Among the many ideas that have surfaced about a potential 2020 Major League Baseball season have been the prospect of seven-inning doubleheaders. If that comes to fruition and/or becomes a prevalent occurrence, teams with great starting pitching can coast to the playoffs.
When a prototypical ace takes the hill, the opposition expects them to go at least six, maybe seven innings depending on how dominant they can be. Imagine a scenario where them doing so is a complete game. They get into a groove on the hill and don’t have to even think about facing an order a fourth time.
Empty the tank, and call it a day.
Even in outings where pitchers struggle, all they have to do is bear down and get through five innings, leaving their bullpen to get just six outs. In a day and age where relievers are so heavily leaned on, seven-inning doubleheaders takes weight off their shoulders. They’d have to get six less outs — barring extra innings — and even if the team’s starting pitcher gets rocked they only have to find a way to get through a few innings.
The league average for innings thrown by a starting pitcher per game by team last season was 5.2. The Los Angeles Angels were last, with starters averaging 4.2 innings per start. Let’s keep the average number the same for 2020: a manager needs four outs from his bullpen. In the latter situation, a team needs just eight outs from its bullpen.
It’s possible that some relievers make a mere appearance a week or perhaps they make several one-batter appearances; their arms will be fresh. A reliever can finish the game on his own or a manager focuses on jamming specific hitters, calling a new arm to the mound multiple times an inning.
If you have a shaky bullpen all you need is great starting pitching, and your wound is essentially healed. Last season the World Series-champion Washington Nationals were 29th in bullpen ERA (5.68). Meanwhile, the New York Mets bullpen finished with a 4.99 ERA.
The National League East rivals each had stellar starting pitching. Neither team has to live with apprehension over whether their bullpen will turn a collective corner in 2020 because their top-of-the-rotation forces, specifically the Nationals because Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard recently underwent Tommy John surgery, can get them near or to the finish line whenever they take the hill.
It’s a near-one-year free pass even if these doubleheaders are only played every other week.
How about a team like the Atlanta Braves? They’ve dealt with bullpen inconsistency in recent memory but remained a competitive force in the NL. Six outs are removed from the equation. Budding young starters such as Mike Soroka, Mike Foltynewicz, and Max Fried make for a compelling pitching trio, and now they can offset the team’s long-standing deficiency.
Which teams, as a whole, will be at an advantage in 2020? They still have to be deep across the board in addition to having reliable starting pitching, therefore the Nationals, Tampa Bay Rays, Los Angeles Dodgers, and St. Louis Cardinals, among a couple others would have a leg up.
The Nationals rotation includes Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin; the Rays rotation includes Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, and Tyler Glasnow; the Dodgers rotation includes Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, and David Price; the Cardinals rotation includes Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, and Miles Mikolas.
Now, employing a bullpen day can still be effective. Having an arm coming out of the bullpen every couple innings keeps an offense and a manager guessing, and plenty of playoff teams have found success doing as such. That said, a starting pitcher in a groove is more overpowering than three or four arms getting through a game.
How many teams have vibrant, young power hitters but shaky rotations? They tend to be rebuilding teams. Rebuilding teams theoretically get tied up in knots facing a lethal strikeout pitcher, and 2020 offers no escape from an evil pitching machine in the form of an ace: they either come up with timely hits or get shut down.
Perhaps there’s a contender with a respectable starting rotation but an iffy offense. What happens in a series against a team with a stout rotation? They likely won’t see a new face on the hill until the final inning, where they have to tie the score before recording three outs.
Perhaps MLB would go back to nine-inning games in the playoffs, as they’d have a month carved out for such play. If that happens then all bets are off: it’s like every other postseason in terms of the way the game is managed.
It’ll be feast or famine in the regular season: you either have the starting pitching or you don’t. Teams, especially past contenders, that have undermined that aspect of the game will be at a disadvantage in MLB’s unique and historic 2020 season. There may be a few surprise teams on the outside looking in at the postseason.