Most Major League Baseball teams use their ace for the first game of the playoffs. You know: the Chris Sales, Clayton Kershaws and Corey Klubers of the world.
The Oakland Athletics, however, are going in a different direction.
The A’s on Tuesday announced that reliever Liam Hendriks will pitch the first inning of Wednesday’s American League Wild Card Game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. The right-hander pitched as an “opener” against New York on Sept. 4 and tossed a perfect first inning.
The question, of course, is are the Athletics crazy?
Maybe… but maybe not.
For those unaware, the thought behind bullpen games and using an “opener” is that starting pitchers typically become less effective the second and third times through a lineup. So, if a team has to face a bevy of relievers throughout a game, its hitters are less likely to become comfortable and succeed at the plate. The “opener,” generally speaking, is the pitcher a team identifies as being the best matchup against an opponent’s top of the order.
As you might expect, there’s a ton of statistical mumbo-jumbo that goes into this school of thought.
Of course, the flaw in the strategy is that relievers are in the bullpen because they’re not good enough to be starters. And if you want to win in the playoffs, typically you want your best arms getting as many innings as possible, be they in the form of starts or relief appearances.
Exhibit A: What Madison Bumgarner gave the San Francisco Giants in the 2014 playoffs.
So, what are the A’s thinking in starting a reliever in a one-game playoff at Yankee Stadium?
First of all, they might not have a better option. Sean Manaea, Oakland’s best starter who no-hit the Boston Red Sox in April, is done for the season after undergoing surgery on his left shoulder. That leaves the A’s with the likes of Daniel Mengden, Brett Anderson, Edwin Jackson, Trevor Cahill and something called Frankie Montas.
Not exactly the Atlanta Braves of the early 1990s.
And then there’s the fact that Hendriks is pretty good at this whole “opener” thing. The 29-year-old filled the role nine times in September and gave up a total of two runs, both of which coming in his first crack at the gig. Furthermore, the A’s will follow Hendriks with one of MLB’s best bullpens: Oakland’s unit finished second in the A.L. in ERA (3.37), second in batting average against (.218) and boasts Blake Treinen, one of the game’s best closers, at the back end.
Is rolling with that group a better idea than starting Jackson or Cahill? Probably.
Of course, there is no greater argument for the validity of bullpen games than the Tampa Bay Rays. Manager Kevin Cash’s club was 46-38 with regular starters this year and 44-34 when opening with relievers, according to The Associated Press.
Listen: Are bullpen games kind of annoying to watch? Yeah. Do they feel like lame, nerdy baseball exploits? Also yeah.
But they’re not stupid. In fact, if you have the right personnel, using an “opener” can be a highly effective strategy.
Actually, if you ask us, who the Yankees are trotting out in the Wild Card game might be way crazier.
Thumbnail photo via Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY Sports Images