Last postseason when the Oakland Athletics took on the New York Yankees, the A’s utilized a technique that not many had seen in prior years. Instead of using a normal starting pitcher, Liam Hendricks, a relief pitcher, was used as their “opener.” In the contest, six A’s pitchers threw, but none for more than three innings. While Oakland lost, the strategy gave baseball fans a taste of what to come in 2019.
Popularized by the Tampa Bay Rays, “bullpenning” is used as a way to get through opponent’s first time through the lineup. Once through, another pitcher is brought in to handle the next rotation. By switching pitchers so often, opposing lineups never get too comfortable with a starting pitcher’s repertoire.
In 2019, the Rays again have been a staple of this technique. Ryne Stanek, who has started eight games, has thrown just 16 innings. He often pitches just one inning before another pitcher is brought in. Stanek himself holds a 2.81 earned run average whereas the Rays as a whole hold an MLB-leading 2.99 ERA.
In a 2018 interview with MLB.com, Kevin Cash, manager of the Rays, stated that he believes the technique, while unconventional, is a way to maximize the team’s pitching staff.
“It gives us the flexibility to be able to match up with the opposing lineup a little better when we can insert a guy in there to get three to six outs,” Cash said.
The technique may limit the longevity of some outings but is amazing for the sport of baseball. Not only does it open more opportunities for relief pitchers, but it takes away potential limits or standards for starters.
We have come accustom to pitchers having to throw six to seven innings per start. While there are still pitchers who do that, now there is no forced limit among starters. If a starter goes just four innings, the reliance on the bullpen will decide whether the team wins or loses.
When the playoffs come around, teams live or die by the bullpen. Having a strong bullpen can win you a championship. The 2018 Red Sox had a bullpen loaded with talent in Craig Kimbrel, Joe Kelly and Ryan Braiser. That depth was one of the main reasons they won the championship.
With bullpen games, that level of intensity is now brought to every single game. The Rays have proven that it is a successful way to manage a pitching staff.
As the season rolls along, it’s likely we see more teams utilizing the bullpen game. While it may limit the amount of “true starters” we see, it’ll only improve the quality and the atmosphere of the game.