In­no­va­tive A’s may em­brace ‘bullpen­ning’

Ro­ta­tion in­juries pile up, so Oak­land could at­tack play­offs with re­liev­ers

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Gabe Lac­ques

BAL­TI­MORE – A fran­chise that has long em­braced in­no­va­tion is in po­si­tion to make play­off his­tory. And if they lose any more start­ing pitch­ers, the Ath­let­ics might have lit­tle choice.

While they’re still em­broiled in two taut races and loathe to dis­cuss Oc­to­ber, the A’s are play­off locks, with an 81⁄ 2- game lead in the wild-card race go­ing into Wed­nes­day.

Their gaze points up­ward at the Yan­kees, who lead them by two games for home-field ad­van­tage in the wild card, and Astros, who cling to a three­game Amer­i­can League West lead.

Yet the Ath­let­ics’ 88-57 record and ma­jor league-best 54-21 streak since mid-June de­vel­oped as their pitch­ing staff has in­verted. Since the start of spring train­ing, the A’s have lost 10 start­ing pitch­ers to in­jury, the lat­est and most dev­as­tat­ing blow ace Sean Manaea’s im­pend­ing shoul­der surgery that will side­line him for 2019, too.

Mean­while, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent Billy Beane, al­ready blessed with a dom­i­nant All-Star closer in Blake Treinen, quadru­pled down on his ’pen in July and Au­gust, adding long­time closers Jeurys Fa­milia and Fer­nando Rod­ney, along with Shawn Kel­ley and Cory Gear­rin.

Oak­land will at­tack the stretch run and play­offs with just three start­ing pitch­ers, none of whom were with the club when the sea­son started. The bullpen, mean­while, has not lost a game when handed a lead af­ter seven in­nings.

A likely date with the Yan­kees in the wild-card game raises a ques­tion the A’s might sort out over the next three weeks: Is bullpen­ning the best way to en­sure their play­off sur­vival?

“At some point in the play­offs, if you don’t have the start­ing depth that other teams do, would it be a vi­able op­tion? Yeah,” says Kel­ley, who has not given up a run in 12 ap­pear­ances since his trade from Wash­ing­ton. “I’m sure what­ever Bo Mel and Billy have up their sleeves come that time, they’ll put us in good po­si­tion to suc­ceed. They do a good job of that here.”

“Bo Mel” is Bob Melvin, the A’s man­ager and likely the AL Man­ager of the Year. He has stead­ied the club through the bevy of in­juries — “It’s al­most like we’re numb to it,” he said Tues­day — and now must fi­nesse this stretch run.

His start­ing ro­ta­tion? Trevor Cahill, Ed­win Jack­son and Mike Fiers, vet­er­ans who have pitched ad­mirably, though not dom­i­nantly, since they joined the club in mid-April, June and Au­gust, re­spec­tively. The fi­nal two slots have of late been manned by “TBA” and re­liever Liam Hen­driks.

And that brings us to bullpen­ning, the art of hav­ing a re­liever start the game to at­tack the top of the op­pos­ing club’s lineup. The “opener” is then fol­lowed by a reg­u­lar start­ing pitcher, whose ex­po­sure to the op­po­si­tion’s great­est hit­ters is os­ten­si­bly lim­ited.

Once the fever dream of ex­tremely pro­gres­sive base­ball ex­ec­u­tives and wild-eyed network an­a­lysts, bullpen­ning gained sig­nif­i­cant steam this year as the Rays used an “opener” as many as two or three times through a ro­ta­tion. They’re now 79-65, well out­pac­ing the pro­jec­tions for a club with a $68 mil­lion open­ing-day pay­roll.

The A’s re­cently dipped their toes in those waters by start­ing Hen­driks in three games, though his out­ings have been more tra­di­tional “bullpen games” as op­posed to “bullpen­ning,” in that he’s fol­lowed by a pa­rade of fel­low re­liev­ers rather than a starter.

The A’s haven’t had the per­son­nel to try that yet. But the Rays’ suc­cess and the Hen­driks ex­per­i­ment — they’ve won one of the three games — are at least con­di­tion­ing the A’s re­main­ing starters to free their minds.

