NEW YORK — It took less than a season for a strategy borne of scarcity to become one used for strength.
At a media session Tuesday reserved for the Oakland Athletics’ starting pitcher in Wednesday’s AL Wild Card game at Yankee Stadium, two players appeared at the podium. Right-handers Liam Hendriks and Blake Treinen represent the front and back ends of the bullpen mix A’s manager Bob Melvin intends to ride into the ALDS: Hendriks is the opener, Treinen the closer.
Melvin did not divulge his pitching plans beyond Hendriks and said his club’s roster for the Wild Card game has not even been settled yet. He noted the distinction between a “bullpen game” — using a series of relievers in 1- and 2-inning stints — and using Hendriks as an opener before turning to a traditional starter for multiple innings, in the role the pioneering Tampa Bay Rays call “the bulk guy.” He did not commit to either strategy for Wednesday’s game. His best starter this season, Sean Manaea, endured season-ending shoulder surgery in September.
“The reason that we started looking at this is because we’ve had so many injuries in our rotation, and we’re just trying to do the best possible thing that we think for a particular day,” Melvin said. “We’re just trying to do what’s best for us…. We’re trying to figure out who goes where to benefit the strengths of our team.”
Though all 30 MLB clubs would relish the presence of an ace starter for a do-or-die situation like a Wild Card Game, recent seasons and postseasons have exposed the value of relying on a cadre of relievers over a single 200-inning workhorse. Pitchers tend to fare far better in their first and second times facing an opposing lineup in a single game than they do in their third time through the order, and employing a diverse group of arms across the course of a nine-inning contest allows managers to optimize matchups throughout.
“Obviously it’s still a new thing to us a little bit, but we’ve had enough success with it over the last month or so that we’re going to give it a whirl,” Hendriks said. “The bullpen has been throwing a lot more, and it’s just another concept of that. Instead of the starter going six and handing it over to the bullpen or going five and handing it over to the bullpen, now we’re just reversing it.”
“In today’s game, I think there’s been a struggle between old-school mentality and sabermetrics, and this is a way to kind of incorporate sabermetrics with effectiveness,” said Treinen. “We have guys in the front office that do a lot of research to put us in the best situations for success, and I think it’s our job to put some faith in them. We’ve got the arms to make this make sense.”
Using a committee of relievers to cover all nine innings — better known as “bullpenning” — has been an increasingly common strategy across the league over the past few years, especially when clubs find themselves short in the starting rotation due to injuries. But the Rays established the role of “the opener” as recently as mid-May of this year, when they tabbed longtime late-inning right-hander Sergio Romo to pitch the first innings of back-to-back games against the Angels’ righty-heaving lineup. That club’s immediate and resounding success with the strategy swiftly turned it from a quirky novelty to a viable game plan, and teams like the Dodgers, Blue Jays and Twins soon followed suit.
“It’s a game of adjustments, and that’s how it seems, whether it’s adjusting to team lineups or just how their starters and relievers match up with teams,” said Yankees outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. “In a case like Tampa, they didn’t have enough starters, so that’s kind of what started them to do that with the relievers, and then it was successful, so a couple other teams started picking it up. You don’t know where it’s going to go from here, but that’s kind of the new age we’re in right now.”
“If there’s any other team to do it, it’s the A’s,” Hendriks said, referring to the club’s long-held reputation for innovation in the sport. “We’ve been ahead of the curve on a whole lot of things, so it’s just another way that hopefully we’re ahead of the curve. We’ll see how many teams do it next year.”
Hendriks served as Oakland’s opener eight times in September alone, and threw only one inning in seven of the eight starts. Plenty of postseason teams have pulled starters early in games in the past, but Wednesday’s game likely marks the first time in MLB history a club has opened a game expecting no more than two innings out of the man on the mound.
“As far as the historical part, I don’t think we’re thinking too much about that,” Melvin said. “Maybe there is something to that if you’re a fan or you’re looking at this as the first time it’s happening in a playoff game, I believe, but we’re kind of past that right now, and we’re just kind of focused on the game.”
Despite having a league-low payroll and using a starting rotation largely comprised of retreads from the league’s scrap heap for much of the season, the A’s won 97 games in one of the sport’s most competitive divisions to earn their spot in Wednesday’s Wild Card game. Their bullpen threw 641 1/3 innings in the regular season — the third largest workload of any relief group in baseball history, trailing only a 2012 Rockies team that experimented with using a four-man starting rotation for protracted outings and this season’s unprecedented Rays group. Oakland’s bullpen finished with an excellent 3.37 collective ERA and the league’s best Win Probability Added (WPA).
“This is a must-win situation for us, and we all know that, and I think we’re all just willing to do whatever it takes to win,” Treinen said. “You can’t say going a starter for seven innings is the best way. You can’t say that going an opener is the best way. But this is what’s going to work for us, and we’re going to ride it out, and we have full faith in whoever makes the decisions. I’m excited to see what this game does because it’s kind of a first of its kind, and I think we all fully embrace that.”
The AL Wild Card game starts at 8:08 p.m. ET, with Luis Severino starting for the Yankees and Hendriks opening on the mound for Oakland, however briefly.