Every once in a while, managers are forced to do something out of the ordinary, brought on by circumstances.
- An outfielder pitches the last inning in a blowout game
- A National League pitcher comes in to pinch hit because every position player has been used
- A manager scratches a starting pitcher and uses a team of relievers
Suddenly, that last one isn’t out of the ordinary. Last season, there were more than a few games where a starting pitcher wasn’t named, and instead the manager announced it was going to be a bullpen game.
Fans watched and figured there wasn’t much choice for the team and manager. After all, 2021 was still heavily affected by Covid, which went through plenty of dugouts. Last season also saw a lot of injuries, more than normal, which could have been caused by the short season in 2020.
But when the playoffs rolled around, bullpen games were still around, especially for select teams, like the Los Angeles Dodgers. A lot of fans, even those who have followed the game for years, wondered: What’s going on here? Is turning to a bullpen game a desperate measure caused by a starting pitcher going down or a staff that’s overworked? Or is it a part of the new way of baseball (brought about by sabermetrics and analytics) and a (smart) strategy to help win more games (and more big games) in the long run?
“Today’s opening pitcher is...”
About 10 years ago, the bullpen game idea turned into a strategy and less of a “no-choice” decision.
Here’s an official definition: “A bullpen game is a game that is started by a relief pitcher who is not expected to pitch longer than if he were making a regular appearance out of the bullpen. As a result, several pitchers will be required to get through the game. This is different than a game in which a reliever makes a spot start, as in that case he is expected to behave much as a regular starting pitcher and give his team five or six innings of work.”1
The 2012 Rockies used a modified version of “bullpenning” as an experiment during the 2012 season. (They had finished 73-89 the season before.)
- They’d have only four regular starters
- Starters would go only four innings
- The rest of the game would be completed by the relievers
They abandoned the plan mid-season. They lost close to 100 games that season.
In 2017, the Brewers lost a starting pitcher to injury in the heat of the pennant race. Manager Craig Counsell filled in his spots with a core of relievers, and it worked, but the team came in second in the NL West.
The 2018 Tampa Bay Rays faced the start of their season with injuries to starters in their five-man rotation. They announced they’d fill two of those “starts” with a bullpen-game approach. It worked for them. They finished third in their tough division but won 90 games.
In a sign of things to come, the Rays used the term “opener” instead of “starter” to indicate the pitcher on the mound for the first inning wasn’t likely to be around for more than a few innings.
What’s to like about bullpenning?
Over the past few years, the bullpen has gone from an occasional pitching solution to an act of desperation, an experiment in game management strategy. There are plenty of people who see a bright side to it though. Here’s the thinking:
They say that it creates more pitching (and career) opportunities for relievers, and even saves wear and tear on high-paid starting “aces.” Even if you have a core of reliable starters, you don’t have to worry about wearing them out by forcing to go deep in the game. You don’t need to count on an ace to give you his best.
In short, teams are becoming comfortable using relievers more, openers more and starters less—relying heavily on stats and analytics—and aren’t so worried about how using a bullpen game looks to their fans.
Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash says bullpenning, which isn’t the norm, is a technique that managers can use to maximize a team’s pitching staff.
What’s not to like?
Not everybody is ready to say bullpenning is a great solution:
- Former reliever Mike Montgomery says numbers aren’t foolproof. He believes that sometimes managers pull starters too quickly because their bullpens are good. But they won’t be good for long if their bullpens are tired. But if bullpens are worn out, they’re not going to be too good.
- Bud Black, Colorado Rockies manager: “I know the importance of starting pitching as it relates to a 162-game schedule. I know the importance of durability and starter performance, and what that means to a bullpen. I know over six months in the everyday game we play, you need length out of your starters. You can’t throw relief pitchers as much as some people think you can.”2
- Bruce Bochy, retired manager, said this about relying heavily on stats: “Numbers are part of the game, but at the same time I don’t think we should ever get away from our gut, and what’s inside the gut of a player.”
- Former closer Brandon Morrow says it takes village. “There are definitely going to be starters you lean on to get seven or eight innings and that’s going to save your bullpen. You have to have those studs up front to go bullpenning.”
Unfortunately, the game’s been taken out of the hands of managers and players. A lot of strategy is being dictated by the team analysts and GMs.
A thing of the past.
The days of Glavine and Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson are long gone. The modern-day starter isn’t expected to do it all. In fact, they’re not even given the chance.
Starting pitching isn’t what it used to be, but that’s very old news. As ESPN baseball analyst Tom Verducci wrote, “The pitching duel is dead.”
Maybe bullpenning is just something we have to live with.
Like it or not.
RESOURCES: baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Bullpengame; nbcsports.com/ giantsevaluatingbullpen-game;chicagotribune.com/sports/bullpenning; arkansasonline.com/news/2021/oct/25/bullpen-games-hurt-baseballs-appeal