Last week on MLB Network, Brian Kenny suggested the Yankees try “bullpenning.” Instead of starting a pitcher traditionally who would ideally throw at least five innings, the Yankees would start one of their many talented relievers. If it were up to Kenny, he would start Chad Green.
As luck would have it, starter Luis Severino lasted only one-third of an inning in last night’s American League Wild Card game against the Twins. Manager Joe Girardi brought in Green, who struck out both batters he faced in the first inning to escape a sticky situation with runners on first and second. Green wound up recording six outs, four via strikeout. David Robertson then came in and pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out five. Tommy Kahnle pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings and Aroldis Chapman closed out the game by getting all three outs via strikeout in the ninth, sending the Yankees to the ALDS.
Inadvertently, the Yankees proved the “bullpenning” idea has merit. As Kenny explained above, it’s not for every team; it’s for teams without an ace and with excellent, deep bullpens. That fits the Yankees perfectly. It doesn’t fit the Astros, for example. But it might work for the Rockies, who do battle with the Diamondbacks in the NL Wild Card game tonight. They’re sending Jon Gray out opposite Zack Greinke.
The big question is whether this new strategy might make pitchers feel uncomfortable as they’re taken out of their normal roles and rhythms. But Eno Sarris of FanGraphs talked to a handful of pitchers and most seemed on board with the idea or at least open-minded. However, Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy did say, “My routine as a starter is fixed to the minute and a lot of guys are like that. It’s certainly not something impossible to deal with but could make a team nervous.”
Marlins veteran Brad Ziegler said, “I don’t think it would be very different for me, as much as it would be for the starter coming into the game [in the later innings]. His whole routine would have to change.”
Bucking orthodoxy is risky. You risk upsetting the players, who — as illustrated above — are creatures of habit. You risk upsetting your fan base by leaving a winner-takes-all game up to an unfamiliar strategy. And because we need a direct cause and effect for our narrative, a game that might’ve been lost anyway would be pinned entirely on this strategy, perhaps making it years before anyone else would dare to try the same thing.
Indians skipper Terry Francona bucked orthodoxy last year when he used Andrew Miller — normally used for one inning in the seventh or eighth inning — in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Red Sox and in similar positions throughout the postseason. It worked. An increasing number of managers adopted this method of reliever usage during the 2017 regular season and you can bet that Francona won’t be the only one doing it in the playoffs this year. So, who’s going to be the first manager to dare to try the “bullpenning” idea?