Sergio Romo

Getty Images

Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 9: Bullpen mania takes over the game

3 Comments

We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 9: Bullpen Mania Takes Over The Game 

There have always been relief pitchers, but for the great bulk of baseball history, they were largely for mopup situations and to rest starters after the outcome of the game was pretty clear. If you doubt this, take a look back at any random season for a club prior to the 1970s and grok the “games” vs. “games started” totals for the pitching staff. The complete game totals were wild too. Most teams likely had only one or two guys who were used exclusively as relievers with everyone else being either starters or swingmen of one form or another. The bullpen was a far less important part of the game in those days.

Then, when Gerald Ford and double knit pullover uniforms roamed the earth, we entered an era in which managers moved away from the “throw an arm out there to spell the gassed starter” mode of bullpen management and increasingly used their best relief pitchers in the most critical, highest-leverage situations in the game by design. Two-men on and the middle of the order coming up in a close game in the seventh? Get Goose Gossage in there! Or John Hiller. Or whoever. They were said to put our fires and became known as “firemen.”

Then a bright young boy named Tony La Russa came along and realized that, in some cases, it may actually be better not to have the best overall reliever come in when things got hairy. Rather, in some cases, a specialist may match up better against the middle of that order — or at least make things more difficult for the middle of that order — than the fireman. A lefty who is harder on a big lefty bat than Gossage or Hiller may be, for example. The best guy still had to pitch, of course, so La Russa gave him the ninth inning to give the opposition an almost humiliating kick in the teeth. “You couldn’t capitalize an inning or two ago, and NOW you have to face my best!” he seemed to say. “I shall now foreclose any chance you have to win!” And thus the modern, one-inning closer was born.

In baseball, maybe more so than anywhere else, people copy what the smart young lads do, and many began to copy La Russa. Except not everyone was as bright a boy as La Russa and, over time, the lessons of his specialization were sort of muddled and watered down and in some cases forgotten completely. Oh, sure, everyone was playing those matchups and talking about specialization, but the tail came to wag the dog. Managers overwhelmingly started with the idea that their closer must pitch the ninth in save situations only — and getting that save is important! — and then they worked backwards, giving those specialists their very own innings, as if their success was based on what inning it was rather than the matchup.

In the 2010s, though, managers — or perhaps analytics departments — started getting smarter about relief pitcher usage. Sure, we still saw and still see some managers who prioritize save situations regardless of the overall shape of the game, but it became less kneejerk over the past ten years. La Russa-style specialization was improved upon, moving far beyond merely deploying a lefty specialist to having distinct roles for five or six relievers in almost any and every game, with such roles being dictated by advanced analytics and scouting reports so complicated that even some of the best managers in the game needed a binder in order to keep it all straight.

But it worked. It worked so well that in 2015 the Kansas City Royals finished 24th in the major leagues in starting-pitcher ERA and 26th in innings pitched by starting pitchers but won the dang World Series. They did it by deploying no fewer than five relievers who, a few short years before, might’ve been the best reliever on any given team and three of whom might’ve been Firemen of the Year back when people paid a lot of attention to that sort of thing.

As I said before: baseball is a copycat business, so it’s no surprise that the Royals’ success caused other teams to further intensify their already intense focus on building bullpens.

In 2016, one year after the Royals hoisted the trophy, relievers set an MLB record with 15,893.2 innings pitched. The number of relief outings and specialized relief outings — appearances of one inning or less — ticked upward as well. The number of teams who, at times, carried eight relievers began to rise. Innings per start went down across the league and strikeouts per nine innings spiked. Fresher and harder-throwing arms faced more batters and the batters began fanning at near-record rates.

Following the 2016 season three different relievers — Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon – each surpassed the then-existing mark for the highest-paid reliever in the game and they passed it significantly. The focus on bullpens wasn’t just with those high-dollar guys, however. In otherwise slow free agent markets teams were still buying up relief pitchers like it was perpetually Black Friday, building pitching staffs from the back to the front with visions of contending on the power of Super Bullpens as opposed to deep rotations. In related news, since relievers are cheaper than starters, there were more than mere competitive considerations at work here.

As 2016 flowed into 2017 and 2018, we began to see managers utilize quicker and quicker hooks on their starters, with pitchers rarely if ever being allowed to face the opposition a third time through the order, as analytics departments concluded that once a hurler has gone that far, he’s about to get shelled. This became particularly pronounced in the postseason. The quick hook/third-time-through-the-order idea is now so prevalent that it has become a talking point among even common fans. Indeed, if you watch games while hanging out on social media you see all manner of armchair managers and/or analysts wondering why the manager has not yet gone to the pen.

