Unorthodox pitcher usage was taken to a new extreme during the 2018 MLB season.
Most famously, the Tampa Bay Rays went all in on the concept of The Opener. Someone smarter than me logged onto the ol’ Baseball Reference dot com and found out that in every year since 2014, the inning that yielded the most runs was the first inning. Whereas the closer, the save, and preserving a pitcher for the ninth had all gone by the wayside, it now became completely fair to allocate one shutdown pitcher for the first inning, to stifle the rising tide of first-inning runs.
Their results with this approach were impressive. The Rays started the season with only three true starters— Chris Archer, Nathan Eovaldi and Blake Snell—and ended with just two: Snell and Tyler Glasnow (who was coming out of the bullpen with the Pittsburgh Pirates before he got traded anyway). In three out of five days, they gave the opening inning to their most dominant bullpen arms, and ended up going a very respectable 90-72. That would’ve been good enough to force a tiebreaker with the Atlanta Braves if they played in the NL East.
Trust me that I understand the reasoning and why it makes more sense to employ an opener. As a student of analytics, I understand how, unlike its ninth-inning counterpart, the opener actually responds to a quantifiable and observable trend.
But can you be successful in the postseason against the very best competition without several legitimate starters?
To a certain extent, perhaps. Recall that the Yankees gave the ball to their ace Luis Severino for the 2017 AL Wild Card Game, but improvised that into a bullpen game after Severino recorded just one out in the first inning. The Yankees eventually won against the Twins and ended up taking the Houston Astros to the wire in the ALCS before their dramatic exit. Then, the Brewers swept the 2018 NLDS over Rockies in three games despite intentionally employing a bullpen game in Game 1. Brandon Woodruff pitched three innings of no-hit ball before Craig Counsell cheekily pinch-hit for him with Domingo Santana. Santana popped out to center field, burning a valuable bench bat. It didn’t matter—Milwaukee’s relief corps dominated the opposing lineup from there.
However, these are still outliers. The common theme among the other three remaining teams in this year’s postseason field appears to be dominant starting pitching staffs with bona fide starting pitchers.
Starting Rotation Stats of Three CS Teams
|Team||IP||IP Rank||ERA||ERA Rank||FIP||FIP Rank||fWAR||fWAR Rank|
|Team||IP||IP Rank||ERA||ERA Rank||FIP||FIP Rank||fWAR||fWAR Rank|
The name of the game is depth in the rotation. Perhaps nobody embodies depth as well as the Houston Astros. They bring three veritable aces with them wherever they go, and put the rest of their very talented starters in the bullpen. This, in my opinion, is the most advanced thinking in the game. Just look at this:
The Astros ALDS bullpen is so stacked that if we take five of the big names who did *not* make the roster...— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) October 5, 2018
... they combined for a 3.40 ERA, a .223/.298/.387 line, and a 28% K.
Their .298 wOBA is basically Price/Bumgarner.
The fact that they have taken pitchers like Collin McHugh and Charlie Morton—both of whom could be reputable starters on any other rotation—and have weaponized them into long-relievers is simply brilliant. But it all starts at the top with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Dallas Keuchel.
And the same concept applies to the Dodgers and Red Sox. After rolling out the front end of their dominant staffs, they stash their fours and fives in the bullpen. The more a starter can stretch out a game, the less pressure there is applied to the ‘pen.
There is perhaps no better example of what an even-keeled manager and a dominant starter can do for a team than what happened to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 3 of the NLDS. After an incredible performance in the Dodgers’ Game 163, Walker Buehler was given the rock against the Atlanta Braves in SunTrust Park’s first playoff game. Buehler ran into trouble when he got the yips in the second inning and walked the pitcher to load the bases for Ronald Acuña Jr. After going down in the count 3-0 and receiving a pity strike on ball four, Acuña seemingly broke the game open.
What did Dave Roberts do? Did he panic? Did he scramble the jets and bring in Kenley Jansen immediately? He didn’t. Buehler went on to pitch three more innings after the launch, in which time the Dodgers tied the game up at five. Given, Alex Wood came in out of the pen and surrendered what would be the game winning home run to Freddie Freeman; that one is on Dave Roberts for feeding Wood to the proverbial Rancor of lefty pitchers.
But although Roberts lost the battle, he won the war. Instead of emptying the coffers in Game 3 and scraping the bottom of the barrel for innings in Game 4, his trust in Buehler gave him the ability to soften the blow on the bullpen. The next day, after Rich Hill turned in a shaky four innings, Roberts saw his jugular moment, and then released the hounds to secure the series win. He could only do so because he had perfectly preserved his arms.
To be fair and honest, the tension between deciding whether “to bullpen, or not to bullpen” comes down to whether a team is a have, or a have-not. The Astros, Dodgers, and Red Sox don’t have to worry about bullpenning, because their starting staffs are so dominant—they have the resources to keep such a deep staff. Smaller market teams like the Brewers, Rockies, and Athletics have to get creative.
But suggesting that the Yankees—who have the rotation depth to run game plans like the Astros and Dodgers—should forego stretching out their starters to put the ball in the hands of their relievers every day, for more than an inning or so, is a treacherous proposition. We’ve seen what happens to relievers who get overworked in one series via Aroldis Chapman in the 2016 World Series and Brandon Morrow in the 2017 World Series. The best teams win the war of attrition through quality starts, followed by production from their starters-turned-long relievers. Shallower teams get stuck in the trenches.
The critique isn’t necessarily on today’s managers for choosing how to manage their staffs; I’ve said it a million times that we can’t even imagine how hard it is to manage an MLB playoff game. It’s more an opinion that if there’s a team with real aspirations of contending in a given year, they have to create depth in both the starting rotation and the bullpen (assuming they have the resources to do so). But a team with said resources that chooses to rely on a corps of 11 pitchers for abbreviated, daily starts will not be able to compete with a team with starting depth in a seven-game series.
This is one of the hottest debates in the game today. I’m usually on the more progressive side of arguments like these, but I find myself here coming from a more traditional school of thought.
Think I’m wrong, or that I missed something? Drop a comment below! I’d love to see what you all have to think.