If there’s one thing Tigers fans know well, it’s the brutal disappointment of a game lost at the hands of the bullpen. Relief pitching isn’t something the Tigers are known for. In the 2017 season the team went through three closers, first demoting and then releasing Francisco Rodriguez, then trading Justin Wilson, before settling Shane Greene into the role. Greene, originally a starting pitcher, took to the closer role well, soon becoming one of the most reliable arms in the bullpen.
With 24 players pitching in relief for the Tigers (25 if Andrew Romine is factored in), the pen posted a season ERA of 5.63 and a 5.10 FIP. Starters posted a 5.20 ERA with a FIP of 4.51.
Overall, the team posted its worst collective ERA, 5.36, since 1995. Pitching issues weren’t limited to the bullpen, but without having a bullpen to lean on, the Tigers had nowhere to go when their starters flopped. This is where looking at the new style of bullpen use we’re seeing in postseason play becomes interesting.
Something began to change last season in how the bullpen was utilized for postseason play (and I’m not just talking about the egregious non-use of Zach Britton in the AL Wild Card game). Starters were being pulled earlier, and team managers were forced to rely heavily on bullpen arms, or starting pitchers who weren’t scheduled to make starts during the series.
Between 2016 and 2017, there has been a marked increase in relief use during the postseason. In 2016, the number of times a pitcher saw an opposing batter three or four times was a mere 9.6%, a steep drop from the 2015 number of 14.2%. In 2017 (though the postseason is ongoing) that number has dropped even more, to 7.4%. Simply put: starters aren’t staying in the game as long.
What does this all mean?
For one thing, opposing batters are seeing the same pitcher less, and this keeps them from being able to anticipate pitches as much. Batting averages tend to increase the third or fourth time a batter sees the same pitcher, because the mystery and surprise have been eliminated. By changing pitchers every three innings or so, it removed the option for players to get accustomed to the pitches. In a postseason situation, this is especially useful, because the teams may not have as much regular season awareness of the pitchers they are facing.
In Sunday’s ALDS Game 3 between the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox, the use of bullpens was at its most obvious. Neither team’s starting pitcher lasted beyond three innings of work. Brad Peacock went 2-2/3 innings for the Astros, while Doug Fister lasted only 1-1/3 for the Red Sox, giving up a three-run home run early that looked like potential disaster for the Sox. The game was then handed over to the bullpen, and for the most part relied heavily on the work of two starters pitching out of the bullpen: Lance McCullers and David Price.
Under typical circumstances, these kinds of pitchers would never be available out of the bullpen, yet they’re the kind of players ideally suited to a situation where the starters blow up early. Both are starting pitchers themselves, and no strangers to multiple innings of work. Both are recovering from injury, thus negating their usefulness as regular starters. Both managed to keep the game largely under control for a lot longer than a typical bullpen arm would be able to.
The bullpen was also an essential factor in getting the New York Yankees into the postseason. When Luis Severino was pulled from the Wild Card game in the first inning, it was the bullpen that kept things alive. The 3-1/3 innings of work put in by David Robertson shaped the entire narrative of the game. He threw more pitches in that game than he had in a single outing for the whole regular season, and the Yankees got the win as a result.
More and more, with the season on the line, we’re seeing managers go to the bullpen early and often. There’s no room to let starters iron out the kinks when three losses means a team’s postseason dreams are over. As a result, the typical notions of bullpen roles get thrown out the window. Guys work back-to-back games for multiple innings (like Price did), and extend themselves beyond their usual pitch count limits when things are going well.
How can this translate to the regular season? Can it work at all?
The must-win-now mentality isn’t something prevalent in the regular MLB season. With 162 games to be played over six months, it’s very much a slow-and-steady crawl as opposed to a sprint. There’s a logic to this, of course, since you want to keep your players healthy and avoid the risk of losing them early in the year. But the bullpen-focused mentality of the postseason can translate in the regular season, so long as managers can dispose of their ideas about player roles.
For one thing, the standard idea of a five-man rotation would need to go. Rather than relying on “starters” to go as deep into games as possible, it would be pitching by committee at all times. Three-to-four innings of work per pitcher, tops. This would allow pitchers to come back into games on shorter rest, negating the need for a five-day rest schedule. Imagine being able to see Justin Verlander pitch twice a week instead of only once, even if it meant only seeing him for four innings.
There would be a heavier reliance on the bullpen as well, meaning the players there would not be able to be “Seventh inning guys” or LOOGYs. Well-rounded players who can maintain quality over three innings of work would become the most highly sought after bullpen arms. The old idea of roles would have to be completely tossed. If a “starter” was on three days of rest but had only pitched three innings in his last start, he could theoretically come in during the late innings of a high-leverage game without worrying that the whole rotation would be thrown off.
It works in the postseason, so why not the regular season?
For one, it asks the game to completely reinvent itself, something baseball is not altogether fond of doing. Sure, in the early days of the games starters would play near full games then come back in a day or two and do it all over again. That’s not the goal here. But to switch to a pitching-by-committee option would undo the idea of star starters, the guys fans pay big money to see pitch. Might this method also reduce the physical stress on those players and help extend the length of their careers? Possibly. But people want to see stars. They want to see Max Scherzer take a no-hitter into the eighth inning. They don’t want to see five different pitchers artfully used to win.
Though using the bullpen more, and changing how pitchers are selected for bullpen roles, would be smart, it seems highly unlikely it is something we’ll see more of in the regular season any time soon.
As for the Tigers, who have never had a bullpen they could rely heavily on, the rebuild might be an interesting time to test out an option like this. Their starters, like Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris, have been hampered by injury. Limiting their use while switching up some bullpen roles would let more pitchers see regular playing time, without overusing any particular individual. It would be an interesting way to test out farm talent without putting the starters in a position to exacerbate existing injury. Since the team isn’t expected to do well next season, why not try something a little outside the box, and reinvent a flagging bullpen along the way?