In 2018 a new thing happened: relief pitchers became so important that they suddenly morphed into starters. Except we didn’t call them starters. We called them “openers.”

This first happened in Tampa Bay when the Rays’ front office decided — for both analytical and economic reasons — that they’s break camp with only four starters. At first they just used ever fifth game as a more or less traditional “bullpen day” in which a parade of relievers pitched, but in late May they used Sergio Romo as the game’s first pitcher on back to back days against the Angels. Less than a week later they did it again, deploying Romo at the start of back to back games against the Orioles. The purpose was clear: Romo would clear the top of the opposing team’s lineup before making way for others who would give Tampa Bay more innings.  Romo was technically starting but he wasn’t acting like a traditional starting pitcher. He was just opening, as opposed to closing. The era of the opener was born.

The Rays stuck with the opener strategy — not just with Romo, but with other pitchers too — and it worked extraordinarily well for them. Ryne Stanek was used in that capacity for 29 games over the course of the season and he excelled, pitching far better as an opener than he did in a more traditional relief role. Meanwhile, a putative starter — Ryan Yarbrough — served as the follow-on to Romo, Stanek and the other Rays’ openers and notched 16 wins in 147.1 innings of work, ending the season fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting. By the end of the 2018 season the Rays used the opener 50 times, putting eight different relievers in the role. They combined for 93 innings and posted a 3.97 ERA, which was better than the league average ERA. The Rays finished second in the American League in overall ERA and, despite being picked by most analysts to have a losing season, they won 90 games.

As the season wore on, other teams adopted the strategy as well, including the Oakland A’s, whose rotation had been decimated by injuries. The A’s even used the opener in the Wild Card game against the Yankees that year, though that didn’t work out too well for them. In 2019 the Yankees themselves used the strategy many times to compensate for injuries to their starting pitchers. The Los Angeles Angels pitched a no-hitter using an opener last July. The Rangers have done it. The Twins have done it. The Blue Jays. The Indians. Indeed, most teams have at least experimented with the idea, either due to necessity or by design.

It’s certainly been an effective strategy, as it has served to diminish the effectiveness of the top of the lineup of the opposing offense, at least in its first turn through the order. It deprives hitters of the ability to see a pitcher a second or third time. As noted above, it’s also useful to teams from a financial perspective, as it allows them to make more use of relief pitchers who are usually making less money than even poor starters.

But there are costs to the rise of the opener specifically and to the greater emphasis on bullpens in general. Costs that front offices seem not to care all that much about.

Last year I was talking to Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn, and he said something pretty damn profound: “The science of the game is to devise ever more clever optimal ways to win; the aesthetic of the game is what draws fans and keeps them.” He noted that there is nothing dictating that the science and the aesthetic of the game not be in conflict. Which is to say that just because an effective tactic is developed does not mean said tactic is fun or enjoyable to watch or good for the game.

Current bullpen strategies, be they the opener or simply the deployment of many, many relievers are effective. They’re also a boring slog in which managers do things like use nine pitchers in three innings or 12 pitchers in a nine-inning game. Given that pitching changes also mean commercial breaks, today’s bullpen mania has also negated any and all efforts by Major League Baseball to pick up the pace of games which are increasingly longer and which increasingly drag. This is especially true given that we live in a time when guys are encouraged to throw as hard as they can even if it takes time to gear up to throw each pitch. And of course, strikeouts, of which there are more than ever thanks to all these fireballers, take more time than at bats which end with contact. And, of course, with more strikeouts likewise come more walks.

Such is the story of baseball at the end of the 2010s, though. Progress in a narrow respect but something less than progress in the big picture. There are more home runs hit, but there is less action. The game is more financially successful, but the benefits do not accrue to either the players or the fans. Relief pitching is more effective but also makes the game into something approaching an aesthetic nightmare.

Can’t wait to see the game’s next innovation!

PREVIOUS ENTRIES 

No. 10: The Rise of the Young Player
No. 11: Baseball Goes From Deadball To Juiced Ball
No. 12: Baseball Begins Rewriting the Rulebook
No. 13: Baseball Adds a Second Wild Card
No, 14: Albert Pujols Signs With the Angels
No. 15: Baseball Continues a Remarkable Run of Labor Peace
No. 16: Baseball implements a domestic violence policy
No. 17: Cardinals Employee Hacks Astros’ Database
No. 18: Frank and Jamie McCourt Bankrupt the Dodgers
No. 19: Baseball Embraces Gambling
No. 20: The Hall of Fame Logjam
No. 21: The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules
No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal