Invention Shouldn’t Require Necessity

Joe Girardi adapted once necessity required it. (Photo: Keith Allison)

Necessity is said to be mother of all invention. It continues to be the impetus for creativity and movement away from tradition in Major League Baseball.

Jeff and I participated in the first postseason chat, a four-hour and three-minute affair Tuesday night that had moments of comedy, drama, soberness — and which featured 2,300 questions from a wonderfully engaged and spirited FanGraphs audience.

The subject of bullpen-ing came up early in the game. This isn’t surprising: it’s been a story of some interest heading into this postseason. I, for example, recently proposed that the Yankees ought to bullpen the Wild Card game. The Yankees, of course, have a dominant bullpen, the first major-league relief corps to feature five arms to have recorded strikeout rates of 30% or better. Aroldis Chapman looks like he’s back, hitting 103 mph, and he’s supported by Dellin Betances, Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, and David Robertson.

But Joe Girardi went traditional on us. He started his ace, Luis Severino. When asked about the notion of using relievers exclusively for the Wild Card game, Girardi told reporters he wasn’t comfortable with the idea.

“I think that’s pretty risk,” Girard said of bullpen-ing. “I think that’s awfully risky.”

Of course, Girardi’s traditional, Plan A didn’t last long.

Brian Dozier began the game with a home run and an Eddie Rosario two-run shot made it 3-0 in the first.

The Twins!

Upset alert!

The Indians celebrating!

The environment appeared to get to Severino. Velocity wasn’t a problem — he reached 100 mph with his first pitch of the game — but his command was lacking. The slider Rosario hit out was a hanger over the plate. Perhaps sensing that his starter was overwhelmed, Didi Gregorius visited the mound at one point to calm Severino. Not long after, Girardi also visited the mound, motioning toward the bullpen for a reliever. Severino had recorded just a single out.

Among the online chat polls created by Jeff before the game, one asked readers to predict during which inning Girardi would go to his bullpen. I returned to the poll when it became clear that Severino’s night was over. “First inning” had received zero votes.

Green entered the game in that same first inning and limited the damage to three runs. The Yankees responded with three runs in the bottom of the first. With the score tied, and the Yankees in possession of a dominant bullpen, the Twins’ win probability plummeted.

Girardi let Green throw 45 pitches, near his season high of 48.

Robertson followed Green with 52 pitches over 3.1 mostly dominant innings.

So Girardi, who had days ago suggested that the bullpen-ing strategy was “awfully risky,” was forced to quickly embrace that strategy, pivoting to what became, in effect, a bullpen game. He wasn’t at all conservative with how he employed Green and Robertson, allowing the pair to throw a combined 97 pitches, and removing each from the game much earlier their normal, regular-season usage would dictate.

Really, bullpen-ing was everywhere in the play-in round, as the four starting pitchers combined to go 7.1 innings. An average of fewer than 2.0 innings each!

Joel Sherman wrote in the New York Post that, like Andrew Miller a year ago in Cleveland, Robertson expressed his willingness to be deployed when necessary.

Robertson has always been a very good reliever. But since his return to the Yanks, he has combined the ability to attack early, and for multiple innings like Andrew Miller, with a greater economy and effectiveness that hints at Mariano Rivera. His willingness to accept the ball whenever despite being a proven closer has made it easier for Girardi to ask others to sacrifice.

“We are all committed to win the World Series,” Robertson said.

Give Girardi credit for making the call to remove Severino and go to a sort of bullpen game when he did. Nor was it just Girardi: all four Wild Card managers were quick to move on from their starters.

But it’s interesting that it took an emergency, a necessity, to produce the move. And it’s interesting that Green did not melt in the moment when called upon to pitch in the first inning. Ditto for Robertson when employed earlier in the game than is typical. The relievers seemed better equipped to handle the early innings than the starting pitchers.

