OAKLAND — Oakland Athletics catcher Jonathan Lucroy spent seven and a half of last eight seasons in the National League. Four times, in that span, he faced Jeurys Familia, then the New York Mets closer. His line: 0-for-4 with one strikeout.
The last time Lucroy faced Familia was on June 9, 2016. He saw five straight pitches of 95 mph or faster, and then watched an 86 mph slider at the top of the zone for strike three. That’s not even his best pitch.
“I just know from facing him, he’s got a really good sinker, high-velocity sinkerballer,” Lucroy said on Saturday, after the A’s officially announced the trade-deadline acquisition of Familia from the Mets. “Good slider. Closer-type, so he’s pretty dominant, in my experience, from facing him, so I’m sure he’s going to fit in good here, and give us an even stronger back end of the bullpen.”
After Lucroy signed with the A’s on March 12, he had been dissatisfied with his framing numbers at the bottom of the zone, so he worked with bullpen coach Marcus Jensen to rediscover what made him so strong down in the zone earlier in his career. So far, it’s paid off, as Lurcoy has helped shepherd first-year closer Blake Treinen and rookie set-up man Lou Trivino into arguably the best one-two bullpen punch in the major leagues.
Treinen’s sinker has the second-highest whiff percentage in the big leagues among relievers (30.10 percent). Trivino’s whiff percentage is 16.4 on his sinker. Fifty-two percent of Trivino’s 95 batted balls have been on the ground. Of batted balls against him, 44.1 percent have been topped.
Familia’s sinker ranks 13th among big league relievers in whiff percentage (20.12 percent), and while Treinen’s sinker is second among relievers in velocity, Familia’s is fourth.
The better a framer Lucroy is, the more called strikes the trio will get, and the more tempted hitters will be to swing, and either miss or pound it into the ground.
“Any time you have somebody who can stick a pitch at the bottom of the zone, I think it helps you because for sinkerballers and guys who work down, with stuff that moves down, it’s huge, because you’re trying to steal that strike,” Treinen said last month. “When he’s able to grab those for us, it really helps.”
The three righties are now expected to combine to form a veritable late-inning sinkerballing Voltron. All three throw 96-plus, and all three throw heavy sinking fastballs along with deceptive offspeed stuff. So far this season, thanks to Treinen (24 saves) and Trivino (7-1 with 12 holds), the A’s have a bullpen ERA of 3.52 — eighth in the majors, and fifth in the American League. Two of the teams ahead of them are divisional opponents Houston (2.74) and Texas (3.50).
“It’s as good as any one I’ve had,” Melvin said of the bullpen. “You have to go out there and perform, obviously, but the way everybody’s performed this year, including [Familia] in New York, it would suggest that we have a pretty good bullpen, one of the better ones in the league.”
The relief corps is one of the main reasons the A’s, despite the lowest payroll in baseball, are just four games out of a playoff spot.
“The numbers are out there: 38-0 [when leading] after the seventh, and all of these close games,” said general manager David Forst. “When you have a young team, that scores runs, to be able to lock down that many games is so good for their morale. It’s hard to articulate how important that’s been to the way these guys have played. Blake, Lou and at times [Yusmeiro] Petit and [Ryan] Buchter and [Emilio] Pagan, all those guys have pitched great. It’s been huge.”
It’s not exactly clear where Familia will fit just yet, but it’s almost certain that he, Treinen and Trivino will take care of the seventh, eighth and ninth in some combination. Melvin said that he won’t address that until he gets a chance to speak with Familia personally.
“I’ll tell you, for already having a good bullpen, to be able to bring in an arm like this, man, it’s pretty significant,” “Melvin said. “We’ll figure out how we’re going to go with it. I’ll certainly talk to him before I say how this is going to be deployed, as far as what innings for who. This is a real significant pickup for us, and you can’t ask for much more.”
In total, current Astros, Angels, Mariners and Rangers are 14-for-49 against Familia (.286). For comparison, AL West hitters have 155 at-bats current closer Blake Treinen, who has spent the last three years in the NL East, where Familia has spent the last seven seasons. Of the final 62 games after this weekend’s Bay Bridge Series, the A’s play 35 against AL West teams, so not only are the A’s bringing in a plus-plus late-inning arm; they’re bringing in one that the division hasn’t seen with any regularity.
“Any time you can add in a weapon of his caliber in your arsenal, it’s going to help you out,” Lucroy said. “It’s going to shorten our game for us. It’s going to be really hard for a visiting team to come in here and have to face our seventh-, eighth-, ninth-inning relievers. It’s going to make the job easier for our bullpen. It’s going to enable our lineup to be even more comfortable knowing that we have that dominant a guy in the pen that’s going to cover an inning for us.”
The A’s aren’t done. Forst said that he’d like to pursue a starting pitcher, but those are expensive both in terms of financial outlay, and in terms of prospects required for acquisition. That said, shortening the game — much as the Kansas City Royals did during their 2015 World Series run — can help save innings for starters, including Sean Manaea, who is on pace for a career-high innings load.
“We’ve already cut some guys short, whether it’s the sixth inning — we did it with Manaea — that was more last Sunday because of his workload, and we had some guys available, but it allows us to pull the plug a little early,” Melvin said. “Don’t forget about Buchter and Petit. Buchter’s as good a lefty as you’re going to find late in games, too, and it allows us to maybe use Petit in that role. Cuts the starter short, and then we go from there after that.”
Daniel Gossett (elbow) is playing catch out to 90 feet, and Paul Blackburn (right elbow lateral epicondylitis) hasn’t thrown since being sent to the disabled list. Andrew Triggs is playing catch in Arizona, but not close to getting off a mound yet, Melvin said.
Kendall Graveman (right forearm strain), the A’s Opening Day starter, has had a setback.
“He’s going to get a second opinion,” Melvin said. “He’s not throwing at this point, so it’s going to be a while for him. Unfortunately, that’s the position we’re in right now.”
Outfielder Matt Joyce, who had an epidural last Friday, will begin baseball activities on Monday, likely in Arizona.