Finish line? Postseason CGs are rare sight

Managers showing they trust bullpens more than starters

October 12th, 2017

We all know about the "Never Trap." Every so often, people will say or write about something that will "never happen again." There will never be another .400 hitter. There will never be another 300-game winner. There will never be another Triple Crown winner (horse racing or baseball). There will never be another World Series in Kansas City. It is, as Admiral Ackbar so famously said, a trap.

And so if I was to say, "There will never be another starter to pitch a complete game in the postseason," it is all but certain that Nationals ace Max Scherzer or Cubs right-hander would throw one TODAY.

So let's go at this another way and ask a simple question: In today's game, why would a manager EVER let a starter pitch all nine innings in the postseason?

Let's begin by going back 40 years, to 1977. That year, there were NINE complete games thrown in the postseason. This is even more impressive than it sounds because it was before the Wild Card and when the League Championship Series were best-of-five affairs. There were only 15 postseason games played in total. Nine of them featured a complete game. Don Sutton, Mike Torrez and Ron Guidry each threw two complete games in that postseason. Tommy John threw a 130-pitch complete game against the Phillies in the NLCS. Dennis Leonard threw a 97-pitch complete game against the Yankees in the ALCS.

Why were there so many complete games then? There are several answers, but if I can choose the most prominent reason it was this: Managers trusted starters -- even exhausted starters -- much more than they trusted bullpen pitchers. Teams were built around starting pitching. The interesting part of this is that there was already reason to doubt this reasoning. Even in 1977, when managers largely viewed the bullpen as an unappetizing Plan B, relievers allowed fewer hits and fewer homers and struck out more batters per inning than starters. Relievers did walk more batters -- pitchers were often put in the 'pen because they lacked the command to start -- but all in all, inferior relievers in shorter outings pitched at least as well, and often better, than superior starters stretched out.

Plus: There was a powerful momentum to the IDEA of the starting pitcher as the most important man on the field of play. It was the starter who, in most cases, earned the win or was tagged with the loss. It was the starter who was announced before each game, the way the headliner is announced before comedy nights or concerts. You didn't want to be a reliever. In 1975, a 23-year-old Goose Gossage was so dominant out of the White Sox 'pen that he was immediately promoted and made a starter, and when that backfired the White Sox dumped him in a trade to the Pirates. After all, who needed a (spit out the word in disgust) RELIEVER.

Over the next, well, 40 years, things gradually shifted. Firemen became the rage of baseball. Firemen evolved into closers. Everybody wanted their own shiny closer. Then teams needed setup men to get to their closers. Then they needed middle-inning guys to get to their setup men to get to their closers. The save started to gain real currency among baseball fans and, more important, baseball executives. People began realizing that you could take a once good but now washed-up starter (Dennis Eckersley) or a young starter not quite getting it (Mariano Rivera) or a no-hit middle infielder with a good arm (Trevor Hoffman) or a big-time pitching prospect who seemed to have hit a skid (Eric Gagne or or a half dozen other guys) ... and turn them into these serious weapons.

Also, pitch counts became the rage as teams tried everything they could not to burn out their brilliant starters; the sad story of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood with the Cubs scared the life out of teams.

Even with all that, I think the Royals fundamentally changed the game in 2014 and '15 with the way manager Ned Yost used that bullpen in the postseason. The Royals were not the first team to rely on a great bullpen to win (think the Nasty Boys of the 1990 Reds), but they took it to a different level. The '14 Royals were the first team, I believe, who made it clear to their starters, "Your job is to go five innings. If you go six, awesome, thank you. But the job is to go five innings. We'll let the bullpen take it from there."

And the bullpen did take it from there -- , and Greg Holland all threw mid-to-high 90s fastballs with devastating second pitches, and Yost managed as if THE RELIEVERS were the true stars of the game. The starter's job was just to limit the damage as much as possible -- the exact opposite approach to what had long been baseball's narrative. Even when or pitched very well for five innings, Yost was standing on the top step and, first hit of the sixth inning, they were gone. I recall him getting some criticism for that, for not riding his starters longer the way managers had for a century. Nobody would call Yost a tactician of distinction, but he and general manager Dayton Moore, and the rest, saw the future clearly. They beat everybody to the future. And they won two American League pennants and a World Series in the process.

Indians manager Terry Francona took it all to another level in last year's playoffs. He was in a somewhat desperate situation because injuries decimated his starting rotation. Without reliable starters (other than ), Francona created a no-roles pitching staff where anybody and everybody was on call, 24 hours a day. If the Tribe needed Andrew Miller in the fourth inning, Miller came in. Closers pitched in the seventh. Off-day starters pitched the eighth. Francona asked everyone to pitch at maximum effort for as long as they could hold out.

Francona's frantic strategy spooked opposing managers; how do you match up with that? Who can forget Cubs skipper Joe Maddon almost blowing the World Series by overpitching in a game that the Cubs led big? But Maddon recognized that this is the way baseball goes. And he triumphed in part because of it.

This postseason, the longest outing has been seven innings -- four starters have done that. More starters have been out before the end of the second inning than have pitched seven innings. The average start in this postseason so far has lasted 4 1/3 innings. The postseason isn't even half over, so let's not make any comparisons ... but that's obviously a very short time for the average starter to pitch.

