After emerging as the best team in baseball over the first half, the Oakland Athletics have been free-falling throughout August and September. While much of the blame can be attributed to the A's suddenly feeble offense, Oakland's normally reliable bullpen faltered with closer Sean Doolittle on the disabled list, costing the team a few wins in the process.
Doolittle landed on the DL on August 24 with a right intercostal strain and was reinstated on September 12. During that time, the A's went 5-13 and slid out of the American League West race as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim finished 16-3.
With the A's averaging 3.57 runs per game since cleanup hitter Yoenis Cespedes was traded on July 31, the bullpen has been under extra pressure to keep opponents scoreless. The offense picked up a little bit recently with Jed Lowrie's return from the DL and a trade for slugger Adam Dunn, but Oakland still needed a reliable ninth-inning arm.
Manager Bob Melvin tried to implement a closer-by-committee like he did after Jim Johnson was removed from the role in April, with left-hander Eric O'Flaherty pitching the ninth inning more often than others this time around. Luke Gregerson, Ryan Cook and Dan Otero also saw their share of high-leverage situations.
None of the replacements could hold a candle to Doolittle, though. O'Flaherty's ERA jumped a full run in five appearances as the A's pseudo-closer. Cook cost Oakland a game against the Houston Astros in his last outing by walking three men in the ninth inning while recording just one out.
Gregerson, arguably the team's most consistent reliever throughout the year, squandered seven scoreless innings by Jeff Samardzija on September 10 by allowing two runs in the eighth. Otero was the only one of the four who pitched well in Doolittle's absence, but he lacks the electric stuff of a true closer and is better suited as a middle or long reliever.
Doolittle, for his part, has been one of the best closers in the game this year when healthy. The converted first baseman earned his first career All-Star nod despite serving as a setup man until late May.
In an age in which lefty relievers are often assigned to be matchup specialists, Doolittle is one of five active southpaw closers, along with the Cincinnati Reds' Aroldis Chapman, the Minnesota Twins' Glen Perkins, the Baltimore Orioles' Zach Britton and the Tampa Bay Rays' Jake McGee.
Doolittle has held right-handed hitters to a .188/.218/.301 batting line this season. That's great in and of itself, but pales in comparison to his insane .114/.116/.165 line against lefties.
He's been especially dominant at home, with a 0.56 ERA in 32.1 innings this year at O.co Coliseum, and he's only gotten better as the year's gone on. Hitters have yet to score off him in 13.2 innings since the second half began.
Having Doolittle back will help the A's avoid ninth-inning meltdowns like Cook's wild outing against the Astros, if only because he has a stupid 16.6 K/BB ratio. 16.6! That's 83 strikeouts against five walks and a big factor in his MLB-best 0.68 WHIP.
In Doolittle's first appearance back last Saturday, he slammed the door in the 10th inning against the Seattle Mariners to keep the Athletics' wild-card lead intact. With the A's wild-card lead a slim 1.5 games over the Kansas City Royals and 2.5 games over the Mariners, having Doo available to close out games could be the difference between October baseball and golf in Oakland.
Doolittle's return won't cure Oakland's offensive woes, make Derek Norris and Stephen Vogt healthy again or magically erase the Angels' 10-game division lead. But he'll be a stabilizing force at the back of the bullpen, and should help the A's avoid coughing up late-game leads.