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What’s the Deal With These “Bullpen Games?”

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I turned the big 3-0 at the start of this year.  As I begin to enter the semi-wiser era of my life I’ve noticed that kids are not playing with toys the way that I used to.  Growing up I can remember so many different trends with the goofy toys I enjoyed.  Throughout my entire adolescent life I always had an action figure collection.  If you have been reading my articles since the very beginning then you possibly remember my story about all the action figures my cousin and I played around with.  Other than those toys, the first real big craze I can remember were called pogs.  For those of you who are not familiar with the word pogs I am here to enlighten you. Pogs were a very simple yet awesome toy and they were essentially little cardboard circles with cool designs on them.  Sports teams, skulls, cars, ninjas were all images you could find on these things.  You would carry your cardboard circles in a plastic tube or zip loc bag and battle your buddies.  The way we played was we would lay all our pogs out on the ground facing up.  Then you would take a hard plastic pog called the “slammer” and use it to, you guessed it, slam into the rest.  Whatever pogs flipped over would change hands.  This was a fun game until….. someone brought a METAL slammer to the game.  After that the game was ruined.  In a blink of an eye everyone had either a ninja star or a buzz saw or a diamond shaped metal slammer.  And whenever you used these metal toys you would flip every pog on the ground.  It wasn’t as interesting because you would just swap pogs back and forth without any strategy.  Well as much as you could possibly use while throwing circles at other circles.  Just as fast as we all switched over to metal, pogs altogether were forgotten. 

Eventually Pokémon cards were the newest trend around.  It is so weird to think back to a time where everyone brought a binder around displaying their entire card collection everywhere they went.  It was a time when arguments were about who “caught em all.”  Sometimes my friends and I would spend the entire time we hung out trading our Pokémon cards.  Side bar, we still do that, but now it is with our fantasy football teams.  These cards were so popular.  Kids all over the world were collecting these fictional creatures that possessed certain powers.  Just like pogs, you would use your collection to defeat you pals.  You would square off using your cards to damage the opposition or protect your own squad.  Honestly it was a very confusing game and I believe there were even little rocks involved.   Regardless of the rules, it was the most fun game of the time.  If you have a holographic Charizard, please find me on twitter and we can make a deal.

Those were fads when I was a young kid and this next one was of the adult variety.  The term “adult” is going to be used very loosely.  When I was in college something called Four Loko was popular.  As a quasi mature male I look back and can’t believe that I participated in this questionable fad.  Listen, this was a disgusting alcoholic beverage but it was cheap and very effective and this wildly awful drink came in like 25 different flavors.  I am not proud of being a part of the Four Loko era but it was a trendy item.  Things always come in waves and those waves crash strong. 

Just like trends with children’s toys, new strategies get deployed by pro teams as they try and gain the competitive edge.  Some seem to stay around such as the shift in baseball, taking more 3’s in basketball and passing in short yardage situations in football.  Others appear to be genus but inevitably fall apart.  For instance in 2008, the Miami Dolphins unveiled an offense known as the “wildcat formation” to the masses.  With this particular play someone that is not the quarterback lines up to take the snap, usually a running back and then would run the ball.  The play was considered a trick because the running back would get the ball and have 3 options.  Run the ball himself, hand off the ball to a teammate or throw the ball.  This strategy was directly responsible for a victory over the Patriots and seemed to have benefits initially.  The wildcat formation did not stand the test of time. You see it very rarely in the NFL today.  I think we may be seeing the newest trend in professional baseball.  Some managers are using their pitching staffs in a way the baseball world has never seen before.

In professional baseball, teams are using pitchers who usually pitch out of the bullpen to start the game.  Typically relief pitchers are used to pitch in high leverage situations so they are better equipped deliver a shut out inning.  The theory is that giving up runs in the beginning of the game is just as detrimental as giving up runs at the end of the game.   More often than not, a team’s best hitters will come up to bat in the first inning.  So why not use high leverage relievers to get important outs to start the game?  Well in 2018, that question was answered.

