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‘Bullpenning’ could be closer than we think

Colorado Rockies news and links for Tuesday, March 8, 2022

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We know this: starting pitchers are throwing harder than ever. Because of this, and the limitations of the human body, it’s harder than ever to throw a lot of pitches.

This trend goes long before 1974. Long gone are the days where Cy Young started both games of a doubleheader.

“Bullpenning” is a term used to describe relievers taking the place of starters. Bullpen arms will often pitch two innings or fewer across the board, with around six to ten pitchers completing a nine-inning game.

The reason behind a bullpen game varies: it can be to work around a starting pitcher injury, to allow the rotation an extra day or rest, or simply to give the bullpen some work that starters may have taken away in the days leading up.

No team has ever done it in 100% of their games — but that doesn’t mean the idea should be dismissed.

All it takes is one successful counterexample for tradition to shift. Then, it gets nominated for an Oscar for Best Motion Picture of the Year.

The principle of full-time ‘bullpenning’ is simple: How can you avoid the consequences of pitcher fatigue, and how can you maximize opportunities with a more capable pitcher on the mound more often?

It will take a pioneer franchise to test this out — and being that franchise is hard.

The Pain of Innovation: The 2012 Rockies

From Brian Kenny’s book Ahead of the Curve (2016):

What [former Rockies GM Dan] O’Dowd said to me in an MLB Tonight meeting snapped my head back.

We were previewing the 2015 Rockies, and not a lot was expected from the team. O’Dowd was clearly frustrated, having just left his post after four straight losing seasons. What he said next encapsulated the baseball culture war of the last generation: “What I most regret is that I failed to inspire people to embrace the idea of looking at things differently.”

I [Kenny] looked up from my iPad. “I’m sorry, what?”

O’Dowd continued. “We had to recognize that our world was different. We were the only ones playing in our world. But change is emotionally difficult to accept in this game.”

In June 2012, the Rockies had the worst ERA in baseball among starting pitchers. O’Dowd developed a plan to address it: a four-man rotation with a 75-pitch limit for starters.

Colorado had a struggling Jeremy Guthrie, an elder Jamie Moyer, and four starters aged 24 or younger: Alex White, Drew Pomeranz, Jhoulys Chacín (!) and Christian Friedrich. Four of the six had an ERA of 5.50 or higher at the end of the year, while four relievers would go on to pitch over 55 innings with ERA’s below four (Rafael Betancourt, 2.81; Josh Roenicke, 3.25; Matt Belisle, 3.71; Rex Brothers, 3.86). The staff was showing, on virtually all fronts, that Colorado’s bullpen far exceeded the performance of its starters.

On the four-man rotation: “The sabermetric writers at FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus were also intrigued,” Kenny said. “The mainstream media blasted them.”

Kenny profoundly adds: “Failing conventionally is accepted.”

O’Dowd had to wear the brunt of the four-man rotation experiment, knowing that if it didn’t work, he was the one to blame.

What if this is the sole reason a full-time bullpen hasn’t been explored yet? Why risk your job and reputation as a GM when the status quo will get you by?

As humans, we are taught to conform. We aren’t taught how to change the game.

Bullpenning - Here’s why:

The Macro Level: Full Seasons and Beyond

In the early 1970’s, starting rotations began to switch from a four-man to a five-man staff. The ‘opener’ strategy became common only in recent history, and the era of the Wild Card Game has shown us what bullpens look like in the highest of high-leverage action. (See 2017 NL Wild Card Game, where Colorado used eight pitchers in eight innings, or 2018 AL Wild Card Game, where Oakland was openly ‘bullpenning’.)

Postseason baseball is not managed like regular season baseball. Starters work with shorter leashes. Big-market teams piece bullpens together for October well in advance. The world gets a taste of what baseball is like when teams actively try to win at all costs: in the modern era, October often means relievers more than starters.

It can be tough to outlast other teams if you play 162 games like each one is a wildcard game. This is not to suggest a team should play that kind of full-throttle baseball in the early summer, of course, but five relievers in place of five starters can instantly make the practice more sustainable, even if every day of the regular season amounts to a careful wildcard.

There is a revolving door in Triple-A, too; for as many times Colorado called up and sent down relievers Justin Lawrence, Ben Bowden and Lucas Gilbreath last year, the Rockies found a way to grow their roster. Anybody can do this with minor league options.

The Macro Level: How Capable Is The Arm?

Major League Baseball had been around for 105 years when Frank Jobe performed the first Tommy John surgery on John himself. In 2013, 39 years after the first incision, one-third of MLB pitchers had the scar.

The number has only increased since, and will unfortunately continue to grow as pitchers keep pushing the limits of human capability.

The figures are directly reflective of a sport that is having difficulty handling the rigors it has created, much less what it began with. If the average fastball has spiked from 89 MPH to 93 in the past 20 years, where will it be in the next 20?

If five-man rotations remain, and if average velocity continues to climb, the limits of the human body will eventually take over. The risk for injury may, unfortunately, only grow further — and shorter outings could be one of the few ways to address it.

The Micro Level: Single-Game Rigors

It’s an unwritten expectation for starting pitchers to throw at least five innings in today’s game, so much so that the term ‘five-and-diver’ is meant to praise a workhorse and dissuade those that only meet the minimum.

With the MLB increase of three true outcomes (walk, strikeout, home run), pitch counts are higher than they otherwise need to be. Roy Halladay believed strikeouts are a waste of pitches. K’s are skyrocketing since 1974:

‘Five-and-divers’ were mainly scoffed at when the average velocity of an MLB fastball was in the 80’s. The flame graphic on TV broadcasts is no longer a head-turner when it reads 94, however, and it’s too hard to make early contact in today’s game. Higher pitch counts have met higher velocity, and single-game rigors are higher than ever.

The Counter Level: Correlation Isn’t Causation

The below graph may suggest it’s a good thing when starting pitchers throw more innings. Hold up:

This is a limited analysis.

  1. How far has Jacob deGrom moved the dots for the Mets over the past five years?
  2. What happens if you take the top 15 starters in baseball out of this graph?

Zack Wheeler pitched 213 13 innings for the Phillies last year with a 2.78 ERA. Starting pitchers for the Phillies combined for a 4.25 ERA with Wheeler and a 4.75 without him. This would drop Philadelphia starters from the 15th-worst ERA to the 7th-worst in baseball, all because of one pitcher every fifth day.

What about the other four days?

Have a peek at another chart:

These trend lines are flatter, but they still point down. They also have better overall statistical significance than the starters graph, which is notable when bullpens are contrarily labeled more volatile than starting rotations.

If the top 15 starters in baseball turned into average starters overnight, we could be looking at near-equal graphs for both starters and relievers. Maybe the trend for success could begin to shift even further, if relievers have more established roles and average velocity keeps climbing.

The Expectation: Changing The Norm

The world will have to wait for a counterexample, and for a GM willing to put their reputation on the line to change the game. We play a new game in the modern era, and just as the five-man rotation took over the four, a full-time bullpen staff could be the last frontier of a managing revolution.

Failing conventionally is accepted. Daring greatly is not — until it works.

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