Since MLB added a wild-card game in 2012, the con­cept of bullpen­ning through that round has been dis­cussed but never ex­e­cuted, and of­ten for good rea­son: Aces such as Jake Ar­ri­eta, Madi­son Bum­gar­ner and Dal­las Keuchel have willed their teams on to the di­vi­sion se- ries with ster­ling per­for­mances.

But this A’s team and a shift in con­ven­tional wis­dom might align to pro­duce play­off his­tory.

“The game’s just dif­fer­ent now where they’re do­ing stuff like that,” says Cahill, who joined the club in April and has a

3.77 ERA in 19 starts. “Treat­ing an out as an out, no mat­ter when you get it.

“It’s some­thing we’re go­ing to have to ad­just to. If we go in with that mind-set, it shouldn’t af­fect us if we’re used to start­ing a game.”

Their likely play­off matchup sug­gests a dif­fer­ent ap­proach might be wise.

While Cahill holds up well a third time through the or­der, yield­ing an op­po­nent OPS of .642 com­pared to .654 and .669 on the first two trips, the oth­ers aren’t as for­tu­nate. Jack­son’s OPS leaps from .542 to .823 on the sec­ond gor­ound, and Fiers’ from .643 to .785 and


Most alarm­ingly, their home run rates leap:

❚ Cahill gives up a home run ev­ery

40.5 at-bats on a third time through an or­der, com­pared to ev­ery 80 at-bats in his first ex­po­sure.

❚ Jack­son has given up just three homers in 116 at-bats in first go-rounds and seven homers in 109 at-bats a sec­ond time through.

❚ Fiers’ home run rate is par­tic­u­larly stark: Ev­ery 39 at-bats on the first trip, ev­ery 19 at-bats the sec­ond time through, and ev­ery 16 at-bats in the 143 se­quences he’s al­lowed to face a hit­ter a third time.

Try test­ing that li­a­bil­ity against the Yan­kees, par­tic­u­larly if the game is played in the Bronx.

The Yan­kees’ 234 home runs lead the ma­jor leagues, although the Ath­let­ics are sec­ond in the AL with 199. The Yan­kees are sec­ond to the Red Sox in OPS

(.776) and runs scored (742). While Melvin is far more con­cerned with merely get­ting through the day — Hen­driks was slated to start a fourth time Wed­nes­day night — than any Oc­to­ber mat­ters, his as­sess­ment of the staff mi­nus Manaea sug­gests han­dling with care is wise.

“He was that guy that, ev­ery se­ries, when teams played us, they’re look­ing to see if Manaea was pitch­ing for us,” Melvin said of his in­jured ace, who no­hit the Red Sox in April and whose strike­out-walk ra­tio is 45% bet­ter than any of the cur­rent trio. “That’s what your top guy means for you ...

“The guys that we have right now, they’re just not strike­out guys. Jack­son will pitch to con­tact, Cahill will pitch to con­tact, Fiers isn’t re­ally a strike­out guy, ei­ther.”

The same can’t be said of the bullpen, of course. Treinen has struck out 94 in

76 in­nings and has a 0.87 ERA. Fa­milia and Kel­ley have com­bined for a 1.52 ERA; they, Rod­ney and rookie Lou Triv­ino are all strik­ing out more than a bat­ter an in­ning with the A’s.

The big­ger ques­tion: Would the starters-turned-re­liev­ers for a day ac­cept such an abrupt turn?

Cahill, a key re­liever on the Cubs’

2016 cham­pi­onship team, says an ad­just­ment in pregame rou­tine would pro­vide a chal­lenge, though all three A’s starters have worked out of the bullpen.

The greater chal­lenge would likely be in mind-set.

“This is the big stage. Ev­ery­one wants the ball,” says Jack­son, who has play­off ex­pe­ri­ence with Tampa Bay, St. Louis and Wash­ing­ton, start­ing four post­sea­son games for the 2011 cham­pion Car­di­nals. “Ob­vi­ously, we all can’t have the ball, but once you do have it, get ready to go throw.”


Liam Hen­driks


Due to in­juries, A’s re­liever Liam Hen­driks has made three starts in Septem­ber.

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