Pitching is probably the most valued commodity in baseball, and yet one of the hardest to predict future years and hand out big contracts for. Before 2016, David Price signed a $216M for 7 years. By the end of year 2, he was pitching out of the bullpen. If you were to ask Greg Maddux, he wouldn’t really understand the big deal about pitching. To him, understanding pitching was much ado about nothing:
“I try to do two things: locate my fastball and change speeds. That’s it. I try to keep as simple as possible. I just throw my fastball to both sides of the plate and change speeds every now and then.” -BaseballQuotes.com
Of course – we are not all Greg Maddux. In the last several years, we have seen the lines between starting pitchers and a relief pitcher blur. Andrew Miller notably in 2016 carried the Indians to Game 7 of the World Series and this year the Astros who had a bullpen that was more like a Dutch dike than the dominant bullpen the Dodgers were supposed to have. Yet it was the Dodgers bullpen that failed in legendary Games 2 and 5 – which had not happened all season.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article Brian Costa and Jared Diamond talked about the change in starting pitching. They mentioned that the average starting pitcher went just 5.5 innings last year. By the end of the division series, 14 times the starting pitcher didn’t finish 4 innings. Of course in the World Series Dodgers starter only lasted 1 2/3 in BOTH of his starts. His relief in Game 7? Clayton Kershaw – who threw 4 innings in relief after only lasting 4 2/3 while allowing 6 runs in his Game 5 start.
Astros Manager AJ Hinch acknowledged the difference in managing for the short term as opposed to the long term: “It is unreasonable to think that you can carry this out over six months. It is reasonable to think that when you’re at full strength, you can utilize a little strategy that helps you.”.
What the Royals did in 2015 the Indians and to a lesser extent the Cubs did in 2016 with strong bullpens. The Astros in 2017 were able to use several starting pitchers in relief to lessen the burden of a bullpen that all of a sudden they could not trust. The Giants bullpen of 2016 was torture to watch – and helped the Cubs bounce them and escape the wrath of Post-Season Madison Bumgarner.
Already this off-season the Rockies are fortifying their bullpen, as they know more than most teams just how hard it can be to get 27 outs even when you do score runs.
Baseball sabermetricians have argued for years that closers and saves are over-rated dramatically and that if your closer is your most dominant pitcher – he should be used in a situation that most dramatically affects the game. Not just a 3 out 9th inning with no one on base and a three run lead. Keith Law calls the save Holtman’s Folly, with Ken Holtzman being the sportswriter who essentially invented the save. Of course – closers still get the high dollar deals and press but that trend might be changing.
Tony LaRussa is generally credited with being the inventor of the “specialized” bullpen we often see today, but bullpens were not always that way. Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage, Sparky Lyle and others paved the way and certainly pitched more than one low leverage inning at a time.
Time is often cyclical however and we see relievers today at least in the post season being used in more tense situations. Some can handle it – and others cannot. Another contributing factor of course is money. Yes, David Price did do a great job for the Red Sox in relief in the ALDS – but that is NOT what he is paid to do. When the Cubs used Aroldis Chapman in Game 7 of the World Series and tried him past 3 outs multiple nights – that didn’t work either and rookie Mike Montgomery followed rookie Carl Edwards Jr to finish out the most important game in Chicago Cubs history!
As the season heads to 2018 we have another wrinkle – Shohei Ohtani who attempts to pitch every 5th day and be a DH/OF the other 4. This has not been done in the modern era and if it works – could be done more as teams can essentially add a roster spot if done correctly. The question of course becomes what happens if it doesn’t?
Baseball is known as a game that doesn’t change much, which is often seen as a negative. Yet change does come. As teams analyze the numbers and they adjust in-game what they find, the true dominant relievers should start getting rewarded more for their work. That is always a good thing as baseball looks to the future.