When the 2017 postseason started, there was a debate about how best to use a pitching staff. Some argued that the idea of “bullpenning” made a ton of sense. If you’re unfamiliar, the basic concept is that you get as much out of your starting pitcher as possible without exposing them to a lineup often enough for them to get in trouble. Then you turn the game over to super relievers to get the final nine to 15 outs. There’s more to it, but that’s the basic idea. The Royals great bullpens in the World Series seasons played a part in furthering the idea, as did the Indians from last season.
For a short amount of time, it can absolutely work. Teams never play three games in a row without an off day in the division series (unless there’s rain), so it’s no more than two on and one off through the first week of the playoffs. By the time a team gets to the middle games of the LCS, they’ve played a maximum of seven games in 14 days, and that’s if your team was in the Wild Card game. There’s plenty of rest to go around. Well, then comes the first stretch of three games in a row, and if things get a little nutty, it can be really easy for a bullpen to wear down.
That’s what we’re seeing now, at least for the Dodgers, in this crazy World Series. Their bullpen was untouchable through the NLCS, but now we’re seeing an overpopulation of DongTown, and a lot of the flights are courtesy of a bullpen that’s just been through too much. These guys both look worn down and actually are worn down. But in spite of this long introduction, that’s not what this post is truly about. Rather, it’s about the Royals and a point I’ve made a couple times before, but it’s especially relevant now, given the way the postseason has turned.
The Royals 2017 bullpen wasn’t actually that bad. They had a rough April while some pitchers were trying to figure some things out, but once they found their groove, it was actually a decent unit. No, it wasn’t the 2015 bullpen, but what is really? Heading into the break, they had the 11th best ERA in baseball and did a fantastic job of limiting home runs. You know I’m not a fan of FIP, but for the purpose of a quick look, they ranked eighth in baseball in FIP. And they were doing it all without an unsustainable strand rate or crazy good luck on balls in play. You could argue some of their work wasn’t sustainable because they were walking too many and not striking out enough, but in all, it was a pretty good bullpen.
From the break on, the Royals ranked 20th in ERA, 22nd in FIP and were giving up nearly one-third of a home run per nine innings more than in the first half. Their strikeout rate dropped by a good chunk as well, and that includes the last couple weeks of a fantastic month of July, a month where they were a top five bullpen in all of baseball.
Just like the Dodgers bullpen in the World Series, the Royals bullpen wore down. They also added Brandon Maurer, which didn’t help, but they wore down. They were tired and some were hurt, likely from being overworked. It wasn’t the only reason the Royals didn’t make the playoffs, but it was one of the reasons, and I believe it was one of the big reasons. So with that in mind, I think the Royals would be wise to try something I’ve advocated for in the past and will do so again – a rotating rotation.
Wait, I thought we were talking about the bullpen. Oh yes we are. Take a look at the Royals rotation of Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Jake Junis, Nate Karns and Jason Hammel. On the surface, you see a group that might possibly have a chance to be pretty good. The problem, though, is that not a single one of these pitchers is a good bet to give 30 to 33 good enough starts in a season. Kennedy will give you 30 starts almost assuredly, but how good will they be? Duffy will likely give you mostly very good starts, but can you count on 30 or more? Karns might be very good when he pitches, but he hasn’t shown he can pitch much. Hammel is Hammel and Junis has never done it before over the course of a full season. You get the idea.
I’m going to name some names I’ve said in the past here. Making a move for two or three pitchers who the Royals can use between the rotation and the bullpen will help everyone involved. Take the five guys listed above, who are expected to be in the rotation as of today. How many starts will the five of them make? I think if you’re being honest, you can hope for 25 for Duffy, 30 for Kennedy, 30 for Junis, 20 for Karns and 30 from Hammel. That’s a total of 135 starts, and some of that is likely optimistic.
What if the Royals could get a better rate of good starts by lowering the number of times they each take the mound in a starting role? Duffy is the guy you leave in the rotation for the season and just deal with his likely DL stint, but cut Junis to 25 starts, cut Kennedy to 25 starts and cut Hammel to 25 starts and you’re looking at needing 42 more starts, and let’s not forget that expecting 20 starts from Karns might be optimistic. Go out and get Tyler Chatwood, the ground ball machine. Go out and get Jhoulys Chacin and let him help you out. Take a flyer on a guy like Brett Anderson. It doesn’t have to be those pitchers, but for the sake of argument, we’ll run with them. Now let’s do the math.
You’re looking at a rotation that has given you a pretty robust 950 innings. Maybe that’s a bit optimistic, but that’s not the entire point. Hammel tired late in the year. That’s a trend with him. Kennedy wasn’t healthy all season, which has been an issue for him in the past. Give them a little extra time off and maybe they can add some effectiveness. What’s great too is that you can count on some of the guys who are giving you starter innings to give reliever innings as well, working as long men.
That’s 480 innings of relief (90 less than the 2017 team), but the relief “aces” of the team find themselves not having to be overexerted through the course of the season. Obviously this is all just a fast and loose look and it’s hard to know for sure how it’ll work without knowing what the roster would look like, but this gives guys like Chatwood and Chacin a chance to pitch their 140-150 innings while allowing them to compensate for some overwork in the bullpen.
Additionally, this helps solve the depth problem the Royals have with their starting staff by adding some competent big league pitching to their equation. There are more than a couple ways to divide the innings. The above is just one example of what could work, but I believe this allows the Royals to maintain their solid bullpen throughout the whole season rather than just through four months like they did in 2017. And if someone like, say, Kevin Lenik knocks on the door, he can be easily added to the mix to take over for an inevitable DL stint or even a DFA.
While I think we’ve seen “bullpenning” can’t work in the long-term, the idea that a pitching staff is an always changing and evolving beast is becoming the norm. The best teams are able to mix and match in both their rotation and bullpen to be able to stay as close to full strength as possible over the course of a long season. Some, like the Dodgers, can do it with very large payrolls to build depth, but you don’t need big money to build a pitching staff that goes deeper than the 12 or 13 on the big league roster. You just need some creativity. Oh, and a little pitching development doesn’t hurt either. For now, we can worry about the creativity.