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Elephant Rumblings: Could the new Shohei Ohtani rule also help the A’s?

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Happy Thursday, Athletics Nation!

Spring training keeps chugging along for the A’s, with a 5-4 loss to the Cubs yesterday. As the torrent of trades and major free agent signings dries up and teams are getting ready for the season, we can try out a largely improbable hypothetical with one of the new rules MLB introduced on Tuesday.

As part of the agreed-to rules changes detailed at ESPN by Alden Gonzalez, what has been dubbed as the ‘Shohei Ohtani rule’ will be in effect starting this season. The rule relates to two-way players like Ohtani, pitchers who are also regular hitters.

As per the new rule, a pitcher that is also listed in the batting order as a designated hitter will be allowed to stay in the game as a DH even after being replaced on the mound. It’s a rule tailor-made for the unanimous 2021 AL MVP Ohtani, so that the Angels can keep his bat in the lineup for a full game on pitching days. Last season the Angels were stuck with a modified version of the (now unplayable) Waxahachie Swap, putting Shohei in the outfield in the late innings after he had been relieved on the mound. This rule is not something that is likely to be used by any other team in the league, unless ...

Two factors with the Athletics make their ability to leverage the Ohtani rule a far-flung possibility: their previous leveraging of a reliever to open games, and a current non-roster invitee.

In 2018 the A’s hopped on the opener trend using reliever Liam Hendriks to pitch the first inning or two before the usual starting pitcher took over for the remaining majority of the game. The conventional wisdom was that an opener took care of the heart of the opposing team’s order the first time around, leaving the usual starting pitcher’s bag of tricks to not be as well known the third or fourth time the opponents come to bat. The A’s got middling results from their attempts with an opener, including a Wild Card game loss to the Yankees, but other teams like the Rays continued leveraging openers through the 2019 season.

But how does this impact the 2022 A’s, and what does the opener have to do with the Ohtani rule? Last November before the lockout, the Athletics signed catcher Christian Bethancourt to a minor league deal and he has been in A’s spring camp as a non-roster invitee. Though it’s an incredibly small sample size, Bethancourt’s spring has been going well, making him a possible candidate to be an extra backup catcher behind Gold Glover Sean Murphy and fresh signee Stephen Vogt.

Bethancourt’s last stint in the majors came in 2017, his second year with the Padres. During his time in San Diego, Bethancourt was part of an experiment where he was listed as both a catcher and a reliever on their roster. While he saw minimal innings pitching in the majors with San Diego, Bethancourt continued being a two-way player in the minors seeing much more regular innings in AAA El Paso. Christian even saw a few innings of relief last year with AAA Indianapolis. If Bethancourt could crack the A’s roster this year they would not only have a backup catcher, but also a potential bonus pitcher on their hands.

How this hypothetical strategy comes together is with the A’s stretching out Bethancourt’s arm this spring, then as the season begins having manager Mark Kotsay slot him in as a DH/opener while the rotation finishes getting back to full strength after an abbreviated spring training. While not a season-long benefit and only doable by adding a third catcher to the roster (after Murphy and Vogt), this gives the Athletics the benefits of an opener without having to burn one of their actual relievers, while also keeping Bethancourt batting through the whole game thanks to the Ohtani rule.

Unless more teams have fielders that are willing to hop on the mound for an inning or two, the DH/opener potential would only be a possibility for Bethancourt. The A’s bullpen is looking light heading into the season, meaning Bethancourt could also offer some help on that side of the roster, saving any AAA relief arms from coming up early. Rosters will also be expanded for the start of the season, so an extra player in the dugout that can serve two roles has an added value while starters are still shaping up their innings counts, and before the weight of three catchers on a roster ends up being too much.

The chances of the cards aligning to allow this niche strategy are low, but it’s the exact sort of fun idea that we can harmlessly dream up in the early days of spring.

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