The Oakland A’s are one week into their latest strategic experiment. This time they’re borrowing a page from the Tampa Bay Rays and using a relief pitcher as a brief “opener” before turning to their traditional starter in the “bulk guy” role.
I’m not completely sold one way or other on this new strategy. I can see some logic behind it such that it’s worth a try, especially since injuries have left the A’s pitching staff with little choice but to get creative. At the same time, I’m not completely convinced that it will provide enough benefit to be worth any confusion or frustration it might cause among the players, who as a demographic are well known for preferring consistent, predictable routines.
The ideal would be having a rotation full of starters who can reliably work deep into games. Beyond that, if a new approach must be tested, it would be preferable not to do so during the final month of a tight playoff race. But this is the hand the A’s were dealt in 2018 and this is what they believe must be done to keep the good times rolling, so rather than complaining about it let’s try to understand it and think about how to maximize its effectiveness.
Why is this happening?
I can’t fully speak for the team and the front office and their precise reasoning, but here is how I understand the general concept of the opener.
The key to the whole thing revolves around going multiple times through the opposing lineup. The idea is that a starting pitcher, especially the kind of backend starters the A’s are currently relying on, are likely to become far less effective the third and fourth times through the order. The batters have gotten to see their pitches and are now better prepared to hit them, before even factoring in any fatigue effects. To avoid this situation, Oakland was tending toward removing their starters early, even before inning and pitch counts got too heavy, and the bullpen was forced to pick up the slack.
In this new setup, the starter simply skips the top of the lineup the first time through. The first few batters tend to be the best on the team, usually by a wide margin. If the starter enters for the No. 5 hitter, then he can pitch to 23 batters before reaching the leadoff man for the third time, rather than 18. He can face 32 batters before getting there for a fourth time, rather than 27. Rather than getting pulled in the 5th or 6th, he might be able to make it through the 7th before needing the setup crew to enter, both because he started an inning later and because he might be able to face a few extra batters.
To achieve all this, a short reliever faces the top of the lineup in the 1st inning. He doesn’t need to worry about mixing a wide arsenal of pitches, or pacing himself for a long game. He just needs to let it rip and pump his best stuff past ‘em for three outs. The way things have been going for the A’s, that middle reliever would have needed to come in for the 5th or 6th anyway, so instead he gets his work out of the way early and puts the starter/bulk guy in an optimal position to succeed.
“We’re going to have to use our bullpen anyway,” said manager Bob Melvin before the first attempt last weekend, via insider Jane Lee. “It keeps the starter off of the top and maybe middle part of the lineup one less time. We’ll feel it out.”
Is all the trouble worth it? I can’t say for sure yet. But the goal appears to be letting the starters pitch as long as possible without facing the best hitters too many times.
We’ve seen the opener twice so far. Both times, Liam Hendriks served as the opener, and Daniel Mengden was the bulk guy pseudo-starter.
The first try was a disaster. Hendriks pitched a quiet 1st inning, but he ran into trouble in the 2nd. Danny Coulombe came in but couldn’t escape the jam, leading to two early runs, and then Mengden entered for the 3rd and was completely ineffective. The A’s lost the game by one run to the Mariners, and it was easy to wonder if the failed gambit made the difference.
The second try was the complete opposite, a resounding success. Hendriks pitched a perfect 1st and then exited, and Mengden didn’t allow a hit until the 6th. Oakland lost the game because their own lineup managed only two hits and the bullpen couldn’t hold the shutout forever against the powerful Yankees, but the first six innings of pitching couldn’t have gone better.
The third try is coming up tonight (Friday), against the Rangers. Chris Bassitt was called up from Triple-A Nashville, the team announced. Hendriks is opening according to the team’s Twitter account, and Bassitt is expected to pitch too, says Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle.
Here are my thoughts on how best to do this strategy.
First, limit the opener to one inning. If the entire purpose is to have the starter enter for the middle/end of the lineup, then don’t leave in the opener to go most of the way through the order. If he pitches one inning then he’ll probably face 3-4 batters, but if he goes two frames then he’s more likely to see 7-8 batters. There might be a temptation, if the opener has a quick 1st inning, to let him stay in and squeeze out another frame, but resist that urge. Especially now in September, with 13 more relievers behind him, there’s no need to stretch anyone to salvage as many outs as possible. Once the opener has done his job in the 1st, bank it and move on.
The A’s seem to have already made this change. On Saturday they tried to get a 2nd inning out of Hendriks and he couldn’t deliver it, which was bad for two critical reasons — he allowed runs, and by the time Mengden came in he was already facing the 2-3-4 hitters. Those two things add up to the antithesis of the entire strategy, and by the time Mengden exited he had faced the best hitters twice and everyone else once, instead of the opposite.
On Tuesday, however, they kept Hendriks to just the one inning. He breezed through it and retired the side in order on 11 pitches, but that was the end of his day because it was all he was there to do. Now Mengden entered for the 4-5-6 hitters (and didn’t need to wait around for an hour to do so), and by the time the leadoff spot came up for the second time it was already the 6th inning. (I’m assuming Mengden could have gone even longer under normal circumstances, but he was on short rest.)
My next suggestion is to not hold back if the opener gets in trouble. When Hendriks got in his 2nd-inning jam on Saturday, the A’s should have treated it like a high-leverage situation. They brought in Coulombe to retire a lefty, but he was one of the worst pitchers on the team and they think so highly of him that he was DFA’d a few days later in favor of a guy who hasn’t appeared in the bigs for three years. They should have taken the moment more seriously and used Ryan Buchter, their best lefty; he could even have stuck around for the 3rd inning, both to not waste him for one batter and to line Mengden up with the middle of the lineup in the 4th. Instead, they let Seattle take an early lead, and ultimately a permanent one.
If Hendriks ever gets in a jam in the 1st inning, I would have no problem making an early call to Buchter or Lou Trivino to avoid digging an early hole in a game that is far, far from being decided.
My final suggestion is more like an open question: Is Hendriks the right guy for this role? You don’t want to burn a true setup man, but could Shawn Kelley or Cory Gearrin be better options?
I’m actually coming around on Hendriks as the opener. I have no idea if there’s any significant mental difference between pitching the beginning of a game rather than the middle/end of it, but Hendriks has extensive experience as a starter so he’s been there before. His stuff is looking as good as ever, hitting 97 mph consistently on his fastball in these short one-inning bursts. And of course, there’s his recent Triple-A performance:
Hendriks, AAA last 17 gms: 0.45 ERA, 20 ip, 35 Ks, 4 BB, 0 HR, 0.85 FIP
Granted, that was in the minors, but it’s not just a good line. It’s as close to perfection as you will ever see. That gets my attention.
Of course, Kelley has a resume too. He hasn’t allowed a run with the A’s yet, in 8⅔ ip, and three of the last four years he’s had a sub-3.00 ERA with huge K/BB rates. Hendriks is notorious for not translating his excellent peripherals into actual run-prevention, but one advantage he does have is that he gives up fewer homers than Kelley. As for Gearrin, I wonder if his funky arm angle would help by giving batters a different look early in the game.
It seems odd to put so much stock into a guy who was DFA’d earlier in the season, as Hendriks was, but injuries messed up the beginning of his season and he’s always had tantalizing upside. He may just find a niche in this role, and it’s not like there aren’t other recent castoffs in huge positions on this staff. If I had to pick a second option then I’d go with Kelley as the right combination of good without being critical to the later innings.
We’ll get our next look at all of this tonight. Maybe it’ll work, and maybe it won’t, but at least we have an idea why it’s happening.