OAKLAND — When Liam Hendriks was called back up to the Oakland Athletics on Sept. 1, he was checking into his hotel when Scott Emerson, the A’s pitching coach, called.
“He was like, ‘Hey, by the way, you’re starting tonight,'” Hendriks said at the end of August. “He says, ‘You’re starting, slash opening, tonight, and I wanted to give you a heads up.’ That was the first I’ve heard of it. I came to the field 20 minutes later, and here we are.”
Once a self-proclaimed mediocre starter who went 3-14 with a 5.95 ERA in 34 starts to start his career, Hendriks was converted to a reliever in 2015 with the Toronto Blue Jays. Now, he’s something else: He starts games, but isn’t a starter. He’s Oakland’s designated opener, and in 5 2/3 innings so far in the role, he’s allowed two runs.
“I’ve had a little bit more success as an opener than I did as a starter,” Hendriks said.
While the Tampa Bay Rays may have introduced the concept of the opener to Major League Baseball, the A’s have employed it five times so far this season, and will again on Tuesday against the visiting Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Hendriks has been the first man on the mound in each try.
In three of his opening appearances, Hendriks has been backed up by erstwhile true starter Daniel Mengden, and manager Bob Melvin said on Tuesday that Mengden “will be a part of this game today … at some point in time.”
“It’s just a straight relief appearance, but at the start of the game,” Hendriks said of his role. “You’re facing one through three. You could face one through three in the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and it’s the same deal as that. You’ve just got to attack that.”
After the Blue Jays turned Hendriks into a full-time reliever at the start of 2015, his velocity ticked up, and he narrowed his repertoire from fastball-curveball-slider-changeup to just his fastball and his slider. The former Aussie Rules football player also got some help.
“I went out there and attacked, and it helped that I had a pretty veteran catcher behind me in Russell Martin with the Jays,” Hendriks said. “Him and Jose Bautista helped me a lot. It was talking to guys like that and figuring out what they do and what their approach is to things, it translates no matter what position you’re playing.”
His ERA sank to 2.92 — the lowest of his career by more than two runs — in a career-high 58 appearances.
“Me going to the bullpen that year, there were a couple times where I struggled,” Hendriks said. “Bautista would pull me aside, and be like, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Stick to what you do. Don’t try to mess around with anything else. Just do what you do, and move from there.’ It seemed to work out.”
He had an effective 2016 with the A’s, sporting a 3.76 ERA in 53 games. In 2017, the A’s leaned on him even more, as he set a career high in appearances — 70 — while pitching at least 64 innings for the third straight season, and his ERA inched up to 4.22. Not awful for a middle reliever, but not exactly the stuff of closers. Or openers.
The A’s have been forced into using openers down the stretch this season because of two factors: One, they’ve had 10 starting pitchers go on the disabled list; and two, they’ve had one of the best bullpens in baseball for the majority of the season, and a trio of All-Star closers in Jeurys Familia, Fernando Rodney and Blake Treinen, along with set-up man Lou Trivino.
Hendriks wasn’t a part of that group, initially. In his first six appearances, he posted a 9.00 ERA. Then, he got a cyst removed from his right hip, which was sapping his velocity and taking away his back-leg drive.
“I was throwing in the 80s for the first time since 2014,” Hendriks said. “There’s a lot of instances that I was trying to reach back and throw it as hard as I can, and all of the sudden, I’m barely cracking 93. The velocity’s not the deal-breaker for me. It’s the fact that I had no life on it.”
When he came back, he posted a 6.75 ERA in seven appearances during June. He was designated for assignment on June 25.
During his time in Triple-A, Hendriks saw multiple relievers make starts for the Nashville Sounds. Healthy for the first time this season, he was able to up his velocity, find life on his fastball and, by the time starters Sean Manaea and Brett Anderson joined the disabled list, Hendriks was sporting a 2.84 ERA with six saves in seven opportunities with the Sounds. He’d pitched in 23 games, including one start on July 21. He went two innings, and allowed three hits.
Oakland’s first experiment with the opener on Sept. 1 was less than encouraging. Hendriks gave up two earned runs in 1 2/3 innings while Mengden gave up three in his two frames. Since then, neither has allowed another earned run.
“I would say we’re used to it now,” Melvin said. “You do it for the first time, especially a team that’s had success over the course of the season, all of the sudden, doing something a little bit differently can be uncomfortable. I don’t think anybody thinks too much about it now.”
The real question is whether or not the opener can work in the playoffs. Oakland is 1 1/2 games out of the first American League Wild Card spot (which would mean they would host the winner-take-all game at the Oakland Coliseum) and are four games out of first place in the AL West, with 12 to play.
Hendriks finds opening on the road a bit easier — he warms up in the bullpen during the first inning, just like he has the last three seasons — but he’s adjusted his routine at home. He gets on the mound about 10 minutes before a game, gets a couple warm-up pitches in, and then takes a seat in the dugout for the top of the first.
“I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Hendriks said. “I’m just doing what I’m used to doing, just at a different time in the game.”
The opener strategy may very well work in the one-game Wild Card scramble, but for a five-game series against the Boston Red Sox — owners of the best record in baseball — it may very well not. The A’s are 2-3 using the opener.
“We have to get there first,” Melvin said. “Rosters are made a little bit differently once you do get there, and we’ll consider that, if and when we do get there.”
Trevor Cahill may return to start for Oakland, soon, and that could help mightily with a possible playoff rotation. He played catch out to 120 feet before Tuesday’s game.
In other notes, Chad Pinder was announced as the winner of the A’s Dave Stewart Award for community service. I profiled his work in the community when he was nominated by the club for the Roberto Clemente Award.
“That’s great,” Melvin said. “Anybody around Pin knows what kind of guy he is. He’s the same guy off the field as he is on the field. For a guy that hasn’t been in the big leagues too long, he’s a leader in our clubhouse, as well. Everybody looks to him at times. It wouldn’t surprise me if he got into politics after baseball. He’s a smart guy, and guys kind of flock to him for leadership.”