A's bullpen approach reportedly causing problems in clubhouse

The Oakland Athletics are among Major League Baseball’s most surprising contending teams this season. However, the Athletic’s Julian McWilliams reports that a late-season change in pitching philosophy could threaten to disrupt the relationship between the players and front office.

It all started over the weekend when the A’s became the latest team to adopt the “bullpenning” approach to pitching. Scheduled starter Daniel Mengden arrived to the ballpark for Saturday’s game against the Seattle Mariners expecting to begin his usual pregame routine. That’s when manager Bob Melvin informed him of the change in plans.

Instead, reliever Liam Hendriks was getting the starting nod as an opener, while Mendgen only knew he’d be pitching multiple innings in relief. The confusion admittedly led to frustration, and Mendgen’s performance suffered as a result.

Rather than go through one warm up routine, Mendgen was asked to warm up three different times before entering in the third inning. Seattle took advantage of the staggered Mendgen, scoring three runs in two innings. Now the entire A’s clubhouse seems to be wondering if bullpenning is necessary to achieve their goals.

What is bullpening?

The always evolving MLB landscape never ceases to provide new and unusual strategies. In 2018, “bullpenning” is all the rage.

While there’s no single definition for the term, more teams are giving it their own spin. The Tampa Bay Rays really got the ball rolling on this earlier this season, using veteran reliever Sergio Romo as their opening pitcher during a stretch of games. They now use an opener multiple times a week.

In Tampa Bay’s case, bullpenning helps cover for a severe lack in starting pitching depth. Their strategy effectively removes the starting pitcher from the equation entirely on select days, replacing him with an endless string of relief pitchers. The Rays have found great success with it too, posting one of the league’s best ERAs since starting the trend on May 19.

Why make the change now?

The A’s obviously took notice of Tampa Bay’s success.

After recent injuries to starters Sean Manaea and Brett Anderson left their rotation depth even thinner, they’ve decided bullpenning can help cover their rotation shortcomings.

A new pitching strategy has left the A’s confused and frustrated, according to reports. (AP)
A new pitching strategy has left the A’s confused and frustrated, according to reports. (AP)

Why do A’s pitchers dislike the strategy?

According to McWilliams’ report, the pitchers believe bullpenning is too gimmicky and believe that it’s way too late in a successful season to try something none of them are used to.

For the most part, pitchers are creatures of habit. That’s especially true for starters. They prefer getting to the ballpark knowing what they have to do and when they have to do it to get ready. This strategy changes it completely for the starter involved, creating an adjustment period that the A’s can’t really afford right now.

“It’s going to affect the routine a little bit,” Mengden said after Saturday’s game. “But you have to adjust to it. It’s a little different sitting down for an inning or two in the bullpen. But playing at this level you have to be ready for anything and make adjustments on the fly.”

Mendgen adjusted well the second time he was asked to follow a reliever, tossing 4 2/3 scoreless innings of relief in Tuesday’s game against the New York Yankees. However, frustration remains in the clubhouse because such a drastic change came without any warning. Players like knowing what’s going on, and like being able to prepare ahead of time.

The report says players know the new strategy is coming from an analytics driven front office led by Billy Beane and Adam Forst, which they believe impedes manager Bob Melvin from doing his job.

In the grand scheme, it might prove to be a minor drama. But any added drama right now could prove problematic for Oakland.

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