In what may be becoming a weird new trend in Major League Baseball, the Oakland Athletics will start Aussie relief pitcher Liam Hendriks in tonight’s game against the New York Yankees.
The Oakland Athletics starting pitching staff has been decimated this season; with recent losses of southpaws Sean Manaea and Brett Anderson, the A’s have had a whopping nine starting pitchers go on the disabled list so far this year (ten if you count prospect AJ Puk, expected to come up this year but who underwent Tommy John surgery during spring training). As a way of coping with their lack of starters, the A’s have adopted a new strategy, one employed this season most notably by the Tampa Bay Rays – starting their relievers.
In an August 23rd article in Sports Illustrated, Jon Taylor reports that the Rays have coined the term for a starting reliever position as “the opener.” The plan is that the opener gives a team anywhere from one to three innings of work before handing it over to “the bulk guy,” a long reliever brought in much earlier in the game. The Rays debuted this strategy on May 19 against the Angels, and have since posted a team “opener” ERA better than the league average.
Martin Gallego of The Mercury News writes that the decision to start Liam Hendriks was made as a group effort by A’s manager Bob Melvin along with members of the front office, and was based on the fact that Hendriks was pitching well at Triple-A Nashville, where he went 4-1 with a 2.84 ERA in 24 appearances, and was throwing his fastball as hard as 95 mph. Plus, Hendriks has some, though very limited experience starting, his last appearance in 2013 with the Kansas City Royals.
In his last start (or “open”) for the A’s on Saturday, Hendriks had a tough go, facing only eight Seattle batters, allowing two earned runs on two hits before being taken out of the game. As Jane Lee reports, Oakland tied a franchise record on Saturday by using nine pitchers in the 8-7 loss, not the most ideal outcome for their first attempt at what has been termed “a bullpen game.”
Hendriks will give it another shot tonight against the Yankees in what promises to be a playoff atmosphere at the Oakland Coliseum. With about three weeks left in the 2018 regular season, huge postseason implications are at stake in a series that many believe will be a preview of the AL Wild Card game on October 3rd.
Is this bullpen strategy a sign that Oakland is on the ropes? Can this team really contend in the postseason without an elite (or even adequate, for that matter) starting pitching staff? Many analysts are saying no, that this team’s thrilling success may be coming to an end soon. But for those who have been watching this group of players develop together for a few years now, and who have begun to believe in what this team can do, this new strategy may serve as further evidence of their resilience and never-say-die attitude.
As for other teams in the league who have also struggled with similar pitching woes, all eyes will be on Hendriks and the Oakland Athletics tonight as the bullpen game strategy continues to garner curiousity.