Vaunted bullpen trio lets A’s down in loss to Tigers

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Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour combined to pitch nine scoreless innings, allowing just three hits in the process, in the series sweep of the Rangers last week. In today’s Game 2 loss to the Tigers, the trio gave up four runs — two earned — and six hits in 2 2/3 innings of work.

What was a 2-1 Oakland lead when Doolittle entered to start the bottom of the seventh turned into a 5-4 loss after Don Kelly’s sac fly in the ninth.

All three relievers allowed two hits. Doolittle still would have escaped his inning clean if not for Coco Crisp’s drop of Miguel Cabrera’s fly to shallow center. It was ruled an error, so both runs Doolittle allowed were unearned. Still, he took a blown save, as did Cook after his wild pitch allowed the tying run in the eighth. Balfour suffered the loss in the ninth after entering a 4-4 game.

To see all three get negative results in the same game is simply incredible. Doolittle took a loss or a blown save just twice in 44 regular-season appearances this year. Balfour was even better, with three such appearances in 75 trips to the mound. Cook took a loss and/or a blown save seven times in 71 appearances.

Now, sure, many of those appearances came in situations in which a loss or a blown save was never in play. And most of them didn’t come against offenses as good as Detroit’s. Still, for all three to fail back-to-back-to-back, well, perhaps there is a little something different to this thing they call postseason baseball.

No one pounds the zone anymore

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“Work fast and throw strikes” has long been the top conventional wisdom for those preaching pitching success. The “work fast” part of that has increasingly gone by the wayside, however, as pitchers take more and more time to throw pitches in an effort to max out their effort and, thus, their velocity with each pitch.

Now, as Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer reports, the “throw strikes” part of it is going out of style too:

Pitchers are throwing fewer pitches inside the strike zone than ever previously recorded . . . A decade ago, more than half of all pitches ended up in the strike zone. Today, that rate has fallen below 47 percent.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Most notable among them, Lindbergh says, being pitchers’ increasing reliance on curves, sliders and splitters as primary pitches, with said pitches not being in the zone by design. Lindbergh doesn’t mention it, but I’d guess that an increased emphasis on catchers’ framing plays a role too, with teams increasingly selecting for catchers who can turn balls that are actually out of the zone into strikes. If you have one of those beasts, why bother throwing something directly over the plate?

There is an unintended downside to all of this: a lack of action. As Lindbergh notes — and as you’ve not doubt noticed while watching games — there are more walks and strikeouts, there is more weak contact from guys chasing bad pitches and, as a result, games and at bats are going longer.

As always, such insights are interesting. As is so often the case these days, however, such insights serve as an unpleasant reminder of why the on-field product is so unsatisfying in so many ways in recent years.