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The A’s are out of the postseason, but don’t blame the opener

The A’s didn’t have a starting pitcher for the 2018 Wild Card Game, and now they’re eliminated. Is that a coincidence?

Getty Images / SB Nation illustration

Because the A’s decided to use their entire bullpen instead of a traditional starting pitcher to win an elimination game, we’re knee deep in opinions.

Because they decided to do it in 2018, the year of the opener, the year the Rays stepped out on the ledge first, we’re knee deep in strong opinions.

Because it looked like a shaky strategy after six pitches and now the A’s are gone, well, it’s going to get silly.

It’s probably best to agree on some ground rules, then. The 2018 American League Wild Card League didn’t kill the opener. This game was a grain of sand in a litter box of evidence, and it will be afforded the same amount of weight. Sometimes pitchers give up runs, and sometimes — sometimes — a team’s pitchers will give up more runs than the other team’s pitchers. A future team will try a bullpen game in a Wild Card situation, and it will work.

Here’s the thing about it, though: When it doesn’t work, it looks like the shittiest plan in the world.

This is partially on me and the other olds! I’m old enough to have owned a TV that weighed as much as Joba Chamberlain, and this all seems strange to me. I’m used to starting pitchers who give way to middle relievers who give way to setup men who give way to closers. It’s all right there in the job description. You start. Then there’s a middle part. Then you set up the ending, and then you close the door. Why are you trying to make a cheesecake with bay leaves? Just make the damned cheesecake. There’s cheese and cake in the name, so start there.

It’s the aesthetics that bother us, not the strategy. Every baseball team since the 1800s has tackled the question of how to get 27 outs and finish with more runs than the other guys. We can all agree that the old way — the way that lasted more than a century — was silly. That old way was “Let some dude named Tom start and pitch forever if he doesn’t give up six runs,” and I would love to travel back in time and figure out how to weaponize a bullpen in the middle of that era.

Then came specialization and matchups and platoons, and now we’re in a different era where the eggheads can help mold the travel-ball kids who have been thinking about spin rate since they were teenagers. Everyone throws 97 with movement now, and if you can assemble seven or eight of these guys at once, you have Frankenstein Max Scherzer, ready to deploy whenever it’s convenient. That strategy makes sense. It makes sense, just to give one example, when you’re playing an elimination game that’s followed by a guaranteed off day in a season in which your starting rotation has been absolutely decimated with injuries.

The A’s, in other words, were a pretty sweet match of talent, need, and opportunity for this strategy.

It just looks so bad when it fails.

Andrew McCutchen walked, Aaron Judge flayed a baseball, and suddenly the A’s were dead. They had roughly an even chance to win three minutes prior, and then Judge’s home run booted them down to a win probability of 26.9 percent. And on the mound was Liam Hendricks, an extremely just-a-guy pitcher, even if he throws 97 with movement. His ERA was in the 4s, he was 12th in games pitched on the A’s, and he was designated for assignment during the season.

After the dust cleared and the Yankees held a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, you looked at Hendricks and said in your best Patrick Bateman voice, “Him?”

Yes, him, because it had to be someone. The six pitchers who appeared in the game for the A’s on Wednesday night threw combined 363⅔ innings with a 2.64 ERA this year. Pretend like the A’s had a starter, Garland Trambler, a throwback to the days of Old Hoss Radbourn. Of course that guy is starting the elimination game. He threw 363⅔ innings with a 2.64 ERA. Let the man pitch and don’t get too cute. It would be an affront to baseball if he didn’t pitch.

But the A’s didn’t have Garland Trambler. They had a six- or seven- or eight-headed bullpen monster, and the first guy was somewhere between a fringe reliever and a cornerstone, a pitcher who made you say, “Him?” It looks bad. It looks bad.

We have the perfect counter-example on the other side. If you think Hendricks was bad because he allowed a walk and a homer, let’s talk about Luis Severino in 2017, the Yankees starter who allowed two homers, two singles, and a walk to the six batters he faced, before he was unceremoniously removed from the game. That also looked bad, extraordinarily bad, and his manager had to scramble. The only difference was the scramble looked familiar. We’ve all seen that scramble before.

Looks like he doesn’t have it today. On to plan B.

That’s a codified, normal adjustment that we’ve seen a hundred times.

Picking a reliever out of a hat the start the most important game the franchise has played in three years, only to watch him struggle? That’s less normal. Less palatable.

Severino was an opener, too, though. The only difference is that maybe he was going to blow through the A’s or Twins in such a way that he’d pitch seven or eight innings, whereas that was never going to be the case with Hendricks. There’s more of a ceiling with a starting pitcher like Severino.

There’s also an easier safety net for our emotions when it comes to Severino: He’s the starter. He’s always been the starter. Starters start.

Which is all to say that we’ll get used to this. Instead of a starter who has a rough inning or two, we’ll watch an opener pick the wrong day to allow runs, and it will seem completely normal. It looks bad when someone like Hendricks is imperfect because it’s so strange for a team to roll without a starting pitcher, but the more teams try this strategy, the more natural it will feel.

Eventually, the screwups from the opener will feel like the screwups from a starting pitcher running into trouble in the third inning. They’ll require intervention and quick thinking, and they’ll hardly be noticable. They’ll just be regular ol’ screwups.

Until then, it doesn’t look great. The bullpen game is foreign and strange and unconventional and questionable. It’s easy to nitpick and easy to second guess, especially after it doesn’t work. Beware the opener, you might think. Look at its pitfalls. The A’s didn’t use a starting pitcher, and the A’s are out of the postseason, and it’s easy to draw a line between the two.

We’ll get used to it, though. The problem with the strategy right now is us. Put those hot takes back in the holster for now. It’s all just a matter of aesthetics.