We’re Going to See Bullpen Games in October

For the last few years, as the season comes to a close, I’ve basically written a version of the same article, advocating for the extreme use of relief pitchers in the Wild Card games. I think the first one I wrote was back in 2012, when I titled the piece “Play-In Game Strategy: Skip the Starter”. And while teams have started to move more towards aggressive reliever usage, teams haven’t really adopted the full-on bullpen game as a planned outing as of yet.

I think this year, that changes.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and this year, a bunch of teams are limping into the playoffs with rotations that will make outside-the-box ideas more palatable. Outside of the Cubs and Blue Jays, there are a lot of teams heading into October with some serious question marks in their rotation.

The Dodgers top three starters are pretty easily identified; they’re going to go with Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, and Kenta Maeda, likely in that order. When it gets to Game Four, however, there’s no real point in going with a traditional starter and hoping he gets you through six innings. With Brandon McCarthy, Julio Urias, and Jose DeLeon, the team has three talented options, but each of whom is probably better suited to shorter stints at this point. With the Dodgers wanting to keep Urias’ innings down, a bullpen game seems like the ideal use of their assets.

Let McCarthy and Urias each go 9-18 batters, depending on how they’re performing, with whichever one you don’t start basically ready to go as the next guy in, giving you a left/right change to throw off the opponent. If they both pitch well, perhaps those two get you through six innings, and then the team can just hand things over to the traditional bullpen from there. If either or both get in trouble, well, then you’ve got Ross Stripling or DeLeon around to help bridge the gap. For all the talk about who will start the Dodgers fourth game, it seems likely LA should be planning on parading a bunch of arms through that day, mixing and matching as frequently as necessary.

Realistically, the Nationals might be doing the same thing in that start as well. Joe Ross is currently penciled in as the team’s #4 starter, given that Stephen Strasburg isn’t likely to be active for the NLDS. Ross has made two starts this month after missing two months with shoulder soreness, and he’s faced a total of 30 batters in those two starts, giving up 11 hits in the process. The 9/1 K/BB ratio is somewhat encouraging, but the Nationals can’t be confident that Ross is ready to give them more than a few innings at this point.

So Game Four of the Dodgers/Nationals series is likely to be a bullpen heavy affair, just based on what both teams currently have. But it’s not just that one game in that series where bullpen games are going to make plenty of sense. Basically the entire AL should be looking at using this idea in the division series too.

After suffering injuries to Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, the Indians don’t even really have a quality #3 starter at this point, much less a #4. After Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer make more traditional starts, the Indians very likely are going to have to lean on their bullpen heavily in games started by Josh Tomlin and Mike Clevinger, to the point where they should probably have scripted reliever usage ready for both games.

The Rangers just demoted Derek Holland to the bullpen, leaving their current #4 starter as either Colby Lewis (.454 wOBA allowed since returning from the DL) or A.J. Griffin (.385 wOBA allowed in second half). Throwing either one of them for any significant period of time in a crucial game could prove disastrous. With Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels capable of giving the bullpen some rest early in the series, the Rangers should probably be planning on running through their relievers in games three and four, when the quality of their starters drops tremendously.

The Red Sox are in a similar position, now that Drew Pomeranz has been ruled out of starting any more games this season. The team’s big deadline acquisition could potentially pitch in relief, but without him as an option, the Red Sox are now going to be leaning on Clay Buchholz as the team’s fourth starter. Buchholz has been much better in the second half of the year, but a lot of that success came in relief, so just asking him to go back out and give the team five or six innings seems foolish. If they start Buchholz and get him through two or three innings, then can get two or three from Pomeranz in relief, that might be the team’s best option.

And we haven’t even mentioned the Orioles yet. If they manage to hold off the Tigers for the second Wild Card spot, no team in baseball has been more suited to abandoning the idea of the starting rotation in October. Baltimore’s current playoff rotation looks something like Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman, and guys you don’t want to start in October. If the Orioles get to the Wild Card game, they’ll likely have to burn one of Gausman or Tillman in that elimination game, leaving them having to pick from Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley, or Yovani Gallardo for the Game Two start in the division series, should they get there. Meanwhile, the Orioles have their typical deep and effective bullpen; their best hope for playoff advancement relies on getting to that relief corps as quickly as possible, and given the discrepancy in the options, they probably shouldn’t even bother pretending that they’re going to try and get traditional starts out of their back-end guys.

This postseason, there are just too many teams with serious pitching problems — especially when you look at their #3 and #4 starters — and terrific, deep bullpens to keep managing things the traditional way. This October, it seems very likely that we’re going to see full-fledged bullpen games, with teams choosing fresh relievers and platoon advantages over throwing a bad starter out there and hoping for the best. The Royals blazed the trail to a World Series title with a questionable rotation last year, and this year, I’d expect it to become a full blown trend.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago

I dare Showalter to start Zach Britton in the wildcard game.

7 years ago
Reply to  Mooser

It has been done before. In 1950 the Phillies had ridden a relief pitcher named Jim Konstanty to the World Series. He had made 74 relief appearances with no starts, then started Game 1 of the World Series, losing 1-0 to the Yankees and Vic Raschi.