Bullpenning, or a severe reliance on bullpens, has become the prevalent way to construct a pitching staff in 2019. Then the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals decided to go to the World Series with premier starting pitching.
Whether it be the Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers, or any other team, it has become a frequent occurrence to see a team use an opener or take starters out of games earlier than in previous decades. While the Astros and Nationals have each used an opener and utilized their bullpens in crafty ways this season, they got to the Fall Classic on the shoulders of their prolific starting rotations.
And it’s not like they have rotations with pitchers who have pitched well. Their rotations are made up of starters who are potential and, in some cases, likely Hall of Famers.
One could argue that Verlander has never been more dominant than he is right now. He has an overpowering fastball, gets hitters to wave at his curveball, and pitches deep into games. One could argue that Cole has been the best pitcher in Major League Baseball this season. He has great control of his high 90s fastball, is overpowering hitters with his slider, and recording strikeouts at an absurd rate (Cole totaled 326 strikeouts in the regular season).
Greinke is a silent assassin. While his fastball peaks in the high 90s, he counters the deficiency by getting hitters to bite at pitches on the corners, deceiving them with his breaking pitches, and mixing his fastball late into counts. Right-hander Brad Peacock put together an impressive season as a consistent starter and has been an asset out of manager AJ Hinch‘s bullpen as an opener and getting late-inning outs this postseason.
The Nationals go toe-to-toe with this staff.
The Nationals signed or, in some cases, extended their rotation, which includes Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, on hefty deals for a combined $525 million; they’ve all been worth the price of admission.
Scherzer is a perennial Cy Young Award winner who hasn’t lost a step with age. He grinds through outings, records strikeouts at a high rate, has a killer slider and changeup, and doesn’t give into hitters. Strasburg is a stone-cold killer. He dominates by means of a consistent three-pitch arsenal (four seamer, curveball, and changeup), gets hitters to whiff badly at pitches, and goes deep into games.
Corbin has come into his own as an elite left-hander. He has a merely unhittable slider, is getting hitters to chase on the pitch as well as other offerings, and has made some pivotal appearances out of the bullpen this postseason. Veteran right-hander Anibal Sanchez has surrendered just one run in 12.2 innings pitched this postseason, including carrying a no-hit bit through 7.2 innings in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
You could argue that four of the 10 best pitchers in baseball are on one of these two World Series rosters. That’s incredible.
These pitchers also provide their managers with a sense of trust and comfortability. Games 1 and 2 of the World Series embodies that element of the game.
While he surrendered five runs, including two home runs, Cole pitched through the seventh inning in Game 1. Even after the Nationals struck for three runs in the fifth inning, Cole beared down, cleared his mind of past innings, stuck to his repertoire, and made some adjustments on the fly. In doing so, Hinch needed to get just six outs from his bullpen, putting that aspect of their roster in great shape moving forward in the series.
From the Nationals’ standpoint, Scherzer has the resolve to overcome adversity. After a first-inning, two-run double by Yuli Gurriel, the upbeat right-hander grinded his way through five innings, despite surrendering eight baserunners. What guarantee is there that a reliever who hasn’t pitched in a live game in over a week or an inexperienced postseason pitcher comes in and gets through the jams, keeping the Nationals in the game? Nationals manager Dave Martinez has also used some of his starters out of the bullpen for both multi-inning and situational circumstances.
Meanwhile, after surrendering a first inning two-run home run to Alex Bregman, Strasburg pitched five scoreless innings en route to the Nationals’ convincing 12-3 Game 2 victory.
Game 5 of the Astros’ American League Championship Series matchup with the New York Yankees is another great example. After surrendering four runs, including two home runs, in the first inning, Verlander settled down, sticked to his guns, and surrendered just one baserunner after Aaron Hicks‘ first-inning three-run home run — putting their bullpen in ideal shape for an eventual bullpen day in Game 6.
If it were the regular season or a team with a more modern-day mindset — or at least one severely committed to such an approach — in one of the four aforementioned situations, they’re almost surely removing their starter from the game, especially after they surrender multiple home runs. Hinch and Martinez stick with their aces and don’t give into the moment or trends — and it works.
Yes, there’s merit behind not wanting a pitcher to face an order three times or a reliever seeing a hitter twice. At the same time, there’s hallmark value to a pitcher having his way against a lineup. Look at Cole surrendering one run in his first 22.2 innings pitched and Scherzer surrendering one run over an 18-inning stretch this postseason. Was letting the two stars go deep into games a bad decision?
There’s nothing wrong with buying into modern-day approaches, but it’s important not to discount traditional mindsets. Heck, the Astros and Nationals got to the World Series by building formidable starting rotations. If anything, this World Series matchup shows how traditional thinking should still come before making players and situations a pure calculation.
Game 1 featured Cole and Scherzer. Game 2 featured Verlander and Strasburg. Chances are we get another absurd pitching matchup in this series.
The Astros and Nationals starting rotations defy all 2019 pitching trends, and the two teams are doing it on baseball’s biggest stage.