Thursday, October 5, 2017

Bullpen as a verb

No starter in either wild card game got to the fifth inning. That wasn't by design; each of the four teams started their ace, and two of the four (Luis Severino of the Yankees and Zach Greinke of the Diamondbacks) figure to get some downballot votes for Cy Young. It was, simply, that nobody had a good start.

But short starts will be the rule this October, and there may well be a game somewhere down the line in which a manager deliberately follows some semblance of Brian Kenny's suggested Yankees pitching lineup for the wild card game. The MLB Network host suggested two innings of Chad Green, two innings of Sonny Gray, then one inning apiece from five relievers. As it turned out, the Yankees got even fewer outs from a starter than Kenny envisioned.

This approach has been dubbed "bullpenning." It happens occasionally in the regular season, when a managers short of pitchers resorts to a "bullpen game," but it's deemed unsustainable over the course of the season. October, with more days off, chillier conditions and more pressure, is another matter.

But we certainly are seeing the game evolve in the short start direction.

Chris Sale of Boston -- he'll start the ALDS opener this afternoon against Houston -- led the majors in innings pitched at 214.1. With the exception of the two major strike seasons, 1981 and 1994, this is the lowest total to lead baseball. We've seen only two league leaders top 250 innings since 2004.

This is partly, but only partly, from a growing adherence to the five-man rotation. The conventional four-day rotation of the 1960s and 1970s -- in which a fifth starter was only used for double headers and the fourth starter skipped when the schedule included a convenient offday -- gave way to a five day rotation, with the fifth starter skipped when possible. In the past decade or so it has evolved to a more rigid five-man rotation, with even the aces pushed back a day for offdays.

That takes a handful of starts away from the best pitchers. But they also work less deeply into games each outing. Ervin Santana was second in the majors in innings (211.1), and only two men made more starts (33). Santana averaged 6.4 innings a start. For a fan who saw 300-inning seasons routinely in his youth, that seems light.

Here's the thing: The game evolves, by and large, in the direction of what works. Today's pitchers are facing lineups capable of hitting long balls one through nine. Jim Palmer and Bert Blyleven didn't. Today's pitchers are expected to work at higher velocities, and it's easier to sustain 95 mph and higher for a handful of innings than for eight or nine, and easier to get there once a week than twice a week.

Easier, not easy.

My personal preference is for longer starts and fewer pitching changes, particularly in-inning changes. The game is going in a different direction. I could rant about that, but it would be like ranting at the Mississippi for flowing south.

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