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There is nothing more hackneyed than hating the latest tactical evolution in the game. Especially if it works. Which means that opportunistic, self-aware writers have to jump at any chance to complain about games pitched by a parade of relievers in place of a clash between starters aspiring to go the distance.
As we’ve seen this postseason, bullpen games are a savvy if unpopular strategy. They’re a way to win without an ace available. Unless you lose. And then they’re ugly, alienating, and ineffective. Finally, a chance to rail against them.
It took the Los Angeles Dodgers seven pitchers to lose 6-4 to even the World Series at a game apiece. Their dominant offense was no-hit into the fifth before rallying. Four runs would have been enough to win Game 1 when Clayton Kershaw was on the mound. On Wednesday they trailed the Tampa Bay Rays the entire time. It was the pitching, and the pitching strategy, that failed them.
An overall shift of innings away from starters and toward relievers is not new. Neither is a quick hook in October. Openers are on the rise, a revolution led by one of the World Series teams. The 2020 regular season featured a huge jump in the percentage of games in which no pitcher threw more than three innings. That trend has continued into the postseason, exacerbated by a schedule that eliminated off days from the Division Series and Championship Series.
World Series Game 2, on Wednesday night, was the 49th game of the postseason. And it featured the 24th instance of a starter lasting fewer than three innings. An expanded field with an extra three-game wild-card round skews comparative statistics across seasons, but that is, as you’d expect, the most in postseason history. Not all of those were on purpose (the Braves certainly didn’t plan on pulling Kyle Wright after less than an inning, until he gave up seven runs) but that is, as you’d expect, indicative of an intentional reliance on openers and bullpen games rather than down-rotation starters.
Part of that is because the Rays have made it this far, taking their innovation born of necessity to the biggest stage. No idea is too unconventional to consider internally, no tactic is too quirky to test in a small market if it’s backed by analytics. Even when a Cy Young Award winner like Blake Snell starts, relievers are deployed early and often. Snell gave up only two hits, including a home run, before he was yanked without completing the sixth inning for the 20th start in a row. Postgame, he conceded he’d made the decision to go the pen too easy on manager Kevin Cash by issuing four walks. But his 4 2/3 innings amounted to as much as any three Dodgers pitchers threw combined. On purpose. Unsuccessfully.
“Literally it's like playing us,” Jeremy Sowers, the Rays’ manager of major league operations, said before Game 2, noting the Dodgers’ October embrace of nontraditional pitching plans.
“You know, we joke about how much of a pain in the butt we must have been for teams, just like, ‘OK, who's starting Game 3?’ And like, yeah, we don't know. We're getting a taste of our own medicine with that.”
He said the Rays’ familiarity with those strategies made it less stressful to go up against them. That’s almost certainly true, but perhaps even more impactfully, the Dodgers’ pitchers are struggling in their new roles.
Rookie Tony Gonsolin, throwing on two days rest, gave up a first-inning home run to Brandon Lowe. Going only 1 1/3 innings brought his postseason ERA up to 9.39. In nine regular season games, eight of them starts and all on four or five days rest, he posted a 2.31 ERA.
His fellow rookie Dustin May, also on two days rest, gave up four runs in 1 1/3 innings. He has yet to throw more than two innings, either starting or in relief, across six appearances this postseason, twice pitching on one day of rest and twice more on three days rest. He has a 5.00 ERA in October after a regular season in which he posted a 2.57 ERA across 12 games, 10 starts, all on four or five days rest.
Asked if he was putting his young pitchers in a position to succeed, manager Dave Roberts credited their accountability, acknowledged that it was uncharted territory, and ultimately said, “That's a question for them.”
Gonsolin, for his part, called it a learning experience. “Doing new things, you know, starting or whatever, and throwing within like three days, or whatever,” a seemingly worn down Gonsolin told reporters postgame.
The Dodgers didn’t do this just to be provocative or antagonize traditionalists or even because they necessarily “wanted” to. They did it out of necessity, because they didn’t have an appealing option to throw a traditional start after a successful bullpen game closed out the NLCS on Sunday.
That time it worked, but not without in-game anxiety that the approach would backfire. Any strategy is only as good as the players’ execution. A single loss is no more an indictment of bullpen games than it is of May or Gonsolin’s abilities. But, if you’ll pardon the extremely rudimentary analysis, you can get a starter to give up six runs in six innings, like the first five Dodgers pitchers did Wednesday night. It would leave fewer arms taxed for the rest of the series. And it’s a much more compelling entertainment product.
The three-hour, 40-minute game felt even longer because of all the mid-inning pitching changes that sent the broadcast to commercial. The Dodgers’ promising young arms with their nasty split change and triple-digit velocity, respectively, were undone by circumstances and pulled off the national stage before their stories had a chance to develop. It’s a nostalgic complaint, but a sport that just recorded its least-watched World Series game on record might want to consider the viewing experience.
“It was a good baseball game,” Roberts said after the loss.
Except: Was it?
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