With Fiers and Kelley, A’s prep for AL West arms race

Through 113 games, the A’s bullpen boasts a 3.31 ERA, fourth-best in baseball.

That figure includes some big numbers, like Ryan Dull‘s 5.89, Danny Coulombe‘s 4.56 and Chris Hatcher‘s 4.24. Fact is, when Oakland can get the ball to the back end of its bullpen, it is as tough to beat as anyone — which explains the A’s league-leading 46-0 record when leading after seven innings, and 21-9 record in one-run games, also a league-best.

Looking to further deepen their already nearly profound pockets, the A’s headed into late-July’s trade season in search of more arms for both the rotation and bullpen. While it was unable to reach a deal at the deadline, despite reportedly having several in the works, the Oakland front office splashed the trade waters in August making a pair of waiver trades.

For manager Bob Melvin, the additions of Mike Fiers and Shawn Kelley not only strengthens the A’s pitching staff, they reinvigorate the drive of a club already driven by the prospects of the franchise’s first visit to October in four years:

“It changes any clubhouse. … To make two more savvy moves after the deadline, it just picks the group up. Anytime you have a chance to get better after the deadline, which is difficult to do, it’s going to resonate with the players for sure.”

Fiers is in the midst of his best season since an abbreviated 2014.

In 21 games with the lowly Detroit Tigers, fresh off an 0-3 trip to the Oakland Coliseum, the 33-year-old right-hander is 7-6 — owning about 15 percent of the Tigers 47 wins this year — with a 3.48 ERA and 1.235 WHIP. Kelley, on the other hand, has backed up the worst season of his 10-year career with what could be considered pedestrian when placed alongside his numbers from 2015-16.

Still, the 34-year-old righty is 1-0 with a 3.34 ERA and 0.959 WHIP in 35 games. And, in a fashion similar to the rest of the A’s late-inning relievers, Kelley brings a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 6.4-to-1. Closer Blake Treinen, who in many respects has been the best reliever in the American League this season, currently carries a 4.2-to-1 ratio, by comparison.

Said Melvin:

“Kelley lengthens the bullpen even further — I don’t know that I’ve had this many quality arms in a bullpen ever since I’ve been managing.”

Before adding Jeurys Familia July 21, the A’s bragged a potent one-two punch in Treinen and rookie setup man Lou Trivino. After acquiring the 2016 All-Star, a team that had already largely turned a nine-inning game into seven innings could now shorten it to six.

With Kelley added to a stable that still includes left-hander Ryan Buchter and righties Yusmeiro Petit and Emilio Pagán, the A’s may have enough potency to shorten their games to an improbable five innings.

Melvin said it is a luxury to have yet another bullpen arm of Kelley’s caliber:

“If you look at the dynamic of the bullpen, (he fits) kinda in the Petit-, Pagan-type of roll; we’re lucky to have guys like that.”

And adding another arm in hopes of further shortening the game could be important. Oakland starters average less than 5-1/2 innings per start in 2018, sixth-fewest in the AL.

That’s where the addition of Fiers helps most. He is in position to best his career averages in almost every meaningful category while also averaging nearly six innings per start. Fiers has reached the six-inning mark in 10 of his 21 starts this year, including six of his last seven — stunted only by his last start, when he was removed after being hit in the shin with a comebacker.

Fiers, who made his final media appearance as a member of the Tigers while wearing an A’s logo in tape over his Tigers hat, said Tuesday that the shin is fine. Melvin said his new toy will get the nod Wednesday:

“He’s a gritty guy, he’s a tough guy out there on the mound, and real deceptive within his delivery. (He’s) able to elevate with the fastball and has a good curveball he can throw off of that; he’s able to pitch up and down as well as in and out.”

Fiers has had a knack for working deep in Detroit, and Melvin spoke to him upon his arrival about how things work in Oakland, including the skipper’s affinity for pulling the starter early. His response, Melvin said, was one of full support:

“It’s always nice to have a couple guys that you feel like can get you deep in games, but with the length of our bullpen — you look at the numbers third to fourth time around — we’ve been pretty good about bringing our guys in from the bullpen.”

Melvin has developed a liking for the early hook, but said it’s something he will feel out on a day-to-day basis, especially with a run of 20 games in 20 days on the horizon. And that, he said, has been another key factor in the moves made by the A’s front office: they have added talented depth to the Oakland pitching staff, and they beefed up that staff at the most opportune times.

And with their new assortment of pitching weapons, the A’s embark on the final 51 games of the season in with a two-game lead for the second Wild Card spot and just three games back for the first. Not only that, Oakland is within striking distance of the AL West title, just five games back of the reigning champion Houston Astros, who lead all of baseball, in overall ERA (3.02), starter ERA (3.00) and bullpen ERA (3.05).

With a few “savvy” trades, though, the A’s are now in position to pitch with the champs in hopes of chasing them down.


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s sports director and Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.