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How the “Opener and Bullpenning” Strategy Can Work in the MLB

In baseball, the role of the bullpen has developed over time. Bullpens did not really exist at the start of baseball. Starting pitchers used to throw close to 400 innings in a 130-game season. A starter would typically go the complete game, or another starter would come out to relieve him. Over time, the bullpen started to develop as certain roles were created. The closer came around to pitch the 9th inning and then the 7th and 8th inning pitchers followed. It eventually got to the point where a situational lefty was created. This left-handed pitcher would come in the game specifically to face a lefty, and he would only face one batter most of the time. The 2018 MLB season saw a new wave of bullpen usage as The Opener was heavily used.

The Rays found themselves short on starting pitchers this year, especially after Chris Archer and Nathan Eovaldi were traded away, which led them to start The Opener revolution. After the Chris Archer trade, the Rays found themselves with no starting pitchers on their 25-man roster as Blake Snell was on a DL stint. Even though they finished the season with only one true starting pitcher on their active roster, the likely AL Cy Young winner, the Rays ended the season with a 90-72 record. This Rays were viewed as a last place team going into the season, so they exceeded expectations by winning 90 games. The season was a result of a good dependable core of position players, but it was primarily the cause of the bullpen usage. Bullpenning can be done on the major league level, but it has to be done right and the Rays did it right.

What the Rays did is they built a bullpen of guys who might have the potential to be full-time starters, but they need to be eased into that role. Guys like Jalen Beeks, Ryan Yarbrough, Tyler Glasnow, Jake Faria, and Yonny Chirinos were able to go out there and get three to five innings of work. Manager Kevin Cash could not depend on these guys to get six or seven innings every start, but he could rely on them to get through the order once or twice. If Beeks and Yarbrough can combine to get you eight innings, you are set up perfectly to bring in a guy like Sergio Romo to close out the game. It is not the traditional way of getting a win, but it still works. Blake Snell could get them seven innings, which would set up the traditional 8th inning guy and then the closer, but the Rays did not have five Blake Snells. What they did have was a bunch of guys who could eat up innings. The Rays still got quality starts on days when Blake Snell did not pitch, it just took two to three guys to do it. This is how bullpenning is going to work. Having the strategy of throwing nine guys with each one getting an inning will not always work. Sending out a guy like Sergio Romo to get the first three outs, The Opener, can work, but a Ryan Yarbrough should be coming in next to eat up some innings.

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So far, the playoffs have shown two ways to do bullpenning. The Oakland Athletics did it the wrong way and the Milwaukee Brewers did it the right way. It seemed like the A’s were going to use nine relievers to defeat the Yankees in the Wild Card game. This strategy did change once Lou Trivino came in the game and easily got through his first inning of work. Manager Bob Melvin decided to stick with him for three innings. The first mistake the A’s made was throwing Liam Hendricks out there as The Opener. The Opener has a tough job to do. He has to get out the opponent’s top three hitters to start the game. You do not want to throw a Craig Kimbrel or an Edwin Diaz in this spot as you want to save them for the 9th, but The Opener should be a guy like Sergio Romo. A dependable major league reliever whose stuff fits more as a set-up man. A guy who was DFA’d and cleared waivers earlier in the year should not have started this game. Liam Hendricks was out of his element facing the top of the Yankees’ lineup to start the game. In retrospect, the A’s bullpen might not have been strong enough to try bullpenning in this spot. It did not seem like they had inning eaters in their pen. Lou Trivino would have been a better option to start the game instead of Liam Hendricks. On the other hand, the Brewers showed how to do bullpenning correctly.

Brewers’ manager Craig Counsell sent out Brandon Woodruff to the mound to start game one of the NLDS against the Colorado Rockies. Woodruff saw success as a reliever in the major leagues this year and did struggle in his limited experience as a starter in the MLB. It looked like Counsell’s plan was to let Woodruff get once through the order and then go to the bullpen. Woodruff pitched three no-hit innings for the Brewers and Counsell turned it over to the bullpen. It was smart by Counsell to not get caught up in Woodruff throwing a no-hitter. Woodruff had not shown that he could successfully get through the order multiple times in the MLB. Game one of the NLDS would not have been a good time for Counsell to let an unproven pitcher go for a no-hitter. Next out of the pen was Corbin Burnes and he got two scoreless innings. Just like that, the Brewers had five scoreless innings and could now bring in the dependable back end of the bullpen to finish the game.

It seemed like Counsell planned to turn the game over to Corey Knebel, Josh Hader, and Jeremy Jeffress in the sixth inning the entire time. He wanted five pitchers to get nine innings, which is a lot different than the A’s plan to have eight or nine pitchers go nine innings. The A’s needed eight or nine guys to be shut down, which is hard to rely on. The Brewers just needed five guys and three of those relievers had been dependable. Jeffress did blow the lead in the ninth, but that did not mean the bullpenning strategy backfired. Jeffress was going to pitch the ninth inning regardless of what happened. If the Brewers sent out starter Wade Miley and Miley got eight innings, Jeffress would have still come out for the ninth and most likely struggled. Those first five innings of work is where the strategy could have gone wrong. Knebel, Hader, and Jeffress were most likely going to get in the game in some way, so them pitching poorly does not reflect on bullpenning. Woodruff and Burnes were really the ones who determined if it would work and they pitched five innings of one hit ball with six strikeouts, so bullpenning clearly worked in this case.

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The Rays showed that bullpenning does have a place in baseball. It is likely that the Rays will implement this strategy again next year and more teams will follow suit. This is a strategy that can work especially for teams that do not have a solid starting rotation. The Angels are a team that could benefit from implementing bullpenning as they have struggled to build a rotation the last few years. If they piece together some long relievers, they could finally turn themselves into a contender. The jury is still out on what Shohei Ohtani is going to do in the MLB. It is unlikely that Ohtani will both hit and pitch full time in the coming future. The Angels could DH as well as use him as an Opener, so they have a guy slinging 100mph out the gates to set up the bullpen. Bullpenning and The Opener are going to work in the MLB, but the bullpen needs to consist of some long relievers to make it successful.

 

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