The Oakland A’s will use an “opener” ahead of their traditional starting pitcher on Saturday, reports insider Jane Lee. In a strategy popularized by the Tampa Bay Rays this season, relief pitcher Liam Hendriks will begin the game and then give way to Daniel Mengden, who is normally a starter.
The A’s rotation has been ravaged by injuries this season, which has forced the bullpen to step up and take a leading role. Even when the starters have been effective they often haven’t pitched deep into games, as the team has been hesitant to let them face the opposing lineup a third and fourth time. Knowing that the pen will have to do some heavy lifting anyway, they’ll do some of their work at the beginning of the game rather than the middle/end.
“With the starters going down, we’re going to have to use our bullpen anyway,” said manager Bob Melvin, via John Shea of the S.F. Chronicle. “Maybe it keeps the starter off against the top part or middle part (of the lineup) one less time.”
The Rays have used this game plan extensively this season, and you can read more about it here and here and here. The opener pitches the first inning or two, allowing a powerful reliever face the top of the order for their first at-bats. Then a “bulk guy” comes in to log several innings, doing what a starter normally does but just beginning a bit later. If he gets to the infamous third time through the lineup, then he’ll theoretically do so against the weaker hitters at the bottom rather than the stars at the top. From there, if all goes well, the late-inning arms can take it the rest of the way.
Hendriks is an interesting choice for the job given that he just returned from Triple-A today, but he certainly has a resume to fall back on. He was utterly dominant in his latest stint in the minors, striking out 35 of the last 79 batters he faced (44.3%). He also has past MLB experience as a starter, for whatever that’s worth, so he has mentally experienced pitching in the 1st inning. His recent line:
Hendriks, AAA last 17 gms: 0.45 ERA, 20 ip, 35 Ks, 4 BB, 0 HR, 0.85 FIP
He dealt with an injury earlier in the season and so his ERA for the A’s is 7.36 in a small sample, but he’s earned his way into a new chance. He was throwing upper-90s in Triple-A, reports Lee.
Hendriks will begin the game by facing Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura, Robinson Cano, and Nelson Cruz. There’s no specific endpoint for when he’ll come out, but when he does it’ll be Mengden taking over. He pitched in relief on Monday after Brett Anderson’s early exit, and wound up throwing four scoreless innings against the Astros on a night when Houston plated 11 runs.
Here are three lines for Mengden — his full season (17 games), and his 2018 peak (9 starts, mid-April through end of May), and his most recent Triple-A work before being called up last week:
Mengden, 2018: 4.28 ERA, 94⅔ ip, 57 Ks, 21 BB, 15 HR, 4.74 FIP
Mengden, peak: 2.01 ERA, 58⅓ ip, 36 Ks, 6 BB, 5 HR, 3.34 FIP
Mengden, last 7 AAA: 2.63 ERA, 37⅔ ip, 26 Ks, 6 BB, 1 HR, 32 hits, 3.27 FIP
From there, the A’s have plenty of options to choose from. Now that rosters have expanded, there are 14 relievers in the pen, minus Hendriks who will have already been used.
It should come as no surprise that the A’s are experimenting with something new, as that is precisely their reputation. This strategy has worked for the Rays, and the A’s have the kind of personnel you’d want to do it right. It’s a risk given that they’re playing meaningful games in a postseason hunt, but the state of their rotation leaves them little choice but to get creative. We’ll see how it goes!