Big Game James Shields got his moniker for moments like this. The first inning was not indicative of the hype preceding the contest. The A's put up two runs in the top of the first on a two run home run by Brandon Moss. Kansas City countered by getting one of those runs back through a Billy Butler RBI single. Lester struggled with his location and in the bottom of the third Kansas City nosed ahead when Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer knocked in runs in consecutive at-bats. It was early but you could see that when Cain crossed home to make it 3-2, Oakland had that "here we go again" look about them. Then the sixth inning came. The A's were able to chase Shields, forcing in Yordano Ventura in an all hands on deck scenario. The fireballing right hander promptly gave up a three run home run to Moss, his second of the game. The dinger was followed by a single, wild pitch, and a deep fly ball that moved the runner to third. Ventura made way for Kelvin Herrera, who didn't fare much better. The sixth inning ended with five runs on the board for Oakland, a crucial momentum swing, and arguably the stingiest playoffs starting pitcher of the 2000s with a four run cushion. There was no way they could blow this right?
That is the funny thing about a team in free fall though, you never quite know when they've hit rock bottom. But when they do, everybody and their mother knows. Since he regained the lead, Lester had allowed just a fluke bunt single in the two subsequent innings. He would have no such success in the eighth. The trade deadline rental could only record one out before hitting the showers. Luke Gregerson would enter the game with men on first and second. Two pitches later there were men on first and third and another run for Kansas City. Gregerson would allow another run via a wild pitch but would make it across his tightrope inning with strikeouts of Salvador Perez and Omar Infante to put a tourniquet on Oakland's bloodletting. I wish that was the end.
After Greg Holland walked over hot coals to get the Royals out of trouble (that he caused) in the top of the ninth, Sean Doolittle was called on to send Oakland to Los Angeles and a chance to get a measure of revenge. The Angels had embarrassed Oakland with the lead they were able to put on them in the division. Three short outs and Oakland could get their comeuppance. Kansas City had other plans. They used their speed, like they had all year, to their advantage in their staving off of elimination. Josh Willingham led off with a pinch hit single off the A's All-Star door shutter. Jarrod Dyson pinch ran for him and was expertly sacrificed to second base by Alcides Escobar. He would then steal third. Nori Aoki hit a sacrifice fly to bring the Royals level. Lorenzo Cain lined out and we were off to extras. The worst pain was yet to come.
There was nothing doing for the first two extra frames. The 12th inning came about and it looked like the first team to make either a mistake or a bold move were going to reap the rewards. Oakland looked to be in the reaping mood when they sent up Alberto Callaspo as a pinch hitter. He lined a single to left off Jason Frasor, the Royals' seventh pitcher of the evening, and the A's were back in front. Normally, a run in the top of an inning in extras is just as good as one in the bottom. The game is normally over. The Oakland Athletics 2014 season was anything but normal. Dan Otero came on for his second inning of work to try to shut the door on Kansas City. Otero has been a Bay Area lifer as a professional, only playing for San Francisco and Oakland in his short career thus far. He was 8-2 this season out of the A's pen and did not allow a run in 5 2/3 innings last October. You should know how this story ends by now. Otero gave up a triple to Eric Hosmer and a Christian Colon single that made it 7-7. Fernando Abad would replace Otero for one out before Jason Hammel, beyond a disappointment in Oakland, placed the final nail in the Athletic coffin. THE FULL COLLAPSE HAD BEEN COMPLETED.
"I1100" was an underwhelming end to Full Collapse. The end to the Oakland Athletics' season was even more depressing. A team that did everything "right" had everything end up so "wrong." The backlash on the A's front office, one that had been lauded for years, forced Billy Beane to defend the Jon Lester trade over the past couple days. Yes, one of the most highly regarded GM's had to defend trading for an ACE. That is what a collapse will do to even the sanest of fans. What happened to Oakland this year will never happen again. I am not saying that there will never be another collapse in baseball, that is naive. I am just saying that nobody will take their fans to the top and to the bottom in both the regular season AND playoffs, ever again.
For some reason, if you saw Full Collapse and thought this was going to be an article about Thursday, I apologize. But since you've made it this far, I might as well put the album here for you to reminisce to. Cheers!
Image Credit: Full Collapse (wikipedia.org)
Video Credit: Full Collapse Full Album (lubylu312/Youtube.com)