The scouting report on Oakland Athletics reliever Yusmeiro Petit does not inspire fear like the books on some of his teammates.
Blake Treinen throws a 98 mph sinker with impossible movement. Jeurys Familia offers a wipeout slider. Lou Trivino can touch 100 mph with his fastball.
Petit relies on guile. He aims to deceive. He tops out at 90 mph, and in 2011, no major league team wanted him, so he spent the season in Mexico playing for Guerreros de Oaxaca. Seven years later, Petit has been a crucial part of the A’s bullpen, ranking second among MLB relievers with 71 2/3 innings pitched. Behind a unique delivery to the plate honed over the past three years, he has a 3.14 ERA.
“He’s been a godsend for us,” manager Bob Melvin said.
Petit’s success comes after the April death of his mother, Rubia, which forced him to take a leave of absence from the team to visit his home in Venezuela. The pain from that loss hasn’t altered the way he operates in the clubhouse.
Reliever Ryan Buchter called him one of the most talkative, upbeat members of the team, and a focal point of the positive culture that’s helped fuel Oakland’s 67-47 record. The A’s bullpen has a 3.29 ERA this season, and the team has a 21-9 record in one-run games.
“He brings the boys up every day,” Buchter said. “He’s kind of the piece we rally around in the clubhouse. He’s always in the middle of everything.”
Melvin viewed Petit as an indispensable asset long before the reliever arrived in Oakland. When Melvin was the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007 and 2008, he used Petit as a starter and a bullpen arm, cherishing Petit’s low-maintenance approach to the game.
“Nowadays, most guys want to know what inning they’re coming in,” Melvin said. “But with him, and he’s always told me this … [it was], ‘When my name’s called I’ll be ready to pitch.’”
Back then, though, Petit had his blemishes. Sure, he could be called upon to work at any point in the game, but his ERA was never below 4.30 with the Diamondbacks.
It’s the changes he made midway through 2015 with the San Francisco Giants that eventually earned him a multi-year contract from the A’s.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment Petit tackled was standing on different parts of the rubber depending on the handedness of the batter. On a whim, he began shifting to the third base side of the slab against lefties, while remaining closer to first base against righties.
“That deception kind of makes the ball move at a different angle and gives the batter’s eyes a different look,” Petit explained through interpreter Juan Dorado. “A ball that they think is way outside is actually in the zone.”
That change complemented an already deceptive delivery.
Petit’s leads with his elbow when he pitches, keeping the ball cocked behind his head until his release. As a result, hitters struggle to pick up the ball until it’s almost on them. His slower-than-average fastball plays up, and his sweeping curveball prompts ugly swings.
This season, the curveball has led to swinging misses about 40 percent of the time. The pitch has less downward action than almost any other spinner in baseball, but its side-to-side movement and 13 mph difference from his fastball make it effective.
Petit said he tries to start the curveball lower in the strike zone to neutralize its lack of natural drop.
“His velocity isn’t that hard compared to other guys, but it looks hard when you’re hitting in the box,” said catcher Jonathan Lucroy. “His delivery and the way he throws the ball, it has deception, and his curveball because it’s a lot slower … gets swings and misses.”
In 2017, Petit’s new positioning along the rubber helped him record a career-best 2.76 ERA with the Los Angeles Angels. He’s looking like that pitcher again down the stretch this year, bouncing back from a rough June to post a 2.16 ERA between July and August. In his past 8 1/3 innings, he’s given up just one run.
His performance last Friday against the Detroit Tigers demonstrated his capabilities.
With Treinen and Familia pitching earlier in the game, and Melvin hoping to save Trivino for Saturday, Petit entered a scoreless contest in the 11th inning. He didn’t allow a base runner in two innings of work and struck out three, permitting the A’s to claim a walk-off win in the 13th. He’s gone more than one frame in 22 of his 54 appearances.
Petit said his background as a starter helps him keep up with a heavy workload that includes pitching multiple innings on consecutive days. He swears by a pregame cardio routine and series of arm exercises, which he believes are central to his durability.
“Stretching out the tendons, stretching out the muscles, making sure everything is in line so my arm feels as healthy as it possibly can every single day,” Petit said. “It helps me a lot.”
Why does vigilant self-care mean so much to Petit? Because he knows his limitations, and he knows how being a reliever without electric stuff shaves down the line between pitching in the major leagues and pitching in Mexico.
Despite that added pressure, and the lack of an otherworldly pitch, Petit has been a crucial part of Oakland’s bullpen dominance this season, bridging the gap between a starting rotation that doesn’t often pitch deep into games and a late-inning unit that’s virtually unhittable.
“There are very few guys who are able to do what he does,” Melvin said.