It’s free agency season, which means one thing: A’s fans across the globe make sacrifices to their deity of choice to make sure players don’t leave the A’s and that the front office makes some good signings. While the future of players like Liam Hendriks and Marcus Semien are not guaranteed, the A’s have made two under the radar signings that I think, compared with prior moves the team has made, indicate the direction of their pitching philosophy. This is important because if we know their philosophy, we can predict what kind of moves the A’s will make in free agency.
The first signing the A’s made this off-season that caught my eye was that of Matt Blackham, a former Mets farmhand. Despite not being on any top prospects lists, the 27-year-old has a unique skill set that I think could make him a valuable reliever at the major league level. In seasons where he has had at least 20 innings pitched, Blackham has never had a K% below 30%, and in his minor league career, he has a HR/FB rate of 5.6% and a HR/9 of 0.78. He also has the ability to go multiple innings and has experience as a starter at the professional level, starting six games in Low-A ball for the Mets and posting a 2.05 FIP in his 30.2 innings. As a reliever, he has averaged 1.2 innings an appearance. The ability to go more than one inning has increased value in a game where bullpens throw more innings than ever.
The one mark against Blackham has been his walk rate. Since his debut in Double-A, Blackham has had a BB% of 13.2% in the upper levels of the minors. But with his microscopic home run rate and high strikeouts, those walks haven’t come around to hurt him, as his career ERA and FIP of 2.38 and 2.34 respectively are stellar. He has an invite to Spring Training, and starting 2021 with the big league club is a very likely possibility.
In a very similar vein to Blackham is Argenis Angulo, a former Cleveland prospect. Another high strikeout, high walk, low home run reliever who can go multiple innings, Angulo quickly rose through the lower levels in the minors, making his AAA debut in 2016 after making his professional debut in the same year. Since then, he has posted a K% of 29%, a BB% of 13.4%, a HR/9 of 0.98, and a HR/FB rate of 10.6%. Just like Blackham, he can go multiple innings, averaging 1.1 innings in his appearances. You know I love me some relievers who can go more than one inning.
Angulo poses more risk than Blackham, a byproduct of his lower K% and higher home run rate, but he has still been very effective in his professional career. His very good ERA and FIP of 3.57 and 3.12 respectively reflect that. Again, just like Blackham, do not be surprised if Angulo starts the 2021 season in the majors. He, like Blackham, has an invitation to Spring Training.
The Pitching Philosophy
Now, despite what you may think, I am not that dumb. I know that 2 data points are not enough to draw a conclusion. But my hypothesis on the A’s shift in pitching philosophy goes beyond the signings of both Blackham and Angulo. Prior to the 2020 season, the A’s signed both Burch Smith and Jordan Weems. I already wrote about Jordan Weems and his skillset, but Smith is another pitcher that fits the “high K, high BB, low HR” mold. In his 113.2 innings split between AAA and the majors in 2019, Smith gave up just 10 home runs for a HR/9 of 0.80 and a HR/FB of 8.1% while striking out 25.1% of batters and walking 12.2% of batters.
If you look at trade acquisitions, Jake Diekman (28.6 K%, 12.6 BB%, 0.55 HR/9, 8.7 HR/FB in his career) and Jeurys Familia (24.4 K%, 11.0 BB%, 0.51 HR/9, 8.2 HR/FB in his career) also fit this mold. It extends to the minors too. Wandisson Charles and Miguel Romero walked 16.2% and 11.1% of batters and struck out 35.1% and 25.0% of batters respectively in their 2019 campaigns.
The A’s have always valued the bullpen. Since 2000, they are third in bullpen fWAR, behind just the Dodgers and Yankees (Both of which have over 100 more IP than the A’s). However, historically they’ve placed an emphasis on control pitching – since the turn of the century, the A’s bullpen has the second-lowest BB%. But that emphasis may be changing. Both Yusmeiro Petit and Joakim Soria are free agents this year – two players with career BB% below 8%. They very well could be replaced by the previously mentioned Blackham and Angulo. Maybe the A’s take advantage of teams spending less this offseason and scoop up either Chaz Roe or Trevor Rosenthal, both of which have career K% above 25%, BB% above 10%, and HR/9 below 0.80.
With three of the five most-used A’s relievers in 2020 hitting the open market, including the peerless Liam Hendriks, the future of the A’s bullpen is in flux. But the A’s front office might have a plan up their sleeve to fill it. The strength of the last three A’s playoff teams has been the bullpen. The faces may change, but the results will not in 2021.