Tuesday, October 16, 2018

A comment on bullpenning

The bullpenning trend has, let us say, not been universally welcomed, but the resistance has been most vocerifious from the broadcasting booths, which generally have at least one seat filled by somebody whose glory days are a decade or more in the past and frequently talk as if convinced that the game has deteriorated since then.

We in Minnesota have become inured to the blunt force opposition of Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris. Short starts? One-inning openers followed by the primary pitcher? I wouldn't have stood for it, they huff, as if they hit the majors already wielding their Cooperstown credentials. 

John Smoltz, doing the NLCS for Fox, takes a seemingly objective view: It won't work, he says. Even in October's off-day riddled short series, he opines, relievers will be overworked and ultimately fail. The evidence to date contradicts Smoltz; the Rays bullpenned pretty much all season and reached 90 wins; the A's bullpenned a lot as they reached the playoffs. If you can bullpen for six months, you can probably bullpen for seven.

James' objection is different. It's subjective. His point is aimed at the audience experience, not at the final tally on the scoreboard. 

The game has always evolved. James himself years ago noted that, with the exception of an upward blip in the 1970s immediately following the arrival of the designated hitter, the innings pitched by individual starters has steadily dropped. 

It evolves in the direction of what works. Success is measured in wins and rings. We have seen in recent Octobers that a dominant bullpen is more likely to survive and advance than a dominant rotation. 

And I don't know how that trend can reverse, short of something impractical such as pushing the fences back 30 feet in every stadium to make home runs drastically more rare. Pitching is simply more difficult today than when Blyleven, Morris and even Smoltz were starring. One example, given by the pseudonymous chief data architect of MLBAM:

Right now, bullpenning is generally not being imposed on established starters, although the way Gio Gonzalez has been used by Milwaukee this month may be crossing that line too. 


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