Trends can be cool, but they can also be annoying. In Major League Baseball, the reliance on bullpens, more specifically bullpen day, is a trend that has generated mixed reviews. It’s unconventional and somewhat of an analytical creation, but an intriguing discussion nevertheless. With that said, despite the gradual rise of bullpenning, the prototypical ace will never fade into the dark.
Last season the Tampa Bay Rays made headlines when manager Kevin Cash decided to go with an “opener” in place of a starting pitcher and use his bullpen to extremes. The backlash was what you would expect: “you’re a tool looking for attention,” “you’re ruining the game,” “stop running your team based on numbers instead of feel.” And let’s be honest: while you may have been intrigued by bullpenning, was your initial reaction that it would be good for the game?
The thinking is that if you use multiple pitchers in a game, hitters won’t know what to expect when they step in the batter’s box because they’ll be seeing three-to-four pitchers over the course of the game. And it’s not irrational to be of this mindset because if you can keep the opposing team guessing, you give yourself a chance to win every game you play. Besides, it didn’t hurt the Rays last season.
While they hovered around .500 for the majority of the year, the Rays finished 2018 with 90 wins — which was extremely impressive considering how they traded several veteran players during and before the regular season. In doing so they had 14 pitchers throw at least 50 innings. So the first trial worked out well.
Then other teams took bullpenning a step further.
The Oakland Athletics opted to use an opener in their American League Wild Card Game matchup with the New York Yankees, starting reliever Liam Hendriks. While the A’s 7-2 loss was mostly due to their inability to push runners across the plate, the game felt over when Hendriks surrendered a first inning two-run home run to Aaron Judge; it was a discouraging way to kick off the game for their sake.Though the bullpen revolution is only getting started, @RPStratakos has an argument to the contrary: an ace starting pitcher can never be phased out of the game.Click To Tweet
One day later Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell started reliever Brandon Woodruff in Game 1 of their National League Division Series matchup with the Colorado Rockies and pulled the right-hander after three innings. While the Brewers won the game and Woodruff didn’t surrender a run, it was remarkable to see a 96-win team (the Brewers) start a reliever over a starting pitcher in a playoff game. Two weeks later Counsell pulled another rabbit out of his hat. After starting Wade Miley in Game 5 of the team’s NLCS matchup with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Counsell removed the left-hander after one batter. It turned out that decoying Miley as their starter and going back to him in Game 6 was indeed the Brewers’ intention. Yeah, wowza!
So, what have we learned from the inaugural season of bullpenning? Well, for starters, it’s not going anywhere, and many teams are of the mindset that it works, whether we like it or not. But the importance of an ace, or workhorse starter, was put on full display when bullpenning failed. While their pen was one of the best in the sport last season, a team playing for its life on the road (the A’s) went with a reliever on a short leash over a starting pitcher, and it didn’t work. Think about that.
Here’s the difference between the Rays management of their pitching staff and how the Brewers and A’s manage theirs: the Rays have an ace. Last season left-hander Blake Snell recorded a 1.89 ERA and 0.97 WHIP while totaling 221 strikeouts in 31 outings. As a result of his heroics Snell was awarded the AL Cy Young Award. In three years, the southpaw has established himself as an ace and one of the best pitchers in the sport. You could even make the case that Snell is one of, if not the most important player to his team in MLB.
Right now the Rays have three true starting pitchers, that being Snell, free agent addition Charlie Morton, and Tyler Glasnow. Down the stretch of 2018 Snell and Glasnow were the team’s only consistent starting pitchers, in terms of appearances. Outside of them it’s a pitching staff of long and backend relievers. Assessing a pitcher on their win-loss record is dicey, but Snell’s 21 wins in 2018 were earned based on his ability to shut down opposing teams. If you removed him from the Rays roster, they’re not a playoff threat this season and likely wouldn’t have finished with a winning record in 2018.
Outside of Snell you can point to several top-flight pitchers whose importance to their teams is priceless. Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals, Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets (who won the NL Cy Young Award in 2018), Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Aaron Nola of the Philadelphia Phillies, Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros, Chris Sale of the Boston Red Sox, and Corey Kluber of the Cleveland Indians are among the elite starters in the sport. Remove those pitchers from their respective teams and some of them wouldn’t have a realistic chance of making the postseason.
The notion that elite starting pitchers are replaceable and don’t matter in MLB today is utterly absurd. Are players developed through the minor leagues and with the guidance of some of the best pitching coaches in the world? Of course, but no one is going to peak the workload for pitchers at three innings. If that were to become the new norm, you would see pitchers blowing their arms out as a result of going all out to get six to nine outs. Then what?
When pitchers go through an order for a third time, teams begin to figure them out, but the great ones adjust on the fly, stick to their guns, and overcome the adversity. These are the ones who can pitch seven-plus innings even when they get hit hard, and it saves their team’s bullpen. How many teams advanced deep into the postseason without a true ace? The A’s didn’t make it past the Wild Card Game, and the Brewers are never going to win a World Series until they have an ace, no matter how stacked their bullpen is.
MLB needs to market its games and have something to sell its fans on when it concerns going to the ballpark, or watching games on television. You can only boast about the likes of Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Jose Altuve, Bryce Harper, and Judge so much. What sounds better: Max Scherzer takes the hill for the Nationals as they face-off against Jacob deGrom and the Mets, or Yusmeiro Petit (a reliever) takes the hill for the A’s as they face-off against Jaime Barria and the Los Angeles Angels? While there may be individuals who are enamored by bullpen day — which is understandable — are the majority of baseball fans more inclined to be compelled by an ace taking the hill, or a team burning through its bullpen?
Baseball has a very select crowd. Among the four major professional sports in the nation (baseball, football, basketball, and hockey), baseball has more fans who are, at times, into baseball and none of the other three sports. If teams begin to make baseball a game solely based on numbers and take premier starting pitchers out of the game, some fans are going to feel repulsed and move on. And if you’re looking to attract more fans, does more commercials for pitching changes make people stay tuned, or change the channel?
When a starter, especially an elite one, is in a groove, he can be unhittable and strike out the side. When a team continually can’t figure out a pitcher, they try to work the count and get him out of the game. An ace in a groove late in the game is more intimidating than a lights-out reliever. When a reliever comes into the game, all it takes is one baserunner to change the inning and/or potentially get in his head.
As long as teams continue to push buttons on their calculator and find new equations to evaluate players, bullpenning will continue to be a driving force in MLB. But the old school ace isn’t going anywhere; you can’t win without one, and there’s no analytic to refute it.