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Oakland A’s opener strategy is working out so far

Liam Hendriks will make his fifth “start” on Saturday.

Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s are set to use their bullpen opener for the fifth time on Saturday. That means Liam Hendriks will pitch the 1st inning, followed by a traditional starter after him in a long relief role. For more on this strategy and why it’s happening, click here for the explanation.

Here’s a summary of how the plan has gone so far in its first four attempts:

  1. Terrible
  2. Amazing
  3. Good enough to win
  4. Amazing

The first one went awry, but twice Hendriks and long-man Daniel Mengden have combined to keep the opponent to just one hit through six scoreless innings. The other time, Chris Bassitt only took things through the 4th inning on a day when the A’s built a big early lead.

As noted in my previous post on this topic, I believe the key to the initial failure in that first try was that Hendriks was allowed to come back out for the 2nd inning, which led to early runs and forced the long-man into the game with the top of the lineup coming up. Those two results effectively defeated the entire purpose of the strategy. My suggestion was to limit the opener to the 1st inning no matter how well he does, and the A’s have done that ever since with flawless success.

Here are Hendriks’ four opening lines:

9/1: 1⅔ ip, 2 runs, 1 K, 1 BB, 2 hits, 30 pitches
9/4: 1 ip, 0 runs, 1 K, 11 pitches
9/7: 1 ip, 0 runs, 1 K, 1 BB, 20 pitches
9/12: 1 ip, 0 runs, 1 hit, 11 pitches

Even in that first game, he breezed through a scoreless 1st with just one hit before running into trouble in the 2nd. In other words, Hendriks has been automatic in the 1st inning so far. Most importantly, Oakland has been satisfied with that short effort even when his pitch count has remained low, rather than sacrificing the logic behind the strategy (long-man entering for middle/bottom of opposing lineup) just to needlessly squeeze some extra work out of the opener while there are 14 other relievers available on the expanded roster.

It might be surprising to see Hendriks suddenly find such consistent success, after being DFA’d earlier in a season that had been dogged by injury and ineffectiveness. Frankly, though, he’s always had the upside to be a plus reliever. His time in Oakland has been marked by excellent peripheral stats but only mediocre run-prevention, and he never developed into a setup man like many of us had hoped, but he’s always piled up strikeouts while limiting walks and homers. Here are his numbers since becoming a reliever with the Blue Jays in 2015 (in 199 games):

Hendriks, since 2015: 3.81 ERA, 210 ip, 236 Ks, 57 BB, 19 HR, 205 hits, 2.93 FIP

Even with his ERA running nearly a full run higher than his FIP, those are still good stats. He’s also converted 34-of-40 save/holds in that time, which is a strong 85% success rate. The worst slumps of his bullpen career, including this summer, have occurred right before or right after dealing with injuries. I asked him last weekend about the effect of health on his 2018 struggles and he downplayed it, but he did note that he “wasn’t quite back to being myself” when he returned from the DL in June.

The data sees a big difference, though. His four-seam fastball was averaging 93 mph in April before he succumbed to surgery on his hip, then 94 when he came back in June, and now 97 in September with a topout above 98, according to Brooks Baseball. His sinker went from 92 to 93 to 96 in those same splits. All of that isn’t just a return to the velocity that had once made him a budding relief star, it’s actually the highest of his career. He’s also leaned more on his fastball lately at the expense of his slider, so he’s bringing heat like never before.

Granted, Hendriks has thrown hard before and still gotten mediocre results. Returning to his normal, powerful form doesn’t guarantee anything, but we shouldn’t be too shocked if it does work out. He’s spent years on the verge of a breakout and his stuff right now is as good as we’ve ever seen it, so if he was going to take a step forward then this is what it would look like. Maybe the former starter just needed a role that suited him.

Meanwhile, Mengden has been lights out in his bulk long-man role. His last two outings combined:

Mengden, last 2 gms: 9⅔ ip, 0 runs, 1 hit, 1 BB, 6 Ks, 107 pitches

One of those games was against the doormat Orioles, but the other was against the elite Yankees, so this isn’t just a matter of beating up on weak competition. I still wonder if he’s good enough that he should just be starting outright, but for all we know the new role could be a causative factor behind his recent success. For the time being I’m perfectly happy not fixing what isn’t broken, and seeing if he can keep firing zeroes in this current arrangement.

In the first attempt to bring Mengden in after an opener, it all went wrong. He entered in the 3rd inning to face the 2nd-place hitter, and by the end he’d faced the 2nd-5th hitters twice and everyone else once — that’s the literal opposite of the game plan. The next time, though, he entered for the 4th hitter and ultimately faced 4th-9th twice, with the top of the order once. Last time he entered for the 5th hitter, and faced 5th-2nd twice while only seeing the 3rd/4th guys once.

Are those theoretically preferable matchups helping play a role in the overall success, or is it all just a coincidence and Mengden was simply on his game those days? That’s impossible to say yet, but again, if the strategy was going to work then this is what it would look like.

Bassitt didn’t fare quite as well as Mengden, but he still got the job done. He came in for the 5th hitter and faced 5th-7th twice in a relatively short outing, but unfortunately the 6th man was Joey Gallo and the slugger took him deep. Of course, Gallos has 36 on the season after 41 last year, so allowing a dinger to him isn’t the worst indictment in the world. Bassitt will likely get his next chance today, reports Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle.

As for Frankie Montas, we’re still yet to see him take a turn behind an opener.

All told, it’s hard not to be intrigued, and maybe downright happy, with how this whole experiment has worked out so far. Even I’m still not completely sold on it and whether it’s worth all the trouble, but it doesn’t seem to be hurting and there’s a chance it’s helping on days when there isn’t a reliable starter available. The A’s are 2-2 in opener games, but one of those losses was mostly the fault of the offense on a day when the lineup got shut down. The other loss was more to do with mismanagement of the strategy on the first try, which is fair enough when trying out something new.

Hendriks and Mengden are thriving, and soon we’ll get to see Bassitt try his hand again. Saturday will mark MLB’s first-ever battle of openers, with the A’s facing the Rays team that originally pioneered the concept, so stay tuned for the next installment of this new idea.