Why iffy bullpens are becoming more of the norm in baseball

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

LOS ANGELES — Somebody thought up relief pitchers. Then somebody had them all go sit together, away from everybody else. The first manager was probably fired right about then. And here we are.

That is, in a time where relievers are pitching less effectively than, maybe, ever, but a lot more often.

Baseball does these things sometimes. It means well. And now some relievers are starters, and some starters are technically relievers, so the patterns are broken and the numbers are skewed. What remains is the need for more, the search for better, and if neither of those is happening then the quest for a model that will hold up for a little while longer, at least through the night.

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Just Thursday afternoon, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts considered a question about his bullpen, gathered himself and said, “Um,” then continued, “I think big picture I feel pretty good about it.”

Then he took a short lap around that bullpen, pointing out who’s doing what, who’s making mechanical adjustments, who’s seeking or finding “conviction” out there, a rundown of the many moving parts. Asked how much of his day he spends thinking about these things, he smiled and said, “A good percentage.”

The Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, for two examples, are among the brightest, wealthiest and more motivated organizations in baseball. They field pretty good teams, most years. Their bullpens are, at best, mediocre. They win with incomplete bullpens because of the more reliable parts of those bullpens and because their starters throw more innings than most (and because they score a lot of runs), and while that’s all a fine strategy, the Cubs just signed Craig Kimbrel and the Dodgers will chase new relievers all the way to the July 31 trade deadline.

Because the bullpen building thing is hardly ever finished. Because iffy bullpens are a way of life. Because good bullpens are generally a frying pan in the face waiting to happen. Because on Thursday night, the Dodgers gave away Joe Kelly bobbleheads and a lot of people still came. Because one day soon there’ll be a season on the line and the starter will have been pulled before he could be exposed to the third-time-through-the-lineup monster and the matchups will commence and something will go sideways or die trying.

That’s why the last two World Series were closed out by starters.

This all seemed particularly topical at the beginning of a four-game series at Dodger Stadium. The Cubs are waiting on Kimbrel, the finest post-Mariano Rivera reliever in the game who, at 31, was unsigned for eight months. The Cubs are 38-30 and one game out of first in the NL Central though their bullpen ERA was 15th in the majors, their bullpen WHIP was 20th and they had blown 12 saves. They are counting on Kimbrel to tighten up the Cubs’ whole starter-to-handshake line experience, the thinking being a better pitcher in the ninth means a better pitcher in the eighth, and before that the seventh, a common expectation that also sometimes works.

The Chicago Cubs bullpen ERA is 15th in baseball. (Getty Images)
The Chicago Cubs bullpen ERA is 15th in baseball. (Getty Images)

In the meantime, Carl Edwards Jr., who started the season as an important member of the bullpen, then was demoted to the minor leagues, then returned as the guy everyone expected, on Thursday went to the injured list, a day after Steve Cishek was downed when he was hit in the knee by a wayward throw … before a game.

It’s like bullpens are just trying to break.

When Cubs starter Jon Lester was replaced by a left-hander to start the sixth inning Thursday night, the scoreboard identified the reliever as “unknown.” It was Tim Collins. He was here for Edwards.

“It’s been a real juggling act,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.

Collins pitched fine. The Cubs lost, 7-3.

“It’s an industry-wide situation,” Maddon said. “There’s always a volatility factor in the bullpen.”

So, if not better pitchers, and hopefully better pitchers, then different pitchers, or more lefties, or more righties, or power pitchers rather than touch guys, or somebody who offers a “different look,” as they say, it all depends on the day, the trainer’s report, the opponent and what yesterday looked like. Somebody may like a guy’s moxie out there, or his spin rate, or note he has another gear in there somewhere, or trust that shoulder thing will clear up any day, and by the end, there’s little surprise they started putting names on jerseys and giving relievers their own dugout. By the end, there’ll have been a lot of them.

Also, by the end, the bullpen may look a lot different than it did in the middle of June. They presumably hope so in, say, Minnesota, where the Twins can’t be too sure of their bullpen. Same for those in Atlanta. Or Philadelphia. Or even Houston. Oh, and geez, Boston. They’ve made their big play in Chicago, and even that $43 million comes with the question of whether they’ve just signed the guy who changes everything or the guy who popped the 4.57 ERA in last year’s second half, the near-6 ERA in the last October, who watched Chris Sale close the clincher.

The point is, as Maddon said, “That’s the game right there. That’s how you win in the playoffs,” and today that is true, which is weird, given that in a time of unpredictable relief pitchers -- which is like most times -- the game is coming to rely less on starting pitchers. It doesn’t always make sense. But, then, it doesn’t have to. Baseball just does these things. And here we are.

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