Innovative A’s may embrace ‘bullpenning’
Rotation injuries pile up, so Oakland could attack playoffs with relievers
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.”
Due to injuries, A’s reliever Liam Hendriks has made three starts in September.