Yankees: ‘Bullpenning’ versus starting pitching in 2020

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 20: Chad Green #57 of the New York Yankees pitches during the first inning against the Houston Astros at Yankee Stadium on June 20, 2019 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 20: Chad Green #57 of the New York Yankees pitches during the first inning against the Houston Astros at Yankee Stadium on June 20, 2019 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /

While the New York Yankees generally had success “bullpenning” rather than relying on starting pitchers to open games during 2019, controversy still remains as to whether beginning games with relief pitchers is a better approach than using starting pitchers to open games, as traditionally done in the past.

Last season the Yankees exclusively used relief pitchers to start a game more than a dozen times. This happened when injuries to particular starting pitchers sidelined them, and employing relief pitchers was the only option.

This also occurred when starters in the rotation were not available due to the need to play more than a normal number of games in a short period of time, such as in cases involving unscheduled, makeup double headers, for example.

“Bullpenning,” the science of limiting starting pitchers’ exposure while optimizing reliever use, has been employed by several MLB teams, including the Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays, and the Milwaukee Brewers to varying degrees — and with varying success.

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As we recently witnessed, both the Bombers and the Astros chose to bullpen in Game 4 of the 2019 ALCS.

Will the Yanks continue to use relief pitchers to open games as much as in 2019, or will the team move away from employing this tactic and rely more heavily on conventional starting pitching as a formula to win games in 2020?

Two-years ago a blog appeared in Yanks Go Yard predicting that the Yanks were soon going to rely much more on relief pitchers to start games in the near future. This prophesy became true during this past season. However, will this now be the new normal for the club?

Chad Green’s take

In the 15 games that Chad Green opened during the 2019 season, the Bombers won 11 games and lost only 4. In those contests, he had a 3.72 ERA and struck out 14.9 batters per nine innings.

Yet, when he entered the game as a reliever during the season, he posted a 4.35 ERA and his strikeouts per nine innings declined to 12.0.

Even still, Green lacks confidence in the popular new game-management tactic of bullpenning. He says that he does not know how long the use of an opener is going to last because starting pitching is clearly the way to win ball games deep in the postseason.

As Green correctly argues, playoff games are the most important games of the year. And when the starter goes six or seven innings, that is when teams frequently prevail victorious in the postseason.

Evaluating bullpenning versus starting pitching

There are advantages and disadvantages of relying on bullpenning — compared to starting pitching to win games.

Exclusively using relievers for one or two innings means that the manager can use the same pitchers again within the next day or two. Starting pitchers, in contrast, require four, or, more often, five days rest between starts.

Yet, if a manager uses four or five relief pitchers in a game, there is an increased chance that at least one of those pitchers will not have superior stuff and will falter. Relying on experienced starting pitchers to open games introduces greater consistency and predictability.

Some argue that relief pitchers are relief pitchers because they were not good enough to be starters. This perhaps means that these pitchers have a great fastball and maybe a decent slider and that’s about it. Good starting pitchers, in contrast, have three or four pitches they can get over the plate and keep batters off-balance and guessing over the course of a game.

Many, if not most, relief pitchers today throw at high velocities — and ball players have become accustomed to hitting 95 mph plus fastballs. Good relievers tend to have enough variation in ball movement (they throw a four-seam and two-seam fastball) so that batters cannot easily key in on them.

In most cases, hitters only see relievers once during a game. During a four-game series, however, relievers can pitch more than once, providing enough familiarity for batters to successfully make contact with the ball. This is not the case for a regular top starting pitcher.

Relying heavily upon relievers can tire them out, leading to less success over time and increasing the likelihood of injury. Overused relief pitchers can cost baseball clubs crucial wins.

But the data clearly shows that the effectiveness of starters declines significantly as they go through the batting order each time, from the first to the second time — and especially from the second to the third time.

Still, good starters will have three and often four different pitches that they can get over the plate. If conditions permit, starting pitchers can rely on, say, a fastball and a slider the first time through the batting order and then switch to increased use of a curve ball and a changeup to keep batters out of rhythm as the game progresses.

Importantly, managers must allocate pitching across at least nine innings over 162 games; that’s 1,458 innings at a minimum — and more innings when you add extra inning contests. Employing a solid five-man starting rotation is more efficient and can account for a much larger percentage of innings during the regular season, than if the team is bullpenning on a regular basis.

Having five starting pitchers who can frequently go deep into a game helps rest the team’s relief corps, making them even more effective than if bullpenning is often employed.

For this and other reasons, Green is absolutely right when he says that the clubs with the best starting pitching have a higher probability of going deep into the postseason and winning, than teams with mediocre starting pitching.

Yankees and starting pitching

Given the pluses and minuses of relying on traditional starting pitching, what will the Yanks do during the upcoming 2020 season? About halfway through the offseason, the answer is quite clear and can be summed up in one four letter surname: Cole.

The Bronx Bombers would clearly not have shelled out a record $324 million over a nine-year period for Gerrit Cole if they were going to decrease reliance on starting pitching and, instead, use the bullpen a lot this coming season to open games.

Remember that injuries significantly hobbled the club’s starting pitching (along with key players at other positions) in 2019, forcing the team to bring up mediocre minor league pitchers, recruit so-so pitching castaways from other teams, and bullpen a lot more than they wanted to.

Next year should be an entirely different story, barring serious injuries, of course. Both Jordan Montgomery and Luis Severino will return full-time and join Cole in the starting rotation.

Add the come-out-of-no-where Domingo German (assuming he receives a short suspension at the beginning of the season) to the starting rotation and the reinvented and reliable Masahiro Tanaka (with Jonathan Loaisiga waiting in the wings), the Yanks will arguably have the best starting pitching in baseball.

J.A. Happ, who would be a starter on many other clubs, will likely become a valuable long reliever and an occasional spot starter if the Yankees cannot move him before camp opens.

Don’t get me wrong, relief pitching will still play an important role in the team’s quest for a World Series appearance in 2020, which is why the Yanks are aggressively pursuing Josh Hader, arguably one of the best relief pitchers (if not the best) in all of baseball.

The Bombers want to have the best starting pitching, the best relief pitching (which is why they let an injury-prone Dellin Betances go), and the most potent lineup in MLB. For the Bombers and their fans, “greed is good.”

Next. Yankees sign Gerrit Cole to a nine-year, $324 million contract. dark

The Yankees will still probably need to bullpen once in a while. Starting pitchers can easily suffer injuries and miss a turn or two in the rotation during the arduous season. Games will be rained out, leading to unscheduled, makeup double headers and workload pressure on the rotation. In general, however, bullpenning will become the last resort for the Yanks in 2020 and will occur infrequently.