Is this fluky? Well, it feels a little bit fluky because some fantastic starters -- Kluber twice, , , Zack Greinke, Chris Sale -- have been roughed up in a way that doesn't feel quite normal. It could be just one of those odd years. But even with that, this is clearly part of a much larger story. This year, starters in the postseason have an ERA of 4.95. Relievers' ERA is 3.63. Even when you take into account inherited runners, relievers are pitching markedly better. Relievers are allowing fewer hits. Relievers are allowing many fewer home runs. Relievers have a better strikeout to walk ratio. And so on.

You know this instinctively already. In Game 5 of the Indians-Yankees series, you know exactly what every Cleveland fan was thinking in the fifth inning when the Tribe was rallying against starter . They were thinking PLEASE LEAVE HIM IN. Even the announcers talked about it. This used to be a sport where the goal of every team was to knock the starter out of the game so that hitters could tee off on the bullpen. Now, the goal is to get as many as you can off the starter before the bullpen comes in to shut the door.

It's also true the Yankees have a particularly awe-inspiring bullpen. No team in baseball has such a fearsome cast; in Game 4, the Yankees SLOWEST FASTBALL ALL GAME LONG was 96 mph. So, the Yankees' bullpen sparks different emotions than, say, the Diamondbacks' bullpen. The Dodgers delighted in getting into that D-backs bullpen.

But I think we all see the game moving in the Yankee direction. Teams are stockpiling power arms. The Yankees bullpen of 2017 might be a somewhat typical bullpen in 2022.

Now, one thing you hear all the time is this: "Well, yeah, teams can do this in the postseason, but they can never bring this frenzied bullpenning strategy to the regular season because there are so many games and you don't have enough arms and so on."

I have two answers for this:

1. It's probably true that managers will not use an all-out bullpenning strategy much in the regular season, but not because it's ineffective or unworkable. The reason is: The regular season doesn't matter as much as it used to. With one-third of the teams in baseball making the playoffs now, your overwhelming regular-season goal is to just be one of those 10 teams, preferably one of the six teams that doesn't have to play in the Wild Card Game. The Indians, Astros and Nationals all won their divisions by at least 17 games. The Dodgers had clinched a playoff berth by Labor Day. Even the Cubs, who played somewhat dodgy baseball much of the year. ended up with 92 wins and a relatively easy division title. The Red Sox and Yankees battled somewhat down the stretch, but both knew they were playoff bound ... and it is the Wild Card Yanks who advanced while the AL East champion Red Sox went down.

I believe it is possible for an upstart, a team that cannot match up with the powerhouse teams, to try and bullpen their way into the playoffs. But we haven't seen anyone try it yet, and we might not. For some reason, struggling teams rarely seem to try truly out-of-the-box strategies; that's probably true in business as much as baseball.

2. We all should come to grips with this: October baseball is, indeed, fundamentally different from regular-season baseball. This is the direction that baseball took -- and I think the vast majority of baseball fans wants this direction. The more playoff teams you add, the more drama you add, but a consequence of this is that you decrease the value of the regular season. The more short playoff series you add to October, the more excitement you add, the more you encourage short-term, all-in strategies like bullpenning to dominate the game.

People have long called a baseball season a marathon. I like that comparison. Baseball is still a marathon, only now it's a marathon where everybody runs 24 miles, then the race is stopped and the Top 10 runner are pulled out. Those 10 then run a 2.2 mile race from more or less the same starting point. Maybe you give the leader a 10-second head start. Maybe you give the leader an extra five minutes to rest. Maybe you give him or her an extra bottle of water. But it's still the 2.2-mile race that determines your champion. And sprinter strategies will win in the end.

So back to the question: Why would you EVER let a starter pitch nine innings now? The last postseason complete game was 's four-hit shutout in last year's National League Wild Card Game, and that makes sense. The Giants were the last team to have real success with the old-school, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Christy Mathewson way of pitching in October. Bumgarner is their legend. That game was 0-0 going into the ninth inning. And the Giants' bullpen was famously bad last year.

In other words, it was a perfect storm.

How likely is all that to happen again in one game?

Why would you let a starter go nine innings in this new paradigm? We know it wouldn't make sense if the starter was struggling in any way. It wouldn't make sense if you have a dominant bullpen. It wouldn't make sense if the pitch count ever got too high. But let's say for argument's sake that your starting pitcher is cruising, and your bullpen isn't dominant. Wouldn't that be a perfect time to let your starter go nine?

No. A couple of reasons. One, you likely will want to pitch that starter again, and probably as soon as possible, so every extra pitch he throws is making him less likely to be effective/available when you need him again. Two, bad stuff escalates quickly in the postseason. As our own Mike Petriello likes to say, whenever you say a pitcher is "dealing," you have to be aware that a pitcher is dealing only until he isn't. Branch Rickey used to have a theory about veteran players; it was always better to trade them too soon rather than too late. This is true of pitching in this era of power bullpens. You would rather take your starter out one pitch too soon than one pitch too late.

So it's hard to imagine any scenario where a manager would allow a starter to pitch nine innings. Maybe a clinching game in the World Series with a sizable lead? Maybe a bridge game where the bullpen is so worn out that you really need to give them the rest (though in today's era of pitcher-heavy rosters, this one is harder to imagine). Maybe with a no-hitter or perfect game on the line.

I don't know. I'm sure a postseason complete game will happen again. I just can't think of many reasons WHY it would happen again.