On Opening Day of the 2020 MLB season on Friday, Liam Hendriks blew a save in the 9th inning. The All-Star had been arguably the best reliever in the majors in 2019, but with a one-run cushion against the Los Angeles Angels and a tight strike zone squeezing him, he left a fastball in the middle of the zone and it got swatted for a homer.
That was a troubling sign at the time. After all, the A’s bullpen led the majors with 30 blown saves in 2019, despite otherwise strong numbers, and that kind of inconsistency with late-inning leads could spell trouble in a short season where every game is worth almost triple what we’re used to.
Fortunately, that dinger off Hendriks has proven to be just an isolated blip so far. As in, it’s the only earned run allowed by the entire pen through the first four games of the season, in heavy usage.
Oak pen: 0.44 ERA, 20⅓, ip, 1 ER, 17 Ks, 6 BB, 1 HR, 11 hits, 2-of-3 saves
By contrast, the rotation:
Oak starters: 4.86 ERA, 16⅔ ip, 13 Ks, 4 BB, 2 HR, 20 hits
With starters around the league still warming up and stretching out toward their normal workloads and ability levels after an unusually short preseason, extra responsibility has been shifted to relievers to pick up the slack. The A’s unit has risen to the challenge.
- Hendriks came back on Sunday and redeemed himself, needing only 16 pitches to record four outs for a save.
- Yusmeiro Petit has pitched three times and retired seven of the eight batters he’s faced. On Sunday he mostly bailed Mike Fiers out of a jam, entering with runners on the corners and nobody out and escaping with just a Mike Trout sac fly and one inherited runner in. On Monday, he stranded another runner in the 7th. He joined Hendriks as the heavyweights of the A’s bullpen last summer, quietly posting a spectacular season, and he’s picking up right where he left off.
- Joakim Soria had some high-profile meltdowns to blow leads last year, but overall his numbers were solid, including a 3.62 FIP nearly a run lower than league-average. He’s off to a much cleaner start this year — he let through an unearned run on Friday but it was 100% not his fault (Matt Chapman’s, surprisingly), and on Monday he came in to get the save while Hendriks got a break.
- Jake Diekman was shaky last year after his midseason acquisition by Oakland, but it took him three games to walk anyone this summer. In those three games, the lefty has faced 11 batters and retired eight of them.
- T.J. McFarland, picked up over the offseason, is a grounder specialist who’s here to feed the A’s elite Gold Glove-level infield defense. Indeed, out of nine batters the lefty has faced, six have grounded out already, with a couple more outs in the air and one liner single.
- Lou Trivino and J.B. Wendelken have only made it made it into one game apiece, but they’ve combined to retire all four batters they faced. The righties line up on the depth chart as middle relievers for now, but both have what it takes to be lockdown setup men if they hit their ceilings. Wendelken’s lone appearance was already a tough test, as he came in with a runner on second to face Mike Trout and successfully retired him.
- Burch Smith is another new face, and he’s already looked better than expected. The right-hander got the call in a high-leverage spot on Opening Day, in the 10th inning with an automatic runner on second base, and he barely wriggled out without allowing a run to earn the win. He got serious help from his defense, but he still made some big pitches and showed off his strong stuff. On Monday he appeared again, and this time he needed only 21 pitches to breeze through two middle innings, retiring Trout and the Halos’ other big stars along the way while showing improved fastball command. It’s only two games, but if he were to pan out as an MLB reliever, this is what it would look like.
- Jordan Weems hasn’t pitched yet, but we did get a look at him during the preseason.
- Jesus Luzardo also pitched in relief, but he’s going to join the rotation soon so there’s no reason to include him here. But dang, he was good.
There’s also some heat in this group, as all of Hendriks, Smith, Diekman, Wendelken, and Trivino are averaging between 94-95 mph with their various fastballs in the early going, with Hendriks, Smith, and Trivino all topping out at 96 already.
Statcast likes them too, as their xwOBA of .279 ranks 8th-best among MLB bullpens, suggesting they’ve truly been good underneath those shiny surface stats. For context, they’re closer to first place in xwOBA than they are to 13th.
Of course they’ll give up some runs eventually, and some of these guys will have mediocre or bad years. Not everyone will stay awesome forever. It’s only been four games, after all, and they’ve only faced one team.
But then, that’s kind of the point. Bullpens can outperform in small samples, and this entire 60-game season is a relatively small sample compared with what we’re used to, with only nine different opponents on the docket. Staying hot for six full months plus playoffs against a whole league, or staying consistent for 2-3 seasons, is tough to pull off. But balling out for a month or three? That’s eminently doable, and every year some randos have great numbers at the end of May or June.
The question is, how long will this hot streak last for the A’s bullpen? Is it a one-week thing? A one-month thing? All the way through October? Are some of the back-end guys truly sleepers who are starting permanent breakouts right now? They all have what it takes to be good, between a few established veterans and some lotto tickets with promising talent, it’s just a matter of doing so regularly and reliably — remember, just last year we saw Hendriks rise from frustrating mediocrity to the All-Star Game in less than half a normal campaign.
Only time will tell, but we’re already through 7% of the season after these four games and for now we know they’ve been awesome so far. Every day that they keep posting zeroes will be a huge boost to Oakland’s hopes for a fast start in this short summer.