Bullpens buck­ling un­der big­ger loads

The Washington Post Sunday - - BASEBALL - BY DAVE SHEININ [email protected]­post.com

When the Seat­tle Mariners brought in righthande­r Austin Adams to pitch the eighth in­ning Mon­day night against the Oak­land Ath­let­ics, they qui­etly reached a grim mile­stone: Adams was the 20th pitcher to ap­pear in re­lief for the Mariners in 2019, a sea­son that was barely a quar­ter of the way to the fin­ish line at the time. The Baltimore Ori­oles, mean­while, had used 23 re­liev­ers (though both teams’ to­tals in­clude po­si­tion play­ers pressed into re­lief duty).

Not so long ago, such a thing would have been un­heard-of — es­pe­cially for a quasi-con­tender such as Seat­tle (22-25 en­ter­ing Satur­day). In 2010, the 95-loss Kansas City Roy­als were the only team in the ma­jors to use as many as 20 pitch­ers in re­lief — and that was over the course of a full sea­son.

Here, in the heart of the Era of Bullpen Supremacy, teams are cy­cling through re­liev­ers at an un­prece­dented pace — but the game also has what ap­pears to be an acute short­age of de­pend­able ones. By ask­ing more of their bullpens, teams are get­ting less.

In other words, it isn’t only the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als who are strug­gling to piece to­gether a ca­pa­ble bullpen. It’s nearly ev­ery­body. (Okay, well, it’s mostly the Na­tion­als, as their ma­jor league­worst 6.82 bullpen ERA en­ter­ing Satur­day — de­spite hav­ing pitched the fewest innings, 1302/3, of any bullpen — would at­test.)

The av­er­age length of a start in Ma­jor League Base­ball has been de­creas­ing for years, and it is down to a record low of about 51/3 innings in 2019. (Twenty-five years ago, it was more than six innings per start.) But as bullpens have been asked to cover more innings, the col­lec­tive re­lief ERA across base­ball also has risen, to a 20-year high of 4.29 this sea­son (en­ter­ing Satur­day).

“The fewer innings you get from your starters, the more you have to rely on the bullpen and the greater the chance some of those [re­liev­ers] are not go­ing to pan out or are not go­ing to pitch well,” said Dave Dom­browski, Bos­ton Red Sox pres­i­dent of base­ball op­er­a­tions. “And then some­times the more you rely on guys and the more they get used, the big­ger the chance they won’t bounce back and pitch as well the next year.”

For much of re­cent his­tory, the ERA for ma­jor league starters has been a half-run to a quar­ter­run higher than that of re­liev­ers. But this year, with re­liev­ers han­dling a larger share of over­all innings than ever be­fore, they are con­verg­ing: Starters have posted an ERA of 4.33 this year, just a tick above that of re­liev­ers.

Is it pos­si­ble that there sim­ply aren’t enough solid arms to pop­u­late 30 ma­jor league bullpens, es­pe­cially in this era in which so much is be­ing asked of them?

“As man­agers are more will­ing to take starters out in the fifth or sixth innings, you’re ask­ing a lot of those re­liev­ers,” Na­tion­als closer Sean Doolit­tle said. “Very few teams have true work­horses any­more [in their ro­ta­tion]. We’re lucky here — our starters are so un­be­liev­able. We’ve had to cover fewest innings in league, which makes some of the hic­cups even more frus­trat­ing.

“But there’s an in­her­ent volatil­ity of re­liev­ers. It takes a dif­fer­ent kind of toll on your body when night in, night out, you’re asked to [get ready to pitch] at the drop of a hat. Over the course of a sea­son, if your work­load isn’t man­aged prop­erly, you may be able to get away with it for a few months, but at some point those innings are go­ing to jump on your back, and it can lead to in­ef­fec­tive­ness or in­jury risk that can de­rail your sea­son or even your ca­reer.”

One of the rea­sons of­ten cited when teams rou­tinely pull their starters in the mid­dle innings of a game is that starters’ ef­fec­tive­ness, across the board, drops pre­cip­i­tously when they face an op­pos­ing lineup for a third time. But the same fa­mil­iar­ity that makes start­ing pitch­ers less ef­fec­tive as a game wears on, it stands to rea­son, also would come into play when re­liev­ers are asked to pitch more fre­quently and for longer stints.

“With re­liev­ers, they tend to have fewer pitches than starters, so the more [fre­quently] they’re com­ing in, the eas­ier it is for hit­ters to hone in,” Red Sox closer Ryan Brasier said. “Starters may try not to use all their weapons early in the game, whereas re­liev­ers come in and ev­ery­one knows what’s com­ing.”

It’s not as if teams aren’t try­ing to piece to­gether elite bullpens. Maybe they’re try­ing too hard. Even as free agents in other seg­ments of the tal­ent mar­ket­place have seen their values crater, proven free agent re­liev­ers con­tinue to cash in. Five of the 16 largest con­tracts signed this off­sea­son and 10 of the 33 mul­ti­year deals went to re­liev­ers. But the list of high-priced re­liev­ers who have been ei­ther in­jured or in­ef­fec­tive this year in­cludes Ken­ley Jansen ($18 mil­lion salary), An­drew Miller ($11 mil­lion), David Robert­son ($10 mil­lion), Bran­don Mor­row ($9 mil­lion) and Tommy Hunter ($9 mil­lion).

In­creas­ingly, con­tend­ing teams are re­build­ing their bullpens in mid­sea­son, once the grind of the sea­son has iden­ti­fied which re­liev­ers are pitch­ing well enough to help down the stretch. The past few trade dead­lines have seen Aroldis Chapman, Miller, Doolit­tle, Roberto Osuna and Zack Britton dealt to con­tenders.

That trend is al­most cer­tain to con­tinue this sum­mer, when the list of avail­able arms will in­clude not only the usual as­sort­ment of trade tar­gets but also free agent closer Craig Kim­brell, who re­mains un­signed — and when the list of teams in need of bullpen help has never been longer.

“That’s one of the tough­est mar­kets — any ex­ec­u­tive would tell you — to find the guy that’s con­sis­tent,” said Man­ager Dave Roberts of the Los An­ge­les Dodgers, whose front of­fice has had suc­cess re­build­ing its bullpen at mid­sea­son. “It’s very volatile. It’s the us­age piece: They’re leaned on a lot. So when you get the [re­liever] who can post 70-plus times for three, four years in a row — those are hard to find, and they’re at a premium.”

The re­lief short­age in 2019 has un­der­scored what an ad­van­tage it re­mains — at least ev­ery­where out­side of Wash­ing­ton — to pos­sess a start­ing ro­ta­tion ca­pa­ble of go­ing deep into games on a con­sis­tent ba­sis, thus lim­it­ing what a man­ager has to ask of his bullpen. And if any­thing, this sea­son’s bullpen strug­gles could have the ef­fect of push­ing the game back in the other di­rec­tion.

“I can see the pen­du­lum swing­ing the other way over time,” Hous­ton Astros ace Justin Ver­lan­der said. “As you see starters go­ing shorter and re­liev­ers com­ing in ear­lier, teams are leav­ing them­selves open to overus­ing and wear­ing down their re­liev­ers. That’s what [op­pos­ing] line­ups used to try to do — wear­ing out a bullpen in the first game of a se­ries, which can help you in later games. It’s be­come a lost art, but I could see it com­ing back.”


“As man­agers are more will­ing to take starters out in the fifth or sixth innings,” the Nats’ Sean Doolit­tle said, “you’re ask­ing a lot of those re­liev­ers.”

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