J.B. Wendelken Brings Effective Relief to the Diamondbacks
The 2021 Arizona Diamondbacks season saw several mid-season acquisitions. One of their best pickups was right-handed reliever J.B. Wendelken, who was designated for assignment by the Oakland Athletics. The Diamondbacks picked him up off the waiver wire on August 11, and Wendelken quickly became a trusted late-inning fixture.
J.B. Wendelken was one of the few bright spots in the 2021 Diamondbacks relief corps, pitching dependably in the back end. In 20 appearances, Wendelken pitched 15 scoreless outings — a 75% Scoreless Outing Percentage, almost six percentage points higher than the NL average of 69.4%. His WHIP across his 18 2/3 innings was a respectable 1.286, and he had the best goose egg to broken egg ratio on the team, 8.0 to 1. In addition, he had a 1.440 average leverage index, second on the team to the now-departed Tyler Clippard. Since Clippard was injured for almost all of Wendelken’s stint with the team, this means that the Diamondbacks turned to Wendelken in the situations with the highest pressure.
For a team that needed help in multiple areas, Wendelken was a godsend. Most relievers end up specializing in one area, whether it be long relief, middle relief, seventh-inning setup, eighth-inning setup, or closer. Wendelken had all of those roles during his time in Oakland. “I was the long guy, setup guy, the third man, I was kind of all over the place,” Wendelken said. “Whatever was hot that day. And if guys were down, I’d fill in spots. It seemed like my role was to be as versatile as possible. If someone needs me to go three innings, I’ll rock that three.”
“I Wasn’t Providing That Service”
J.B. Wendelken played a role in getting the Athletics into the playoffs in 2020. In the Wild Card Round against the Chicago White Sox, Wendelken was lights-out, allowing no runs on one hit in 3 2/3 innings. He struggled against the Houston Astros in the Division Series, allowing six runs (two earned) on four hits in one inning across two appearances. “(The) wheels fell off — four singles in a row,” he said. “That started (my) downfall, but it’s the playoffs. Guys are on their P’s and Q’s.”
With the Athletics in 2021, Wendelken didn’t have any nightmarish outings, but he had several outings where he gave up one run. July was a particularly rough month for him, giving up a run or more in six of his ten outings. “It accumulated to where I was throwing 30, 40 pitches and couldn’t go the next day if they needed me. They needed long relief, and I wasn’t providing that service at the time for them. So I understand why (they DFAed me).”
J.B. Wendelken Joins the Diamondbacks
That was August 10. One day later, the Diamondbacks came calling. How did Wendelken feel? “Excited,” he replied. “I was ecstatic to get a job again and go out there and actually just pitch, to be honest with you. It was a while since I (had last thrown). So when I got met up with the D-Backs, after I got DFAed, they said, ‘Hey, we want you to be yourself. Go back to being you.’ Then I felt like I hit a groove there. I was thinking, ‘I can trust myself again. I’m not trying to be perfect and doing all the little things right. I’ll just throw the ball and see what happens.’ And I hit a good stretch there to where I felt pretty good about it.”
Wendelken’s 4.34 ERA was, adjusted for Chase Field’s Park Factor, higher than the NL average. However, he only pitched 18 2/3 innings, so that was deceptively high. Two pitches made his ERA jump from 2.30 to 4.34 — a three-run home run in Denver (welcome to the club) and a two-run homer in Seattle. “It was like, ‘Come on, man!’” he joked.
And with the off-season additions of Ian Kennedy to do eighth-inning setup and Mark Melancon to pitch the ninth, Wendelken’s versatility will be an asset. Now he will most likely pitch in the sixth or seventh inning. It doesn’t matter to him, though. He said in late 2021 that he just wants to be in the game. He’ll do whatever the team asks him to do.
This mindset is a result of maturity, something that his experience in and while leaving Oakland forced him to do. Wendelken said that, in Oakland, “I matured as much as I could. From them getting rid of me, I realized that your job is not safe. You’ve got to work hard at every turn. So it’s one of those things where you stay true to yourself, but you also need to get better every single day. Someone’s always after your job, so you’ve always got to keep going.
“It seems repetitive, because we all say that, but that’s the gosh-honest truth. Between everything you’ll hear any of us say, someone’s always right behind you. So you do you can sit either around and be lazy or you can work your tail off to get to where you need to.”
Working one’s tail off can lead to pressing, or trying too hard to be successful. When a player presses, his performance suffers. Wendelken understands the balance. “There’s a fine line you got to walk. You can’t put that much pressure on yourself. The game is still at the same speed. I’ve thrown many, many innings, and literally nothing changes. It’s just a different hitter in the box and a different day. You have to keep that mentality that you’re going to punch out everybody you face, and when things get a little dicey, you’ve got to figure your way out of it.”
J.B. Wendelken Discusses the Challenge of Relieving
Being a reliever is a huge challenge. Starters usually have time to recover from a rough inning. Relievers sometimes don’t have enough time to recover from a bad at-bat, since they pitch so late in the game. But that is only the beginning, according to Wendelken. “It’s always a bigger challenge being a reliever. You don’t get your five days of rest. But there’s always a thing. Starters get five days of rest, but they have to throw six or seven innings. We (relievers) never know when we’re going to pitch, but we’ve got to be ready, and be ready to go pretty quick. Then (we have to) get out there and do our job (as if) we had five days of rest. It’s just all mentality.
“So you have to be ready to go at all times. Is it easier than starting? Absolutely not. Is it easier than hitting? Absolutely not. Can you compare them all to be about the same amount of toughness? You can. There are arguments all around the board.” Simply being a baseball player is tough. When compared to other sports, “baseball is the hardest thing ever. It’s an individual sport based off perfection. (When) you’re not perfect, somebody will let you know that you’re not.”
Pick Up Your Next Guy
When relievers give up a game-tying or game-winning run late in the game, no one feels worse than they do. J.B. Wendelken shared what the other relievers do in that situation. “All we can do is (this). When you come in, you have to pick your next guy up. When you inherit runners, you don’t let them score. That’s the main goal. You don’t let somebody get around the bases. That’s the main goal every time. But picking each other up —they already know we have their backs out there, no matter what happens. All we can do is wait on our turn to be called and roll out there. And when we do, not let them get another foot.”