September 6, 2018


In the evolution of baseball strategy, the role of the starting pitcher has diminished dramatically. In the past, including the modern golden era of the 1960s and even through to early 2000s, a premium position was starting pitcher. Aces were paid like stars. They were expected to pitch 7 or 8 quality innings for 35 times a season. They were expected to win 20 games. The mental position was that once I got the ball on the mound in the first inning, I would not leave until the game was over.

But there has been a sudden shift in pitching philosophy. The idea of a complete game by a starter is ancient history. Starters are now expected to only pitch through the 5th of 6th inning. Bullpens have expanded to 8 or 9 relievers making the bench for position players extremely small.

Tampa Bay started to carry this trend to a new level by "bullpenning" games. The stat mavens have concluded that starters get weaker as they go through the opponent's lineup a second or third time. Therefore, to eliminate that outcome, a manager will take out a starter, however effective that day, for a series of bullpen arms. But the Rays have started to adopt a more radical approach: start games with bullpen arms and let starters become long, middle relievers. It has worked as the Rays have the best team ERA since May.

Some people are not happy.

The Oakland Athletics are among Major League Baseball’s most surprising contending teams this season. The Athletic website reports that a late-season change in pitching philosophy could threaten to disrupt the relationship between the players and front office.

It all started over the weekend when the A’s became the latest team to adopt the “bullpenning” approach to pitching. Scheduled starter Daniel Mengden arrived to the ballpark for Saturday’s game against the Seattle Mariners expecting to begin his usual pregame routine. That’s when manager Bob Melvin informed him of the change in plans.

Instead, reliever Liam Hendriks was getting the starting nod as an opener, while Mendgen only knew he’d be pitching multiple innings in relief. The confusion admittedly led to frustration, and Mendgen’s performance suffered as a result.

Rather than go through one warm up routine, Mendgen was asked to warm up three different times before entering in the third inning. Seattle took advantage of the staggered Mendgen, scoring three runs in two innings. Now the entire A’s clubhouse seems to be wondering if bullpenning is necessary to achieve their goals.

The A’s obviously took notice of Tampa Bay’s success. Injuries to starters Sean Manaea and Brett Anderson left their rotation depth even thinner, Oakland's management decided bullpenning can help cover their rotation shortcomings. In long stretches during the season with no days off, a manager, including Cubs Joe Maddon, have had to resort to a "bullpen" game where a long reliever started hoping to get 3 or 4 good innings of work, then have the rest of the pen mop up. No starters were sacrificed in bullpen games.

Starting pitchers are creatures of habit. They prefer getting to the ballpark knowing what they have to do and when they have to do it to get ready. They have a set time to prepare for each game. They go over hitter charts with the catcher and bench coach. The pitcher starts his long toss and long bullpen session to get ready for the first inning. IN that preparation, a starter can see what pitches are actually working that day, and to adapt prior to seeing the first batter. It is totally different for a bullpen arm, who may only have 5 minutes to warm up (sometimes less).

“It’s going to affect the routine a little bit,” Mengden said after Saturday’s game. “But you have to adjust to it. It’s a little different sitting down for an inning or two in the bullpen. But playing at this level you have to be ready for anything and make adjustments on the fly.”

Mendgen adjusted well the second time he was asked to follow a reliever, tossing 4 2/3 scoreless innings of relief in Tuesday’s game against the New York Yankees. However, frustration remains in the clubhouse because such a drastic change came without any warning. Players like knowing what’s going on, and like being able to prepare ahead of time.

Whether this is a trend, or part of an effort to reduce costs (relievers are less expensive than starters) will be seen. Tampa Bay is not in a pennant race, but the A's are in one.