I want to start this all off by saying that Liam Hendriks did not cost the Oakland Athletics the game last night. Nor, for that matter, did their use of an “opener” cost them the game. They lost the game because the Yankees shut down the A’s bats until it didn’t matter anymore and Aaron Judge and the Yankees lineup is super, super good, and they would’ve scored runs against anyone. The better team won. I don’t think the outcome would’ve been different if the A’s had started Mike Fiers or whoever. Heck, I don’t think it’d have been different if they had started an in-his-prime Dave Stewart.
But I also think that the manner in which the A’s used Hendriks and the opener was far from optimal and that last night’s game should stand as a lesson reminding us that how one bullpens in the postseason has to be very different from how one bullpens between April and September.
At the outset, I’ll provide my usual disclaimer when it comes to talking about bullpenning and the use of openers and whatnot: I’m on record of not being a big fan of it. As I wrote last month, that objection is not one rooted in baseball analysis. It’s about aesthetics and personal enjoyment, so in no way should my complaining about it be taken as an objective criticism. Indeed, for a lot of the reasons so many who are smarter than me have stated, there is a lot to recommend heavy bullpen use, particularly in the postseason.
Though I didn’t write about it before last night’s game, I am a bit more skeptical — objectively skeptical — of the use of an opener in a postseason game, however. I’m skeptical of it because my understanding of the use of an opener is that it’s a strategy employed to mitigate a lack of pitching depth that could harm a team over the long haul of the baseball season with its deployment covering for the fact that, once or twice a week, there aren’t many better options. That by using an opener and a parade of arms on a Monday or Tuesday, it may work to keep the entire pitching herd a bit more fresh come the weekend.
That’s not necessarily the same calculus as the use of an opener in a postseason game, let a lone a one-and-done postseason game like last night’s Wild Card game. To be sure, there could still be a benefit by having a dominant, shutdown reliever starting for one inning in a postseason game. If it works it clears the top and, presumably, the most dangerous part of the order at least one time around and that matters when every at bat matters. But if you aren’t using a dominant, shutdown reliever in that spot, you’re really just using a sub-optimal pitcher in a high leverage situation. And yes, “tied in an elimination game” is high leverage whether that occurs in the first inning or the eighth.
By using someone other than one of your best relievers in that spot in the playoffs, you’re using the opener like you might do in June which, as noted above, is a multi-game strategy. I can’t say that I know a ton about modern pitching philosophy, but I do know that you should not use strategies that might pay off tomorrow when there may not BE a tomorrow.
I think Liam Hendriks is a pretty nifty guy, but I don’t think he’s one of the A’s top relievers. If the A’s were using a traditional approach and starting a traditional starter, Hendriks is not getting called on to get them out of a late inning jam or to close things out in the ninth. That’d be Blake Treinen or Jeurys Familia. Indeed, the last time Hendriks was used in a traditional relief pitching, non-opener role was over the weekend when he entered in the sixth inning with a five run lead. That sort of tells you where he stands on the pecking order.
That he was used as an opener in the highest leverage of games last night was a function of his familiarity with the role of opener — he was used as one eight times in games that didn’t matter all that much in September — not because he was the best chance to shut the top of the Yankees order. Which, when you think about it, is allowing the allegedly least important part of traditional pitcher usage — a guy’s comfort level in a set role — to dictate your deployment of non-traditional strategy. Imagine how much we’d jump all over some old school manager who put a relief pitcher in a sub-optimal situation at the end of a game simply because “that’s where he’s most comfortable.” I think many of the same people who cheer on the crazy disruption of pitcher usage we see these days would be carrying the torches and decrying such backwards thinking.
All of which is to say that, sure, you can use an opener in an elimination game, but the same rules that apply to all elimination games should apply there too: use everything you’ve got and do whatever you can to win. Use your best pitchers in high leverage situations, no matter their traditional role. I think that by having Liam Hendriks pitching to Aaron Judge with a man on in a tied elimination game was a violation of that principle. It was a situation that was pretty likely to come up too. You knew he was batting second and all it took for him to make it a multi-run game was for Andrew McCutchen to reach. Which he does at a really good clip. One home run later and the A’s were in a hole they’d never climb out of.
Again, I want to be clear: Liam Hendriks didn’t cost Oakland the game. Luis Severino, Dellin Betances and some good Yankees hitters did. What’s more, given that the A’s best relievers got lit up themselves later, there were no guarantees that using them as openers would’ve led to a better outcome.
But I do believe that using a regular season strategy and having your, what, fourth? fifth? best reliever taking on the top of the New York Yankees order in a tied elimination game is not something anyone would every recommend. Yet the A’s did it.