Monday, December 28, 2015

Dave Henderson and the A's dynasty

The death this weekend of Dave Henderson prompted me to look back at the 1988-92 Oakland A's, a dynasty remembered mainly for its role in baseball's steroid explosion and for its continuing influence on bullpen use.

"Hendu" wasn't a great player, although he lasted 14 years in the majors. He had bounced around -- Seattle, Boston, San Francisco -- for seven seasons before landing with the A's and was a full-time player in only two of those seasons. He did have some moments of high drama for the 1986 Red Sox -- his two-out, two-strikes, game-saving, series-saving, ninth-inning homer off Donnie Moore in Game Five of the ALCS about as dramatic as it gets. But still, seven years and basically a bit piece.

Then he signed with Oakland as a free agent after the 1987 season, and his career changed. To that point, Henderson was a .253/.316/.429 hitter.

In 1988, his age 29 season, Hendu hit .304/.368/525 with 63 extra base hits, 95 RBIs and 100 runs. It was easily the best season of his career, and even though he regressed sharply the following season, he rebounded with solid seasons in 1990 and 91 before injuries and age did him in.

Henderson was Oakland's regular center fielder for four seasons, 1988-91. In those four seasons, the A's won three AL pennants and one World Series (and were highly favored to win the other two). They won 390 games in those four seasons, 306 of them in the first three, the pennant years.

They were the Bash Brothers: Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire in the middle of the lineup, of course, but they also had (for a couple of years) Rickey Henderson in his second go-around in Oakland, plus Carney Lansford at third base, Terry Steinbach behind the plate, Walt Weiss at short, the aged Dave Parker for the bulk of the designated hitter duties and a rotation anchored by Dave Stewart and Bob Welch. That's a strong roster.

And the bullpen. This was the team which which Tony LaRussa invented the one-inning closer. Managers had, for about a decade, been trying to restrict bullpen aces to save situations, cutting back from the almost insane workloads of the early 1970s. But most aces were still working two or even three-innings at times. LaRussa used Dennis Eckersley differently, and within a couple of years everybody else was aping him. The A's expanded the number of relief pitchers they carried to accommodate the restricted use of the closer; everybody else quickly followed suit. The rise of seven-man bullpens and multiple lefty relievers pushed platoons out of the game.

Dave Henderson didn't have much if anything to do with that aspect of the Bash Brothers A's, of course. I don't know if he had anything to do with the steroid culture either. But he was a key piece of a a team that deserves to be remembered.

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