Bock’s Score: The Bullpen Game Is The Newest Analytics Mistake

In the wonderful world of New Age baseball, the analytics and sabermetrics crowd can never rest.

First they gave us launch angles and spin rates. Then it was exit velocity and defensive shifts. And of course, don’t forget those old alphabet favorites like WAR and WHIP. But that was not enough. The latest wrinkle is the Bullpen Game, whereby you do away with the traditional starting pitcher and go instead with a parade of relievers to eat up the nine innings.

The starter is no longer called the starter. That would be too old school. Instead the first pitcher is called the opener, promoted from the bullpen corps to, well, open. He is expected to pitch an inning maybe two and then turn the game over to the next reliever.

That takes maybe half a dozen pitchers, maybe more, to get through the traditional nine innings. And what happens if the game stretches into extra innings? Who pitches then? That’s anybody’s guess. Maybe the guys who once were – you should excuse the expression – starters.

The Oakland A’s, ancestral home of Moneyball and the beginnings of the baseball revolution, decided to embrace this tactic in the American League wild card game against the New York Yankees. And so, in a spot where the old A’s would once have started an ace, Oakland turned to Liam Hendriks, a 29-year-old Australian pitcher.

Hendriks would be be described as a marginal member of the pitching staff, so marginal in fact, that the A’s designated him for assignment in mid-season and, finding no takers, sent him to the minor leagues. He spent July and August there and was a Sept. 1 call-up.

Hendriks can best be described as a journeyman with brief stays in Minnesota, Toronto and Kansas City before settling in Oakland. His career record is 12-22 including 0-1 this season in 25 games with the A’s eight of them starts.

And in the most important game of the year, an elimination game, Liam Hendriks was Oakland’s starter … oops … make that opener.

The plan was not exactly a success. Hendriks walked the first batter and then was touched for an Aaron Judge home run. Two batters into the game, Oakland was trailing 2-0 and went on to lose 7-2. The A’s used five pitchers after Hendriks to no avail.

Billy Beane, the A’s front office boss and a major analytic guru, was not deterred by the defeat. He thinks the Bullpen Game is here to stay and will be employed frequently by other teams.  And why not? Eating up your bullpen in game after game makes so much sense.

The Bullpen Game did not originate in Oakland. The Tampa Bay Rays used it often during the season and other teams have experimented with it as well.

It is, well, different, like most of New Age Baseball is and that is what its defenders probably like best about it. We do not want baseball to be old fashioned even though old fashioned worked just fine for 150 years or so.

About the Author

Hal Bock

Hal Bock is a contributor with NY Sports Day. He has covered sports for 40 years at The Associated Press including 30 World Series, 30 Super Bowls and 11 Olympics. He is the author of 14 books including most recently The Last Chicago Cubs Dynasty and Banned Baseball's Blacklist of All-Stars and Also-Rans. He has written scores of magazine articles and served as Journalist In Residence at Long Island University's Brooklyn campus where he also served on the selection committee for the George Polk Awards.

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