Image credit: Madison Bumgarner (Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images)
One of my favorite moments of the 2017 playoffs came during the American League Division Series between the Astros and Red Sox. It was Game Four, and Chris Sale was dueling Justin Verlander in the seventh inning of a 2-2 game, with Boston’s season on the line. It was the kind of classic playoff theater that called to mind great World Series pitchers’ duels of the past: Jack Morris taking on John Smoltz in 1991, Bob Gibson and Mickey Lolich in 1968, Whitey Ford and Lew Burdette in 1957, and on back through baseball history.
Except, it was nothing like that. Neither Sale nor Verlander had started the game, and neither would finish it. Each had been called out of the bullpen a day before their scheduled start to provide support for shaky relief corps. It was a pointed reminder than it’s not 1957 or 1968 or 1991 any more, and that to get through October, you have to win 11 and sometimes 12 games. The old rules have been thrown out.
Using ace starters as relievers in October isn’t new. Randy Johnson got the win in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series for the D-backs after he relieved Curt Schilling. Madison Bumgarner closed out Game 7 of the 2014 World Series for the Giants. Bobby Cox called both John Smoltz and Greg Maddux into playoff relief work for the 1990s Braves.
As the role of relievers has devolved from relief aces down to one-inning specialists, managers have been forced to look to their starters for length in postseason games, because their relievers aren’t trained to provide it. The Cubs’ Joe Maddon twisted himself in knots last October because his best righthanded relievers were all one-inning guys. We’re back at it again in 2018: Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. are all averaging one inning or fewer per appearance. Brandon Kintzler, too, since coming to Chicago in August. In any game in which his starter doesn’t go six innings, Maddon can find himself in a jam in the eighth.
It’s not just the reduction in reliever workloads pushing ace starters into relief roles. No, managers have finally put into practice what analysts have been arguing for a long time: October baseball is different, with the need to win that day’s game paramount and the schedule affording so many extra off days—and beyond that, four months of recovery.
So Clayton Kershaw can throw 94 pitches in Sunday’s Game 5, then come back two days later and throw four shutout innings in Wednesday’s Game 7. Kershaw has relieved in each of the last two Dodgers postseason runs. Jon Lester came out of the bullpen for the Cubs in both 2016 and 2017. Bumgarner has two postseason relief appearances, including maybe the signature pitching performance of this century: five shutout innings on two days of rest protecting a one-run lead in a World Series Game 7 on the road.
Managers run their pitching staffs with greater urgency as well, pulling back-end starters earlier, and even hooking better ones rather than letting them work out of trouble. The value starters provide, volume, doesn’t matter when you’re almost never playing more than two days in
Go back just five years, to the 2013 Red Sox, who won the World Series. They beat the Cardinals in six games, and in those six games, their starters went 36.1 innings in total, throwing 68 percent of Boston’s innings in the Series. For the postseason as a whole, their starters threw 65 percent of their team’s innings. That’s just five years ago! Last year, the Astros won a World Series in which their starters threw 57 percent of their innings, at the end of a postseason in which they threw 61 percent of the innings. This was a team with a great rotation and a shaky bullpen, and even it went to that pen for an average of 3.1 innings a night.
Step back from the victors, and the global trends become clear. In that 2013 postseason, starters—pitchers who started the game—threw 65 percent of all innings. Last year, it was 56 percent, and that was a postseason that featured the top seven rotations, by wins above replacement, in baseball. Eleven of the top 12 starters in 2017 were on playoff teams, and we still saw a parade of calls to the bullpen. It’s not about whether you have a good or bad rotation anymore. This is the way the playoffs are played, whether you have good starters or not.
So as October unfolds, settle in for more of the same. We could even see a playoff team use an “opener,” or run a bullpen game, which would push even more innings to relievers. The Brewers started matchup lefty Dan Jennings in a key pennant-race game in St. Louis, pulling him after one batter. They have both a thin rotation and a great bullpen, so they’re motivated to play to their strengths as much as possible. The Athletics, who won a wild card slot despite injuries wrecking their rotation, used Liam Hendriks as an “opener” seven times in September.
If we’re really lucky, we could even get another duel of aces on a crisp fall afternoon with a season on the line. Picture Clayton Kershaw, in to pitch the eighth inning, against Jon Lester, working his second inning of relief. Why, you can almost hear Mel Allen on the call . . .