Yes, Girardi has the advantage in bullpen-ing because Yankees GM Brian Cashman has given him an elite bullpen to work with. But Girardi and the Yankees showed, out of necessity, that bullpen-ing can work on the most important of stages: an elimination game. Green and Robertson shows us that relievers can, in fact, pitch in about any inning and maintain their effectiveness. The Yankees paved the way for true bullpen games to follow.

Not bullpen-ing from the get-go is evidence that fear of the unknown is holding decision-makers back from choices that make sense in theory but have never been put in practice. It’s fear of being second-guessed, fear of what others think, fear of how players will handle situations. Fear has often limited the pace of innovation. But there’s opportunity if you can get beyond fear.

Invention shouldn’t require necessity.





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

newest oldest most voted
HappyFunBall
Member
Member
HappyFunBall

Even in a bullpenning game, the expectation should still be for the elite starting pitcher to go once or preferably twice through the order. Put him on a short leash, absolutely, but “bench our ace” in an elimination isn’t going to happen any time soon.

sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

I agree. It’s certainly not obvious that having David Robertson go for 3 innings is less risky than having Severino go for 3 innings.

Restore Andy Hawkins Glory
Member
Member
Restore Andy Hawkins Glory

There’s no doubt that having Severino pitch 3 innings is no riskier, and likely less risky, than having Robertson pitch 3 innings, but that misses the point of bullpenning at all. If you’re going to throw Severino 3 innings then he might as well go 6 or 7 since he’s spent enough to at least prevent him from coming back for a full game on Friday in the ALDS. If you want a starter to lead you off then you consider someone whose stuff will play up in a short stint. Tell Montgomery or CC to go give you 40-50 pitches (or use both) but don’t use Severino for only 3 innings. It’s the worst of both worlds.

chuckb
Member
Member
chuckb

The worst of all worlds is Mike Matheny insisting his starter pitch 5 innings, regardless of the score, so that he can be eligible for the win and then finding your team down 7-2 or so. Using a reliever early in the game isn’t the worst case scenario by any stretch.

HappyFunBall
Member
Member
HappyFunBall

The point of a bullpen game is not to save the starter for the DS. It’s to get the most innings from your best arms. The elite starter is one of those best arms, but only for a few innings.

Restore Andy Hawkins Glory
Member
Member
Restore Andy Hawkins Glory

Actually, if you read the original article a main premise is saving Severino for the divisional series, hence my point of not using Severino and burning him in limited innings. The idea is that the Yankees bullpen is so good and deep that they are as good or better than Severino collectively so the risk is minimal.

sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

That is correct, it was part of the premise for the original article. But if the point is that you’re going to tax a good chunk of your bullpen by pitching them multiple innings in the first game of the entire playoffs (instead of one starter) then that’s not exactly maximizing your pitching ability in that first game of the divisional series either.

The main advantage is that it should help you win the game. And there is some evidence it would do that, although it would be better to actually have the pitcher who is used to pitching in longer stretches pitch in longer stretches.

I’m going to argue that the worst of both worlds is you lose the game. Really, it’s the worst of one world, but it’s so bad your second world (the ALDS) doesn’t exist anymore.

Restore Andy Hawkins Glory
Member
Member
Restore Andy Hawkins Glory

I agree with your premise. I was speaking to the point made in the original article. The ultimate goal is to win the game so if there is evidence that a certain pitcher has a lot of trouble in that second or third run through the lineup but is really strong the first time through then using your deep bullpen to get you 6 innings is a good option.
Severino isn’t really that guy though. The evidence is that he holds his velocity and effectiveness deep into games. That makes him an odd choice to use for this tactic. Tanaka, on the other hand, shows a pretty big drop off that second time through the order so if you didn’t have Severino available then the strategy makes a ton of sense to max your win probability without your ace. However, in the situation presented you had both Severino and the bullpen options available and there’s not much evidence that you gain anything pulling Severino after 3 innings over letting him go 6 or 7 so the bullpen option really only gives you a big advantage if you use it to save him for the DS. If you lose then obviously the gamble backfired, but you can argue it is the better long view strategy if your goal is to win the WS not just a wild card game.