One of the biggest surprises of the 2018 Major League Baseball season has been the Oakland Athletics, a team many predicted would finish at the bottom of the American League West. Yet, with less than a month remaining in the regular season, the A’s sit three and a half games behind the Houston Astros in the division and hold a healthy lead for the first Wild Card position – and the team is doing it in a non-traditional way.
For well over a century, baseball has been almost reverential towards the past, feeling little need to evolve “America’s Pastime” to adhere to professional sports’ latest trends. But, in the age where empirical analysis dominates, teams continue to be more adventurous in their approach to the game and successful tactics could potentially spark new philosophies, ones other teams will eventually mimic. Every year there seems to be something a little different, with both general managers and coaches always looking to prove they’re smarter than the game and this season the A’s are taking a new approach which has never been seen with any sort of regularity – it’s called ‘bullpenning.’
The sexy word of the 2018 lexicon, bullpenning is the tactic of having a reliever start a game, pitching two to four innings to challenge the top of the opposing team’s lineup, at which point the usual starting pitcher is then brought in in the hopes of limiting their exposure to the opposition’s best hitters. It’s a term that’s been floated around in recent years, though it gained a ton of steam thanks to several teams this season, including the Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners. Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto told USA Today earlier this season, “[Bullpenning] is the future of baseball. It’s just a matter of the extremity.” That could prove to soon be the norm, with less and less starting pitchers throwing over 200 innings in a season, saving arms for down the stretch and allowing to remove the traditional ace role – and the well-established five-man rotation altogether.
Ideology like bullpenning is constantly on A’s executive vice president – and Moneyball mastermind – Billy Beane’s radar, looking for any edge that might bring success.
Beane jumped on the bandwagon quickly this season and it’s paying dividends right now. Back in July and August, Beane bolstered a bullpen that has yet to blow a lead after the seventh inning, built around All-Star closer Blake Treinen, adding longtime closers Jeurys Familia and Fernando Rodney as well as Shawn Kelley and Cory Gearrin. Bolstering the bullpen helped Oakland earn the best record in baseball since mid-June, all while the team has lost 10 starting pitchers to injury this season – the most recent of which was Sean Manaea last week, a pitcher with a 12-9 record, a career best 3.69 ERA and over 100 strikeouts. Now, the team is left with three starting pitchers – Trevor Cahill, Mike Fiers and Edwin Jackson – who, oddly enough, weren’t even on the team back in March.
Barring something incredible down the stretch, the A’s are slated for a Wild Card contest against the New York Yankees – and the bullpen will prove vital in a one-game showdown with one of the best lineups in baseball. Anything can happen in a single game and all arms will be prepared if needed but if the Athletics can advance, one of the most important arms would have to be Liam Hendricks. Hendricks, 29, is sharing one of the other two rotation spots, along with “TBA.” Hendriks has recently started in three games but instead of following him with a starter, it’s been several bullpen arms, as Oakland simply doesn’t have the personnel. So, is this idea truly beneficial? Well here’s what a recent USA Today piece discovered about the A’s pitchers working through the lineup:
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 go-round, and Fiers from .643 to .785 and .771.
For Jackson and Fiers, those are considerable increases. Home runs also go up considerably for each starting pitcher in the second and third time through the order as well. Granted, these are next-level statistics, but in today’s MLB, they’re important analysis to understanding trends and improving a ballclub. Oakland might still be testing out what combinations work best but the good news is, with a healthy Wild Card lead, there’s plenty of time to figure things out before the postseason begins next month.
The A’s are focused on the importance of each out – and getting them at any cost.