The Oakland Athletics’ best closing option in 2015 would be using a combination of Sean Doolittle, Tyler Clippard and Dan Otero depending on circumstance. Let me preface this article by categorically assuming Doolittle will be the sole closer come April. But my concept is interesting to dissect and could actually be more beneficial for Oakland.
Sorry, Ryan Cook, that inconsistent 2014 showing leaves you out of the mix. There’s still an important late-inning role for the right-hander available, though.
Regarding this three-headed closer idea, allow me to familiarize any reader with my view of the modern closer title. It’s overrated. It stringently confines a potential gem into a single inning with absolutely no wiggle room. My concept was covered in detail in a piece concerning why Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller shouldn’t close for the New York Yankees. For Oakland, the same applies.
Doolittle is a fastball-reliant lefty who dominates with first pitch strikes. Clippard is a funky righty with four pitches equally capable of inducing soft pop ups or strikeouts. Otero, meanwhile, is a highly underrated right-hander who causes weak groundouts and paltry groundball singles. This trio could collectively lock games by giving the A’s the perfect matchups in the late-innings.
They present three different looks and approaches–bullpen diversification. Doolittle has been a setup man and a closer. He recorded 26 holds in a 2013 setup role then 22 saves in 2014’s somewhat limited closing opportunities with the Jim Johnson nightmare and a DL stint. The identical situation applies in the case of Clippard–40 holds in 2014, 32 saves when closing in 2012. Finally, Otero logged 86 2/3 innings in 2014 and can be realistically used in any frame.
One could sensibly argue simply giving each pitcher an inning from the seventh on. Here’s my issue with that: strict roles leave out matchup favorability and largely fail with an unwillingness to adapt to circumstance. Take a look at Doolittle’s 2014 splits: Lefties hit .117 against him, righties hit .192. Clippard’s 2014 splits go as follows: .237 against lefties, .126 dealing with righties.
While Doolittle owned righties, Clippard owned them more, far more. Doolittle also surrendered 29 hits and five home runs to righties, Clippard only allowed 15 hits and two home runs to them. In a similar innings total against this side of the plate, 39.2 for Doolittle, 35 for Clippard, the A’s new right-hander was better in essentially every aspect.
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This leads to a key point within this concept. If three righties are due to bat in the ninth inning, who in their right mind would select Doolittle over Clippard? The former Washington Nationals’ reliever is statistically more likely to succeed in this spot. He’s also blessed with durability and has closed in the past. If lefties are due up, Doolittle’s the clear pick as he edges in the lefty category equal to how Clippard edges posed against righties.
The counterargument can already be anticipated. Who pitches the eighth prior to this decision? Wouldn’t varying roles psychologically harm relievers and remove their comfort? Aren’t Doolittle and Clippard good enough to eat a full frame no matter what? This would be left for Oakland’s manager Bob Melvin to control. Who pitched two days in a row, who is super rested. It’s called flexibility based on matchups and situations. Adaptation.
This is about using the best possible pitcher for the given setting. Melvin’s gut will be a major factor, but there’s no shame in using the higher logic reliever instead of the hurler fans expect to see every ninth inning. There’s also nothing wrong with using that ninth inning favorite during a pivotal seventh. This idea praises Doolittle and Clippard. It shouts for each to be handed a versatile, innovative position.
Now let’s reintroduce Mr. Otero into the mix. His 2014 splits reveal a 56.4% ground ball rate. Doolittle’s number was just 23% and Clippard’s was 36.9%. Say Clippard pitched the eighth, Doolittle’s pitching on his second straight day and is struggling in the ninth. Runners on first and second, no outs. Leave Doolittle in to go beast mode and rack up three strikeouts or throw Otero forward to attempt inducing a double play?
Too hypothetical, sure. But understand that Otero’s the least likely ninth inning candidate out of the three. He might also be used in the fifth or sixth that given game. The point is that he’s an inning-eating, groundball maniac who is undoubtedly more likely to induce a double play in a crucial circumstance than his counterparts. His primary ninth inning duty would be to appear when available if that ground ball is needed. Otero could even start a clean ninth to chop down a powerful lineup core with his trademark sinker.
This crosses over into a continued point. Clippard has given up between five and 11 home runs over the last four years. Otero allowed none in 2013’s 39 2/3 inning showing and just four in last year’s 86 2/3 frames. When facing a Miguel Cabrera, Jose Abreu or Albert Pujols type in a one-run game, yes, Clippard is more likely to tally a strikeout, but he’s also more likely to allow a home run. This decision can be dictated by trends and reasonable measurements.
As mentioned earlier, Doolittle will almost surely close throughout the entire 2015 season barring injury. He’s only scheduled to make $780,000 next year with one of the most team-friendly contracts in baseball. He’ll also be around for the long haul when Clippard exits via free agency.
If the objective is to win, though, and do so at a high level, there’s a case to be made for using a combination of Doolittle, Clippard or Otero late in contests depending on circumstance. Each pitcher has unique strengths. To summarize, Doolittle owns lefties, Clippard owns righties and Otero causes ground balls against everyone.
With a crucial game featuring two straight or three out of four upcoming lefties in the seventh, why can’t Doolittle be used? What’s the point of saving him for the ninth if pitchers like Eric O’Flaherty and Cook blow it in the seventh? Granted, Oakland’s lesser relievers have to log heavy totals to survive the grueling 162-game run, but the idea is that my concept should at least be available.
It sounds juicy. It’s backed statistically. And no, this wouldn’t be the textbook dreaded closer-by-committee. That’s a term for weak bullpens lacking sufficiently nasty late-game horses. No one thrives toward the end of games so every mediocre member receives a closing opportunity.
Don’t confuse that with Oakland’s case. This would be a new age concept personified, one that maximizes its reliever talent pool by playing to concrete facts and understood strengths. Believe it or not, there’s a strong chance it would make Oakland win more games in 2015.