If you know me than you know I enjoy playing fantasy baseball.  Throughout the season I like to check the “probable starters” for the upcoming week.  In May, I was checking out pitching match-ups for the weekend and I noticed Sergio Romo was set to start the game on Sunday.  Romo is the former closer of the Giants and now reliever of the Rays.  I thought it was a mistake. Sergio Romo isn’t a starting pitcher and had already pitched for an inning on Saturday, there is no way he was actually starting the game on Sunday afternoon.  Well guess what? He did start the game for the Rays Sunday and you know what?  He was very effective.  Romo didn’t log in many innings but took care of business for the time he was on the mound.  I was a tad fascinated by this strategy but I never thought the new craze this would spark across the league.  Shortly after that weekend in May, the baseball world was introduced to a new term.  Everyone was about to become familiar with the term “opener”.

In the second half of the baseball season teams more frequently used late inning relievers to start the game.  Whenever a team would use this tactic is was being call a “bullpen game.”  Teams would have that pitcher toss an inning or two then turn the game over to someone who could give 4 or 5 innings.  It has become a strategy that has been very beneficial for organizations.  Using openers has become the newest toy for professional baseball franchises.  The Tampa Bay Rays had one of the best ERA’s in the entire league after they adopted the unorthodox approach.  Tampa Bay would finish the year with a team ERA of 3.74 which ranked 6th.  Matter of fact the Red Sox lost the last four times they played the Rays.  There are mixed reviews out there but you can’t deny that the Rays finished 1 game behind the A’s to make the post season.  Not to many baseball experts would have predicted Tampa winning 90 games but they did.  Was it their utilization of the bullpen games?  I couldn’t tell you for sure but I don’t think it is just a coincidence.     

This new tactical approach in baseball has become so popular that it has spilled into the playoffs.  Bullpen games were used more than once.  One team’s result was a lot more successful than the other’s.  The Oakland A’s used an opener in their Wild Card game against the Yankees.  A reliever named Liam Hendricks started the game in New York.  Many would say that it did not work.  Hendricks gave up a 2 run home run to slugger Aaron Judge and left the game with a 2-0 deficit. Even though the next reliever that entered the game for the Athletics gave the team 3 shutout innings.  Unfortunately that first inning home run was too big a blemish for the opener strategy.  Oakland would go on to lose that game.  A successful use of a bullpen game would be done by the Milwaukee Brewers.  When they squared off with the Rockies in the NLDS they used the bullpen attack all the way to a low scoring victory.  The manager patched together 8 scoreless innings using only bullpen arms.  Milwaukee is still competing in the playoffs and using bullpen games as a way to win.  

It is not just the use of relievers that has baseball fans scratching their heads.  The Red Sox have also been using starters to get outs late in the game. Porcello, E Rod and even Chris Sale have made appearances out of the pen.  So far it has worked out for them and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it as they continue to compete for a World Series championship.  When games matter the most and its win or go home, teams are attacking lineups with their best pitchers doesn’t matter if they are traditionally a starter or reliever. 

Strategically speaking, this new way of attacking lineups could be a game changer.  I rejected the idea when it began but have since opened up to the idea of something new.  I don’t know if I have ever seen a new tactic take off like this one before.  I couldn’t believe it went from being laughed at to being used by major league clubs all over.  It makes sense when you stop and think about it.  Attack the best hitters on the other team with your highest leverage bullpen arms.  Those types of pitchers are asked to get these guys out to wrap games up so why not utilize their skill sets to ensure those outs happen in the beginning of games too?  If this works then the second pitcher to take the hill will theoretically face lesser talent as he tries to racks up innings.  Strategizing in baseball has gone on since the very beginning and the baseball world is looking at the latest.  Time will tell if it’s the greatest or not.

Fads are funny because when they are just starting off you feel like it could stay around forever.  But usually it just fades away and something new takes its place.  I don’t know what to expect from the newest method of managing pitching staffs.  However, I am happy that it is happening.  Teams should always seek new innovative ways to win ballgames.  If I was a manager in baseball I think I would push to use some of these new tactics.  Next season I will definitely be watching to see if these new methods continue to evolve and gain popularity.  Who knows…maybe 2018 will be known for the season that changed pitching strategy forever.  “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” –Gandhi

Follow me on Twitter @Matty_wests1de

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