The Oakland Athletics have been a huge surprise in this first half of 2018. On paper they’re probably a middle of the pack team, good enough to contend but likely not good enough to make the postseason. That seems to be getting less and less true as the season progresses as they’re 15-5 in their last 20 games and they have the eighth best record in the league. Yet somehow they are currently outside of the postseason as we speak. Thanks to a stacked American League West with the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners and a stacked American League East with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, the Athletics have found themselves five games back of the second Wild Card spot. However, only Boston has a better record over the last 20 games and Seattle has ten more wins than what their Pythagorean Win-Loss says they should have, so as we move into the second half it’s not hard to see Oakland pass Seattle in standings and slip into the second Wild Card spot.
A big reason Oakland is doing as good as they are this season, at least from a pitching standpoint, is Blake Treinen. The closer currently has amassed a 2.1 WAR higher than any other Athletics pitcher, including starters. Treinen was originally drafted by Oakland in 2011 but was traded to the Washington Nationals in a three team trade back in 2013. He was dealt back to the Athletics along with two other prospects from the Nationals at last year’s trade deadline that saw Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson depart. It seems clear Treinen was the centerpiece of that deal given his accomplishments with the Nationals and it’s no surprise Oakland wanted him back.
In his two-plus seasons on the Nationals major league squad, Treinen pitched at least 50 innings each season. He scuffled a bit in 2016 and really struggled before being traded last year. Once he reached his original home in Oakland he’s been pretty stellar, holding a 1.50 ERA and 2.39 FIP in 84 innings of work while striking out 10.5 batters per nine innings. He also was 18 for 21 in save situations to round out the 2017 season.
This year though, Treinen has newfound success that puts him among the best relievers in the league, currently tied for first in ERA- and sixth in FIP- and also first in win probability added. He’s been the most dominant closer so far this season and this has been a big reason why Oakland has won as many games as they have. He’s made 38 appearances thus far, and 33 of those appearances Oakland won the game which includes the 23 saves he’s made.
Even more impressive is his average leverage index of 2.38 which is caused by 33 of his 38 appearances coming in games separated by two runs or less. His average leverage index is currently leading the league among all relievers with at least 30 innings pitched.
Treinen’s most impressive attribute besides the numbers he’s put up is the late break on his pitches. He features a four pitch mix that varies depending on which website you consult. Baseball Savant says he throws a four-seamer, two-seamer, sinker and slider. Brooks Baseball says he throws a four-seamer, sinker, slider and cutter. This is likely a distinguishing issue as Treinen regularly confuses the Statcast pitch tracking system. The chart below ranks Treinen’s pitch movement on his three most used pitches against other qualified relievers this season.
Treinen’s Movement Ranks
As you can see, Treinen’s movement doesn’t really rank all that high compared to his peers, however these GIFs tell us a totally different story. One says he has devastating late break that rivals that of any reliever.
Blake "The Witch" Treinen, Filthy 91mph Slider. ♀️ pic.twitter.com/Fu7sLAYK1P— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 12, 2018
Try spiking a ball straight into the ground at your feet.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 8, 2018
Blake Treinen's 99mph Sinker sinks faster than that. pic.twitter.com/7JPqPfP2UZ
If you search Pitching Ninja’s Twitter profile for Treinen you will see dozens of GIFs and videos of the same types of pitches and same types of swings and misses. Now, late break alone isn’t responsible for those types of swings and misses. As I’ve mentioned in past articles tunneling the pitches so that they’re indistinguishable plays a huge factor in fooling hitters. So far I have yet to see a reliever who can tunnel a fastball and a slider and two different fastballs as well as Treinen has.
He tunnels his fastball and slider very well.
He also tunnels his two different fastballs just as well.
Blake "The Witch" Treinen, 100mph Fastball and 99mph Fastball, Overlay.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 4, 2018
Yeah, they go different directions. Because he's a witch. That's why. pic.twitter.com/eevS3na3Xu
With the types of swings and misses Treinen’s getting paired with an elite tunneling ability, you would think Treinen would be leading the league in strikeouts, when, actually, his 30.1 percent strikeout rate is only 28th best among relievers, even though he has the third highest swing and miss rate in the league at 18.6 percent. Furthermore, he has the second highest out of zone swing rate and tied for 10th lowest in out of zone contact rate. Despite that, what’s hurting Treinen’s strikeout numbers the most is the fact that 57.62 percent of all pitches thrown in the strike zone are being made contact with. This is allowing hitters to put the ball in play at a rate of 17 percent although it usually doesn’t amount to a hit with his 0.096 batting average against, it still has limited his strikeout numbers more than you would tend to think.
There’s also an element of luck to Treinen’s success as his batting average on balls in play is .259 and his home run per flyable rate is 3.2 percent. So while most of Trenien’s success is due to what he himself is doing, a chunk of it is due to luck/chance. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Treinen regress even just a little bit in the second half given the high amount of balls put in the play and low hit percentage.
Right now the Athletics are on pace to contend throughout the season. If they want to remain there, they will need Treinen to keep up what he’s doing especially given how often he’s been used in close ball games. He’s become a vital part of this Athletics team that is on the cusp of a berth in the American League Wild Card. Keep on eye on him down the stretch as that is when the true test really begins.