The Disaster A’s Bullpen Might Not Be a Disaster Anymore

Are you tired of reading about reliever signings yet? If you are, well then I’m sorry for this post, but at least it’s almost over. There’s only a couple good relievers left now, because they’ve seemingly all signed in the last 24 hours. The Athletics did some work on their bullpen when they acquired Liam Hendriks from Toronto for Jesse Chavez a few weeks back, and last night they did some more work by signing Ryan Madson to a three-year deal worth $22 million guaranteed.

Now, the thing about signing Ryan Madson to a three-year deal is, that’s three times as many years as he’s pitched since 2011. By the end of that 2011 season, Madson was seen as one of the best relief pitchers in the game, but then he needed Tommy John surgery, and he was seen as a hopeful comeback story. He missed 2012, of course, but experienced some setbacks in 2013 and was seen as a less-hopeful comeback story. After having not pitched in 2014, either, Madson was seen as retired.

And then suddenly, Madson was pitching in the World Series for the Kansas City Royals, and suddenly Madson could again be viewed as one of the best relief pitchers in the game, and suddenly Madson signed his name on a piece of paper that said he’d make at least $22 million dollars over the next three seasons, no matter what.

Maybe it’s a risky move. It’s definitely a risky move, but maybe it’s a risky move that doesn’t work out, too. Even the non-risky moves have a chance of not working out. Maybe you think this one is especially risky, given the 35 years of life that Madson has lived and the three years in a row of wanting to pitch but not being able to. Alternatively, you could take the stance that Madson last year proved he was finally able to get over that arm injury, and if that’s the case, what difference is missing three years to missing one year, given he’s truly over the injury? A couple years extra rest for the arm could be viewed as a good thing, if you wanted it to be.

After all, Madson couldn’t have been more similar to his previous self, which was, again, considered one of the best relievers in the game the last time we saw him, prior to this year. Consider that, during Madson’s peak years in 2010-11, his fastball sat 94, and that last year it sat 94.3. Consider that, in those previous two years, Madson struck out 27% of batters and walked 6%, and that last year, he struck out 23% of batters and walked 6%. The ERA was in the mid-2’s, and then it was in the low-2’s. The ground ball rate went up. The arsenal is, more or less, the same. Madson had previously established an elite level of performance, and this year, he simply returned to it. If you took away the years in front of the stat lines, you wouldn’t realize he took any time off at all, let alone three years.

So while the three years and tens of millions of dollars may seem risky — and they still probably are — look at Madson then, and look at Madson now. We’ve no reason to believe that a healthy Madson won’t be effective, and, for now, we’ve no reason to believe Madson is anything but healthy.

And the Madson signing is just another example of an A’s organization that seems to not need much time before buying into a player’s comeback or breakout. The A’s were the team that bought into Scott Kazmir in 2014 after just one season, and the A’s are the team that made a point of acquiring both Liam Hendriks after one good season, and Rich Hill after just four amazing starts. Part of that, surely, is a byproduct of their financial restrictions and the ever-looming necessity to find value at the cheapest cost, but perhaps the A’s have some sort of internal belief in players quickly establishing a new level, or re-establishing a previous level. Anyway, if you think the Madson deal seems over-the-top, it’s the years that surprised you, not the money. The market has been set for what good free agent relievers get paid, and Madson is simply earning along with his peers.

That’s been the Madson angle, but what about the A’s angle? They are the team that will ultimately benefit, or the opposite of benefit, from Madson’s performance or lack thereof, after all. Well, last year, the bullpen ERA was the second-worst in the majors. The bullpen FIP was the third-worst. The bullpen WPA was the first-worst, and couldn’t have imaginably been gotten any lower. And to that last point, there’s some reason for optimism, even in such a negative number. Jeff Sullivan already wrote about how the A’s were perhaps the most unlucky team we’ve seen in the BaseRuns era, due to their bullpen, and for those same reasons, why they might be in line for a rebound season.

The most simple way of looking at it is this: last year, the A’s actual record had them winning 68 games, but their projected record, according to BaseRuns, had them winning 80 games, and that’s a significant difference. Most of that difference is due to their bullpen, and from last year’s bullpen, many of the serial offenders are gone. Dan Otero, Eric O’Flaherty, Edward Mujica, Fernando Abad — all no more. In their place, well that’s where Hendriks and Madson come into play, and those guys were just as good, recently, as the bad group was bad. Sean Doolittle dealt with shoulder injuries throughout last year, and when healthy, Doolittle’s ranked among the game’s elite. Fernando Rodriguez will be back again, and he was one of the few relievers who didn’t kill the A’s last year. Evan Scribner was one of the relievers who killed the A’s last year, but he also posted one of the best K-BB%’s in baseball, and if you squint past the atrocious home run rate, you could see the potential for a relief weapon in Scribner.

What was just arguably the worst relief unit in baseball is currently projected for the sixth-highest bullpen WAR in the majors, and while I did just write about why the bullpen projections can be a bit wonky, it’s better to be near the top than the bottom, especially when you’re coming from the bottom. At the very least, the A’s seem to have improved a major weakness, and that’s all the offseason’s about, anyway.

We hoped you liked reading The Disaster A’s Bullpen Might Not Be a Disaster Anymore by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Jeff
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Jeff

The Madison and Alonso/Rzepcynski acquisitions have been so-so. While the A’s needed another quality reliever, a reunion with Cahill at 1/$5m would have been a better use of money with less risk. And Rzepcynski is a massive downgrade from Pomeranz, while Alonso isn’t enough of an improvement at 1B over Mark Canha to make the downgrade worth it.

Overall, I would have rather had Pomeranz and Cahill (and the extra ~$7 million this year) than Rzepcynski and Madison.