Cleat Geeks

A’s “Bullpenning” The Wild Card Game

The Oakland Athletics are going to start the Wild Card game tonight at 7:08 on TBS with a relief pitcher.

A pitcher with no wins in the regular season.

A pitcher cut from the 40-man roster in June who spent two months toiling in the minor leagues.

He is right-hander Liam Hendriks. And he is going to be entrusted with beating the Yankees in Yankee Stadium, and sending the Athletics to the post season with a win, though he probably wont be around long enough to qualify for the win.

Image result for al mlb wild card game oakland yankees

Photo by; USA Today

Oakland manager Bob Melvin has been scrambling because of injuries to starting pitchers Jharel Cotton, Kendall Graveman, Sean Manaea, Paul Blackburn, Andrew Triggs and Daniel Gossett . Yet, the A’s finished second in the AL West at 97-65, their best record in 16 years. But, 45 of their 97 wins came from their relievers who went 45-16.That would give the A’s the second-most bullpen wins in big league history behind Tampa Bay’s 54 this year.

Hendriks, a 29-year-old in his third season with Oakland, started for Minnesota (2011-14) and Kansas City (2014) before Toronto converted him to the bullpen in 2015. He had a 7.36 ERA in 13 relief appearances this season when he was designated for assignment on June 25 to clear a roster spot for Edwin Jackson.

Then 40-38, the A’s went on to win their next six games and 11 of 13.

“Apparently I’m a pariah,” Hendriks said jokingly.

After 21 appearances with Triple-A Nashville, he was brought back on Sept. 1 when active rosters expanded to 40. Not only are the A’s going this uncharted non-traditional route, but the only starter expected to be on Oakland’s roster Wednesday is Edwin Jackson.

Hendriks will be only the fourth pitcher to commence a postseason game after a regular season of no wins, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Virgil Trucks started twice for Detroit in the 1945 World Series after returning from World War II and making one regular-season appearance. Milwaukee’s Yovani Gallardo returned from a torn knee ligament in 2008 and St. Louis’ Chris Carpenter came back from surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in 2012.

 “The reason that we started looking at this is because we’ve had so many injuries in our rotation, and we’re just trying to do the best possible thing that we think for a particular day,” Melvin said. “We’re just trying to do what’s best for us…. We’re trying to figure out who goes where to benefit the strengths of our team.”

Image result for al mlb wild card game oakland yankees

Photo by; The Mercury News

 Melvin did not divulge his pitching plans beyond Hendriks and said his club’s roster for the Wild Card game has not even been settled yet. He noted the distinction between a “bullpen game” — using a series of relievers in 1- and 2-inning stints — and using Hendriks as an opener before turning to a traditional starter for multiple innings, in the role the pioneering Tampa Bay Rays call “the bulk guy.” He did not commit to either strategy for Wednesday’s game. His best starter this season, Sean Manaea, endured season-ending shoulder surgery in September.

At a media session Tuesday reserved for the Oakland Athletics’ starting pitcher in Wednesday’s AL Wild Card game at Yankee Stadium, two players appeared at the podium. Right-handers Liam Hendriks and Blake Treinen represent the front and back ends of the bullpen mix A’s manager Bob Melvin intends to ride into the ALDS: Hendriks is the opener, Treinen the closer.

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Let’s hear from both the “opener” and the “closer. “Obviously it’s still a new thing to us a little bit, but we’ve had enough success with it over the last month or so that we’re going to give it a whirl,” Hendriks said. “The bullpen has been throwing a lot more, and it’s just another concept of that. Instead of the starter going six and handing it over to the bullpen or going five and handing it over to the bullpen, now we’re just reversing it.”

“In today’s game, I think there’s been a struggle between old-school mentality and sabermetrics, and this is a way to kind of incorporate sabermetrics with effectiveness,” said Treinen. “We have guys in the front office that do a lot of research to put us in the best situations for success, and I think it’s our job to put some faith in them. We’ve got the arms to make this make sense.”

Using a committee of relievers to cover all nine innings, better known as “bullpenning” has been an increasingly common strategy across the league over the past few years, especially when clubs find themselves short in the starting rotation due to injuries. But the Rays established the role of “the opener” as recently as mid-May of this year, when they tabbed longtime late-inning right-hander Sergio Romo to pitch the first innings of back-to-back games against the Angels’ righty-heaving lineup. That club’s immediate and resounding success with the strategy swiftly turned it from a quirky novelty to a viable game plan, and teams like the Dodgers, Blue Jays and Twins soon followed suit.  Image result for al mlb wild card game oakland yankees

“If there’s any other team to do it, it’s the A’s,” Hendriks said, referring to the club’s long-held reputation for innovation in the sport. “We’ve been ahead of the curve on a whole lot of things, so it’s just another way that hopefully we’re ahead of the curve. We’ll see how many teams do it next year.”

Hendriks served as Oakland’s opener eight times in September alone, and threw only one inning in seven of the eight starts. Plenty of postseason teams have pulled starters early in games in the past, but Wednesday’s game likely marks the first time in MLB history a club has opened a game expecting no more than two innings out of the man on the mound.

“As far as the historical part, I don’t think we’re thinking too much about that,” Melvin said. “Maybe there is something to that if you’re a fan or you’re looking at this as the first time it’s happening in a playoff game, I believe, but we’re kind of past that right now, and we’re just kind of focused on the game.”

Despite having a league-low payroll and using a starting rotation largely comprised of retreads from the league’s scrap heap for much of the season, the A’s won 97 games in one of the sport’s most competitive divisions to earn their spot in Wednesday’s Wild Card game. Their bullpen threw 641 1/3 innings in the regular season — the third largest workload of any relief group in baseball history, trailing only a 2012 Rockies team that experimented with using a four-man starting rotation for protracted outings and this season’s unprecedented Rays group. Oakland’s bullpen finished with an excellent 3.37 collective ERA and the league’s best Win Probability Added (WPA).

The Oakland Athletics are baseballs version of a Cinderella team in the annual NCAA basketball tournament. I love those type of teams, those type of stories, and as I stated in earlier articles for this website, Kris Davis is one of my new favorite players and I will be on a big time hunt to get his autograph during this coming spring training season. The only difference in the basketball Cinderella team and the Athletics is that the A’s are wearing glass cleats.

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