One of the least attractive, overlooked duties in baseball is the setup man to the setup man — the guy who pitches the 7th inning. The casual baseball fan probably doesn’t realize this role exists, and not every team has a pitcher they’d like to save for the 7th inning with the lead. To do so requires having a dominant closer and a shutdown setup man first, something the Athletics currently have. Having defined roles and the weapons to execute them for the 7th, 8th, and 9th inning can give a team a huge advantage.
First, it takes a lot of pressure off of the team’s starting pitchers. If a team’s backend of the bullpen is unreliable, there is a lot of pressure on the starting pitcher to pitch 7, 8, or even 9 innings. However, if the backend of the bullpen can be trusted, the starter can relax a little bit and just try to get through 6 or 7 effective innings minimum.
Secondly, it puts a lot of pressure on the opposing team to try to get a lead early in the game so they don’t have to attempt to rally against a bullpen’s elite backend.
From the second half of the 2012 campaign up until the end of last season, the Athletics had a dynamite 7th-9th inning trio featuring Sean Doolittle, setup man Ryan Cook, and closer Grant Balfour. If the opposing team didn’t grab the lead before the 7th inning, often times the Athletics won the game. However, ever since Jim Johnson was removed from the closer role 11 days into this season, the A’s haven’t had a clear cut 7th inning man. As Luke Gregerson and Doolittle have settled into their roles of setup man and closer, respectively, manager Bob Melvin has seemed to play the matchups in the 7th inning, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Dan Otero has also gotten a few looks in the 7th inning. However, now that Cook is finding his groove this year, I believe Melvin needs to anoint him the 7th inning man.
Cook has flown under the proverbial radar this year. He began the season on the disabled list, struggled some after being activated in April, then again was sent to the DL in May after straining his pitching forearm. Cook returned in early June and has quietly been returning to his old dominant self ever since. He has not given up a run since June 22 at Boston, a scoreless streak of 18 innings. Last night, Cook was given the 7th inning in a 3-0 game and was flawless. He needed only 5 pitches (all of them strikes) to mow down the top of the Rays’ order.
Furthermore, I believe Cook would be best utilized in the 7th inning because of his difficulties in stranding runners. According to Baseball-Refernce, for pitchers who inherited at least 25 base runners in 2013, Cook was the second-worst reliever in terms of percentage of inherited runners that scored at 50%. I have always felt that Cook is much more effective when starting an inning rather than coming in to mop up someone else’s mess.
As the regular season winds to a close, the Athletics bullpen is becoming increasingly more dominant and living up to its preseason expectations. With the dominant rotation the A’s employ and a stellar bullpen, Melvin needs to tab Cook as his 7th inning horse to complete the backend trifecta. A year ago it would have been difficult for A’s fans to imagine a more effective trio than Doolittle-Cook-Balfour, but I believe Cook-Gregerson-Doolittle would be just that.