It’s no secret that the A’s bullpen has been an issue in 2019. The unit that carried the team to the postseason just a year ago has taken a massive step back, largely due to lost seasons from former closer Blake Treinen and set-up man Lou Trivino.
One might be surprised to learn that, by fWAR, Oakland’s bullpen actually ranks as the fourth strongest in all of baseball. But this is somewhat misleading — of the 6.2 fWAR the ‘pen has produced, more than half has come from closer Liam Hendriks, whose 3.5 fWAR leads all MLB relievers by a significant margin. Additionally, the A’s relief corps has blown 29 saves, tied with the Washington Nationals for the most in baseball. While not every blown save is made equal and the stat is far from a perfect measure of bullpen performance, it’s certainly not a category the A’s planned on leading the league in.
The team has already made some moves to help strengthen the bullpen for a potential postseason run. Young lefties Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk are already making an impact, while righty Chris Bassitt was bumped from a crowded rotation and looks like a potential late-inning arm himself. But another reliever is quietly making a strong case to pitch high leverage innings for the A’s in October.
When considering Oakland’s most valuable relief arms, a few obvious names come to mind. There’s Hendriks, of course, and then workhorse Yusmeiro Petit, both of whom are putting together career seasons. Veteran Joakim Soria does well by fWAR due to his strong peripherals, while bWAR prefers lefty Ryan Buchter and his surprising run prevention. But by both* measures, the A’s fourth most valuable reliever this season has been ... J.B. Wendelken?
*Technically, former A’s lefty Wei-Chung Wang also ranks ahead of Wendelken in bWAR, but he’s a Pittsburgh Pirate now, so he won’t be an option for the Athletics in October.
It’s true — despite throwing only 32.1 major league innings and spending more than half of the season in Triple-A, Wendelken’s 0.6 fWAR and 0.3 bWAR rank fourth among active A’s relievers. His 3.51 ERA (fifth) and 3.04 xFIP (second) also make him one of Oakland’s most attractive options (minimum 10 IP), and a loot at his traditional stats shows more than a strikeout per inning and low rates of walks, homers, and hits.
And Wendelken might be even better than those numbers suggest. In late May, he gave up three earned runs each in back-to-back outings, against Boston and Pittsburgh on the road. But he hasn’t allowed a run since, including 6.2 consecutive scoreless innings over four outings since being recalled on Sept. 6.
He’s also another multi-inning option for the A’s. Of Wendelken’s 26 MLB appearances this season, 10 lasted longer than an inning and twice he’s finished three innings or more. Between Wendelken, Luzardo, Puk, Bassitt, Petit and even Hendriks, the A’s could have quite a bit of flexibility in the late innings.
Manager Bob Melvin is also showing faith in the 26-year-old. On Sept. 13, he entered in the fourth inning of a 7-7 game and threw three perfect innings to earn the win. Then, on Sept. 18 against the Royals, he stranded the bases loaded in the 11th to preserve a scoreless tie and allow the A’s to walk it off in the bottom half of the inning.
Losing a pair of high-leverage righties in Treinen and Trivino created issues for the A’s earlier in the summer. But now, they have plenty of talented options to finish out ballgames. It isn’t hard to picture a Wild Card Game in which Sean Manaea or Mike Fiers pitches only once or twice through the order before turning the ball over to a multi-inning reliever for the middle innings to get to Petit and Hendriks. Wendelken could give Melvin yet another reliable arm to work with as he pieces together the end of the ball game.
Hopefully the righty will see more high leverage opportunities in the final week of the regular season and be given a chance to prove himself. He had a similarly strong September last season, throwing eight scoreless innings and earning a spot on the playoff roster, but didn’t pitch in Oakland’s Wild Card Game loss.
This year could be different for Wendelken. As of now, he seems like one of the A’s strongest right-handed options. It’s just a matter of trust — he might not be able to do enough in a few short appearances to earn it and pitch in a win-or-go-home game, but if the A’s advance deeper into the playoffs, they might need him to throw important innings. And if he can step up to join the other recently emerged relief stars, Oakland’s struggling bullpen might just become a strength in October.