Bullpen Madness: For This Relief Not Much Thanks
These are difficult days for the people who play fantasy baseball or bet the sport. As the 2018 season comes to its conclusion with a Red Sox/ Dodgers World series, managers are taking apart the time-honoured strategies of the sport.
It’s not doing much for the traditional fan of the game, either. The radical pitching strategies movement that began a couple of years ago have reached full bloom in the fall of 2018. Inspired by the crazy scientists of the Tampa Bay Rays, managers have re-thought what were once inviolable rules surrounding pitching.
Namely: 1) You have five starters who pitch on a pre-determined schedule. 2) They go as long as they can into the game. 3) You use setup pitchers to bridge the gap between starters and. 4) Your closer. Who finishes out a game in which you lead in the ninth inning.
But the first chinks in the armour of this philosophy appeared a couple of years ago when managers began inserting their closer earlier than the ninth inning. The determination was made that the key moment in a game often happens earlier in a game than ninth inning. If that’s the case why not have your best situational pitcher—the closer— come in to stop any momentum from the opposition?
And, if that worked, why not employ a series of stopper-type pitchers into your lineup?
Thus we saw Cleveland inserting dominating lefty Andrew Miller in the seventh inning when the Indians were facing a crisis. But they also employed Cody Allen, another closer type, for any other five-alarm fires in the later innings. While it didn’t bring Cleveland a World Series title, the notion caught on that maybe it was time to re-think bullpen use.
And while many teams such as the Toronto Blue Jays stuck with the closer-as-finisher strategy, we have seen other managers willing to shuffle their cards in the bullpen. For many that seemed radical enough.
But this year, the Rays decided to mess with success a little more. The always undercapitalized squad looked at the starting rotation their budget could afford and said, how can we stretch our resources further? The answer was: starter by committee.
So, on the fourth or fifth turn in the rotation, with no alternatives available in their own system, the A’s began starting pitchers who were traditionally relief specialists. Their instructions were to go an inning or two at the start of the game. A parade of other relievers would follow.
This had the result of forcing hitters to face a variety of styles and handedness in the pitchers they faced. No more could they get comfortable with the patterns of a starter, waiting till their third at-bat to take advantage of what they’d learned.
Tampa manager Kevin Cash also used the committee ploy to refuse to name a starter until the last moment required by MLB rules. And, not to be underestimated, it gave the Rays some relief budget-wise, paying run-of-the-mill relievers to do the work of higher-paid starters. The Oakland A’s and others soon followed suit.
Confused? The playoffs give us one more variation on the theme. The Milwaukee Brewers, who had stacked their bullpen, began pulling their starters, well-paid or otherwise, very early in the games. Sometimes the starter would go an inning and a bit before a dangerous rally from the opposition would result in the appearance of a relief pitcher. Once, the Brewers starter Wade Miley pitched to just one hitter.
For those reared on the notion of the stalwart starter gritting it out for seven, eight, even nine innings this was anathema. While not as dramatic as the Brewers’ strategy, other teams also began yanking starters as venerable as C.C. Sabathia or Clayton Kershaw after one or two times through the order.
So you can see how fantasy draft players or pool players are dumbfounded. How to choose a lineup when the manager will scramble your selections almost instantly? Whom to select when the manager doesn’t release his starter till the last minute? Bettors, too, were confused about how to handicap games where one team might employ as many as seven or eight pitchers?
A final— and most regrettable— byproduct of all this shuffling is that they turned the three-hour game into a rarity. With a steady parade of pitchers to the hill, games stretched on into the wee small hours. Networks were forced to scramble when a previously scheduled start was overlapped by a marathon contest still going from earlier in the day.
Leading to my eternal suggestion for saving time. Eliminate the warmup pitches for each relief pitcher. He’s had a mound to throw off of in the bullpen, that’s enough. Substitute NHL goalies don’t get warmup shots. A second-string QB doesn’t get to whip few passes when he takes over. An NBA replacement doesn’t get to test out the rim.
So why drag out these games ever longer with this nonsense?
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on his website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand: How Salary Caps AreKilling Pro Sports And How The Free Market Could Save Them is now available.