Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Evolving Bullpen

One of the huge reasons that the Tampa Bay Rays are in the World Series is their bullpen. Despite a less-than-impressive cast of starting pitchers, the Rays have ridden a deep, diverse, and pretty darned cheap bullpen to October success. Of course, whenever any team pushes deep into the postseason, other teams are going to look at what they do and try to appropriate what works for them. The Rays bullpen will definitely be an important topic of conversation this offseason as teams look to build their own bullpens.

While the Tampa Bay 'pen is a diverse group, as a whole they tend to emphasize throwing strikes. They don't have guys with big names, big salaries, or even multi-year contracts. They don't have assigned innings, but are used interchangeably by manager Kevin Cash. The bullpen has been wildly successful despite finishing 13th in the AL in strikeouts. Basically, their whole philosophy of building their bullpen flies in the face of modern bullpen theory.

In the New York Post this week, Joel Sherman questions whether the Rays' bullpen success is going to cause other teams to question the wisdom of large contracts for relief pitchers, perhaps even depressing the reliever market as a whole. Sherman points to highly paid relievers that have become liabilities for their clubs, such as Colorado's Wade Davis, Chicago's Craig Kimbrel, LA's Kenley Jansen and even the Yankees' Aroldis Chapman, who has been showing some recent kinks in his armor. The Mets certainly have some regrets about investing big in Jeurys Familia and Dellin Betances to shore up their late-game bullpen and not getting much bang for the buck.

With teams looking to cut payroll next season, Sherman is probably correct that teams are going to shy away from highly paid relivers and try to find value by emulating Tampa Bay's methods, at least to an extent. There's going to be some problems with going whole hog in trying to duplicate what the Rays do, however. The Rays have been doing this for years, and have it down to a science. If a larger market team tried to do that, they'll have to deal with different expectations from their fan base than the Rays have with theirs.

I remember years ago the Boston Red Sox were going to go with some sort of bullpen by committee setup, citing the inefficiency of the way bullpens were run. When they started losing game late, the fans lost their sh*t, and the Red Sox wound up bringing in some experienced relievers and going back to a much more orthodox bullpen setup. A team like the Rays just has more leeway in doing something unconventional - and on the cheap, of course. If Sandy Alderson tried something like that with the Mets bullpen next season, he'd better hope that it went well right from the beginning, or they'll be burning him in effigy on Roosevelt Avenue.

Still, I think it would be pretty hard to argue with the fact that the Mets could learn quite a bit from the Ray's success. They demand, first and foremost, that their relievers throw strikes. While you certainly don't want your relievers throwing meatballs over the plate, nothing is worse than bringing a guy into a game and watching him start handing out free passes. Of course, it's easier to get your guys throwing strikes when there's a defense like the one the Rays put out there day in and day out. But we already know that the Mets have to do better defensively.

The way that Tampa uses their relievers interchangeably is something that I think we're going to see a lot more in coming years, and something that the Mets should certainly be working towards. The strategy that teams have been leaning on for years is get the game to the seventh, bring in a couple of good relievers for one inning stints and get it to your closer in the ninth. The obvious problem is that games are often decided before the ninth. But many closers become adrenaline junkies, and don't pitch their best unless they're brought in to hold a lead at the end of a game. Even your late inning setup men are resistant to coming into a game before their expected time, claiming that they pitch their best when used as expected.

The strategy of using relievers in this manner worked best when you could count on getting 5 or 6 innings from your starters and 6 or 7 from your best pitchers. We're seeing the game change so much as far as what's expected from starters and how many innings are needed from the bullpen. Having a bullpen that runs 4 or 5 deep just doesn't cut it any more. Teams struggled not to overuse relievers this season when they had 28 men rosters all season. It's going to be that much tougher next season when the rosters go down to 26.

Having a lot of flexibility in your bullpen use makes more and more sense these days, but good luck selling this if you have an established closer and an elite setup guy or two on your roster. They understand that their current usage is what's going to allow them to make the most money when they hit the market. That could change if we stop overpaying for closers and late-game relievers, but it's going to take some time.

Flexible bullpen usage is something that's going to be a lot easier to sell to your relievers if you groom them that way when they are younger and not established in roles. This could be products of your own farm system or younger pitchers you obtain in other ways. You could also look for the kind of bargains that Tampa Bay is good at ferreting out, but you'll need to study what they do and figure out how they manage to turn guys around who haven't been successful.

I do think that one-and-done relief usage that still dominates the game is going to fade out. With so many innings to be filled by relievers, versatile arms that can pitch 2 or even 3 innings are going to see their value increase, particularly those who can finish games, too. Years ago, young starting pitchers would often break into the league as multi-inning relievers - long men, in the parlance of the times. They might also be used as openers, with teams looking to get less than the standard 5 innings from their early career starts.

The current favored system of multi-single inning relievers in late game hasn't been around forever, but evolved as starting pitching outings got shorter and complete games went the way of the dodo. It shouldn't be a huge surprise if reliever usage norms shift again as the demands on bullpens evolves further. The game of baseball is almost glacially slow to abandon the tried and true methods that most managers feel safe with, but change will happen. Teams that are the most willing to adapt their methods are the ones most likely not to be home watching other teams play October baseball.

Thanks for giving me some of your time today. Check back with us often, as we will keep the new content flowing all offseason. Please stay safe, be well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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