The Oakland Athletics tried something innovative in the playoffs and got run out of the Bronx on Wednesday night, and there’s something too familiar and appropriate about that.
It’s been 15 years since Moneyball dropped, and sometimes it seems the yelling hasn’t stopped since.
There are many more actors and many more factors beyond executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane and the A’s who bear responsibility for baseball’s data revolution, but the “scouts vs. stats” debate has never been about nuance.
Beane has always been the bogeyman for those who feel baseball’s traditions are under assault, some who mistakenly believe he wrote the book that made him a household name. His methods turned loose a generation of statistical zealots, who chafe at the concept of intangibles, rarely trust anyone older than 50 and occasionally, to paraphrase John Wooden, confuse innovation with achievement.
The chasm between these camps has shortened considerably, of course. No major league franchise punts on either traditional scouting or analytics. Yet the tension that has simmered just below the surface since Michael Lewis’ best-seller brought Beane’s methods to the masses remains.
In a way, it all seemed to culminate Wednesday night in the American League wild-card game, the A’s 97 wins on a shoestring budget sending them to play the big-bucks, 100-win Yankees.
New York would start its ace, Luis Severino, who chews up innings and throws 98 mph and on this night would go as long and hard as he can.
Oakland would make playoff history and “bullpen” this game, starting a 31-year-old Australian named Liam Hendriks, followed by a parade of relievers Beane and GM David Forst collected like bitcoins at the trade deadline.
Big Oil won this one: Severino blew through four-plus innings of shutout ball. Hendriks dug a hole after just two batters – leadoff walk, Aaron Judge home run – that the A’s could not escape.
Even the move that made manager Bob Melvin the darling of the advanced-stats crowd – going to his peerless closer, Blake Treinen, in the sixth inning – blew up terribly. Treinen gave up seven earned runs all season, but allowed five to cross on this night – two he inherited from Fernando Rodney and three he coughed up himself, the final a towering Giancarlo Stanton home run.
That blow put a bow on the Yankees’ 7-2 victory and loaded the Beane haters for bear once again.
They’d be best to save it, just as the game’s progressive minds would be wise to slow their roll on disruption just a bit.
After all, there was a train of thought that both teams should go the bullpen route this game. Sure, Severino was an All-Star, but he had a bumpy second half and, along with Masahiro Tanaka, inspired fear among Yankee fans in a do-or-die situation. Lefty J.A. Happ, brilliant since his July acquisition from Toronto, might be an imprudent choice against the A’s power-hitting right-handed hitters.
Instead, both teams did something truly novel: Giving themselves the best chance to win.
Have you seen the A’s starting rotation? A dozen starters have been shelved by injuries, and they did well to turn it on in the second half behind scrap heap starters Trevor Cahill, Edwin Jackson and Mike Fiers.
But Cahill got banged up down the stretch, too. Fiers is a flyball pitcher. Jackson is the ultimate gamer, but nothing in the 35-year-old journeyman’s peripherals screams, “Start me in a do-or-die game!”
So, bullpenning it was, for better or worse. The only quibble we can truly raise is how, they bullpenned, not whether they should.
When we checked in on the A’s in September, it seemed obvious to us that bullpenning the wild-card game would be wise. They’d done some low-grade experiments with Hendriks at that point, but with a few weeks of season left to play with, they should have more aggressively explored other “opener” options beyond Hendriks.
Opening with your closer does sound like madness, but if the greatest reliever in the AL this season manages two – even three – shutout innings at the game’s outset, he’d have nearly matched Severino’s output. What’s more, he’d be starting an inning fresh – no runners on, clean slate, all that.
Instead, Melvin had little choice but to drop Treinen into the fire when the A’s backs were against the wall. And they ended up depreciating their greatest asset in this experiment.
“They knew everything was kind of up for grabs tonight depending on what the situation of the game was,” Melvin said afterward. “So we’re not going to that with Treinen earlier in the year, but the point in time in the game, we’re trying to cut it off.”
As for the Yankees, they don’t survive this game without their own stellar bullpen covering the final 15 outs, starting with Dellin Betances erasing Severino’s fifth-inning jam. That bullpen also isn’t as effective if they don’t hand the ball to their All-Star ace out of the gate.
So it’s the A’s going home early again, as they did in AL Division Series losses in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2012 and 2013, along with a wild-card game loss in 2014. Interpreting those losses will break along party lines, some claiming they prove Beane’s shortcomings, the others noting his consistent winning is a rousing endorsement, playoff randomness be damned.
Wednesday night, the A’s bet big and lost. Yet we’re fairly certain bullpenning is not going away any time soon.
Kind of like Beane’s A’s.