What a relief! A’s could use bullpen differently than other teams

Jim Johnson isn't the only Oakland reliever capable of closing.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The natural question, now that Jim Johnson has thrown five consecutive scoreless innings, is whether the $10 million reliever soon will return to the closer’s role.

Well, what if the Athletics refuse to entertain the notion?

What if they take a wrecking ball to traditional bullpen roles and use their best relievers in the highest-leverage situations, regardless of inning?

If ever there was a general manager who would be willing to defy baseball’s conventional wisdom, it’s Billy Beane.

And if ever there was a team deep enough in dominant relievers to attempt an unorthodox but potentially optimal usage pattern, it’™s the A’s.

I’m not saying it’s going to happen. I’m not saying it should happen. I’m just saying that it wouldn’t surprise me if the A’s declined to re-establish Johnson as their closer, alternating him with other relievers in the role instead.

Right-hander Luke Gregerson and lefty Sean Doolittle already have earned saves in place of Johnson. Righty Ryan Cook also is capable of pitching in late-inning situations, and righty Dan Otero might be, too.

Johnson, meanwhile, has proved capable of working multiple innings, twice producing scoreless two-inning stints since being removed as the closer, averaging 95 mph in each. The latter of those came in the final two innings of an 11-inning victory over the Angels on Tuesday night, when the A’s had no other reliever available.

"Pretty impressive," manager Bob Melvin told reporters.

Frankly, the whole team is.

The Athletics, at 10-5, own the best record in the American League. Their rotation ranks first in ERA even without righty Jarrod Parker, who is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and righty A.J. Griffin, who is recovering from a flexor muscle strain in his elbow. Their bullpen ranks second, and that’s with Johnson allowing seven of the group’s 16 earned runs.

As good as they are, the A’s easily could ask: Why should we pigeonhole ourselves? Why should Johnson or anyone else solely pitch the ninth? Most teams need multiple closers to get through a season, anyway. Heck, eight other clubs already have swapped out their original choice because of injury or ineffectiveness, and it’s only mid-April.

To be sure, devotees of Bill James would rejoice if the A’s abandoned the standard middle reliever/setup man/closer setup in favor of a less structured approach. Managers, though, generally prefer order in their bullpens. And relievers generally prefer defined roles.

The Red Sox under former GM Theo Epstein tried to create a bullpen of shared responsibility in 2003, but the experiment failed in part because the team lacked dominant relievers. (Byung-Hyun Kim led the club with 16 saves, followed by Brandon Lyon with nine and Chad Fox with three.)

To be sure, a one-inning closer who pitches mostly in save situations is not conducive to an optimal bullpen. On the other hand, the creation of an entirely new usage pattern would require not just a strong manager, but also strong-minded relievers.

Melvin might very well be that kind of manager. Gregerson, Doolittle and Johnson might very well be those kinds of relievers. Still, the concept works better in a vacuum. And teams don’t play in a vacuum, not in an age of multi-million-dollar relievers who crave predictability and managers who face immediate 140-character second-guessing after every blown save.

Would the competitive advantage gained from a non-traditional bullpen be worth the potential disruption to so many in uniform? That is a question that not even the most gifted sabermetrician could answer, unless he or she could get inside the head of every reliever and every manager. It would be easy if they all were robots. But they’re not.

Managers get second-guessed plenty as it is — by fans, by reporters and yes, by their GMs. If I were a manager, I’d strive to be less rigid with my bullpen than most. But that’s easy for me to say as I sit here musing at my laptop. It’s a lot more difficult sitting in a dugout, making heat-of-the-moment decisions.

Even free thinkers such as Joe Maddon seem to prefer traditional bullpen management; the Rays invent new closers almost every season, but they do not try to reinvent the role. The Athletics, to this point, have operated in similar fashion. And if they returned to a typical setup — say, Otero and lefty Fernando Abad in the sixth; Doolittle, Gregerson and Cook in the seventh and eighth; Johnson in the ninth — they almost certainly would be quite good (assuming, of course, that Johnson was pitching well enough to reclaim his job).

Indeed, the debate might be more fun in theory than meaningful in reality; Epstein once told Baseball Prospectus that optimal bullpen usage would create only a "small" competitive edge. The Athletics, to be sure, are in a commanding position no matter which approach they take. All of their relievers — even the long man, lefty Drew Pomeranz — are quite good.

Which, of course, could end up being the Athletics’ rationale for trying to pick the best reliever for every high-leverage situation: We’ve got so many great options. We can’t make bad decisions. If the whole thing became too difficult, they could always revive the old, familiar plan.

They’ve got a GM who loves to challenge the status quo. They’ve got a bullpen that can be manipulated to maximum advantage.

Look out, traditional roles. That wrecking ball could be coming.