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Mapping out Oakland A’s bullpen options for Wild Card Game

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The A’s are bullpenning the Wild Card Game in some form. How might that end up looking?

Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

The 2018 AL Wild Card Game is starting in a couple hours, with the Oakland A’s facing the Yankees in New York. As a fan it’s natural to feel nervous heading into any postseason game, but for the A’s faithful there might be a bit of extra anxiety based around who will be pitching. Specifically, that we don’t know who will be pitching.

Only one thing is for certain: Liam Hendriks will open the game. He did so eight times in September, and in each one he threw a scoreless 1st inning. Once he was asked to continue into the 2nd inning, but that didn’t go as well.

Hendriks, 1st inning: 8 ip, 0 runs, 6 Ks, 2 BB, 5 hits, 1 HBP

Overall in September, he allowed two runs in 13 innings (1.38 ERA, 10 Ks, 3 BB), bringing his season ERA down to 4.13 (with a 4.33 FIP). During that final month his four-seam fastball averaged 97 mph, the highest mark of his career and 3-to-4 ticks higher than we saw during his struggles in the first half of the year. He topped out at 98.5 mph.

And after Hendriks? That’s anybody’s guess.

It’s one thing to be nervous about your team’s starting pitcher, but the uncertainty might be even tougher. And that’s on top of the bold gamble of bullpenning this game in the first place — using such a relatively untested strategy in this big of a matchup isn’t going to turn anyone’s hair less gray.

In this case, I’ve at least convinced myself that bullpenning makes the most sense for the A’s current personnel. Even when the Athletics Nation community was spitballing ideas during the stretch drive, they mostly involved a starter pitching only a couple of innings, so this isn’t all that different than starting, say, Mike Fiers and then pulling him after the 3rd. The pen is clearly the strength of this staff, to such a degree that it’s reasonable to skip the starter entirely.

Furthermore, the Yankees won this very play-in game last year after getting just one out from their starter. It can be done, and in fact they only used four relievers to cover the rest of the game. One downside is that it might only take one reliever being off his game to really mess things up, but an advantage is that the Yankees hitters will possibly never see the same pitcher twice.

So, what might this look like? First, here are the options on the roster:

  • Ryan Buchter (L)
  • Jeurys Familia
  • Liam Hendriks (opener)
  • Edwin Jackson
  • Shawn Kelley
  • Emilio Pagan
  • Yusmeiro Petit
  • Fernando Rodney
  • Blake Treinen
  • Lou Trivino
  • J.B. Wendelken

There are two main ways this could go. Jackson could follow Hendriks as the long-man in the normal opener strategy that Oakland tried throughout September. Or, they could just do a full bullpen game, with a parade of short relievers coming in for an inning or two each and then Jackson in reserve in case of extras. Either way, there will hopefully be a lot of Blake Treinen somewhere toward the end — he’s the best pitcher on the team and just turned in one of the greatest seasons ever by a reliever.

Here are layouts of those two ideas. To be clear, these are nothing but my own speculation, and of course there are a hundred other ways it could go, or either of these plans could be dashed midway through by some unforeseen event (quick hook for struggling pitcher, or an injury, or whatever). UPDATE: I added a third version (C), which is a variation of the full-bullpen option (B).

Inn A B C
1 Hendriks Hendriks Hendriks
2 Jackson Trivino Trivino
3 Jackson Kelley Trivino
4 Jackson Buchter Kelley
5 Buchter Rod/Fam Rod/Buch
6 Triv/Fam Familia Familia
7 Familia Treinen Familia
8 Treinen Treinen Treinen
9 Treinen Treinen Treinen
10+ Petit/etc Jackson Jackson

Again, there are many more ways this could go. A few key points from these examples, though:

  • I’d strongly prefer to just use Hendriks for one inning, and not try to stretch him out.
  • Using Jackson for a few innings would mean using fewer arms. That gives greater selection in the late innings, and also the ability to use a quicker hook if someone doesn’t look good or walks the leadoff batter or what have you. It also means that someone like Kelley can be held for escaping a mid-inning jam, instead of inked into his own inning.
  • I would use Treinen for two innings minimum. If there’s no long-man, then I’d strongly consider using him for three to pick up some of that slack. He went three frames once this season (and two frames 10 more times), and now he hasn’t pitched in four days and only once in the last eight days. This is the guy you want on the mound as much as possible. (However, I also added a version where he only throws two in a full bullpen game.)
  • If Jackson isn’t the second man in, then I’d consider using Trivino early. They made a big point about getting him in early in his last appearance of the season so he could have extra time to warm up his recently stiff neck. He’s also been one of the more volatile arms lately, so maybe it’s best to keep him out of the late innings if possible. If he comes in early and looks sharp, then that could give a chance to keep him in for a second frame.
  • I want Buchter to throw a full inning, not just some situational LOOGY appearance for one at-bat. Anyway, there’s only one pure lefty in the Yankees starting lineup, and the couple spares on the bench aren’t guys for whom I would have moved mountains to get a platoon advantage.
  • Rodney had a terrible September, averaging about a run and a walk per inning. I’m not inking him into the late innings, but I know he’s there if I need one more setup man in a tight spot. I’d rather experiment with using Familia for two innings, and perhaps Rodney could be the contingency plan for that.
  • I’m terrified of Petit and Pagan in this homer-friendly ballpark.
  • In both plans, Wendelken is left over to fill in where needed, or else be the hero in extras.

How would you arrange the pitchers? Stay tuned to find out how it all shakes out!