The conversation surrounding how to properly utilize a major league bullpen is more fluid than it has been in a very long time.
Relief pitchers provided us with some of the most significant storylines of the 2016 MLB postseason for reasons both good and bad. Let’s start with the bad. Orioles closer, Zach Britton posted an absurd 0.54 earned run average in 2016 to go along with a league-leading 47 saves. However, in the Orioles’ most important game of the season — their single-elimination Wild Card matchup against the Blue Jays — Britton did not throw a single pitch.
To make matters worse, this game was not some blowout. It was a tightly-contested, extra-inning affair. Ubaldo Jimenez — yes, 5.44 earned run average Ubaldo Jimenez — was called on and allowed three consecutive hits including a walk-off three-run home run in the bottom of the eleventh inning. Britton never saw the field, but instead was left waiting for a “save” opportunity to arise. One never did, Buck Showalter was lambasted for this decision, and most significantly the O’s season was over.
Soon thereafter, major league baseball moved past this bullpen blunder in an interesting and spectacular way. Quickly coming to the forefront was Indians’ reliever Andrew Miller. Miller, dealt from the Yankees earlier in the season, has all of the makings of your stereotypical “late-inning” relief pitcher. One would have pegged Miller as the likely eighth or ninth-inning arm for the Indians’ postseason run. However, this was far from the case.
So was he their seventh-inning guy? Sixth?….Fifth?!
Miller’s first postseason appearance in 2016 was in the top of the fifth of a one-run game. He went on to pitch two complete innings, allowing two baserunners and striking out four. Terry Francona pulled this unorthodox maneuver in front of a national television audience, meaning a large portion of the baseball world was watching. This fifth-inning appearance by Miller may be the pivotal moment we look back on in a decade as the beginning of the end of the major league bullpen as we have come to know it.
ARLINGTON — Fast-forward six months and one World Series loss later. April 5th. It’s a good day for the Indians, finishing off their first series with a three-game sweep of the Texas Rangers on a mild Wednesday evening. The Tribe won 9-6, but with no help from Miller. The lanky left-hander had pitched an eighth inning in each of the two prior contests; just one single inning in both, advantageously getting the win in game one, and a hold in game two. Do you think everyone, including the Indians themselves had forgotten about the revolution of the bullpen? If so, then think again.
A short 200 or so miles away, within the state of Texas, the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners went on to play 13 innings this same night. By game’s end a rather unknown pitcher would compile a statline of four hitless innings, allowing one baserunner via walk, and striking out seven. No, it was not either starter, but instead Astros’ reliever Chris Devenski. Devenski appeared in the top of the eighth of a 2-2 game when ‘Stros manager A.J. Hinch knew the contest could be decided by any singular big hit. Hinch also knew that he had a secret weapon capable of going multiple, high-leverage innings — just like Andrew Miller did last fall. Devenski, the six-foot-three California-native, struck out three and walked one in the eighth. He also remained on the mound for the ninth, tenth, and eleventh innings. Devenski was literally perfect the rest of the way, extending the game for his team who eventually walked off in the 13th.
So far in the very young 2017 season, Devenski has made four relief appearances. Including that first game, twice now for four innings, once for two, and once for just one, in which he again struck out three. His statline to date is otherworldly. 11 innings pitched, four hits, one earned run, one walk, and a staggering 21 strikeouts. That equates to an earned run average of 0.82 and 17.2 strikeouts per nine innings. Yes, it’s an extraordinarily small sample, but there is no denying Devenski’s dominance and the Astros’ brilliant usage of him thus far.
Houston has not been the only team to adopt a modified approach to their bullpen this season. The Arizona Diamondbacks have taken “failed” starter Archie Bradley and fit him into a role similar to that of Devenski and Miller. Bradley has also made four appearances on the year, all in relief, and all for longer than one inning. Bradley has seen similar success, not allowing a run across nine and one-third innings while striking out eleven.
The most revolutionary of revolutions in the ‘pen may be happening in Cincinnati. Pitchers Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen, and Drew Storen have all had fluid roles as Reds’ relievers depending on availability and situation. While many bullpen arms have a designated inning in which they appear, Storen and Iglesias have both appeared in four different innings thus far. Michael Lorenzen has recorded outs in the third, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, and ninth innings across five appearances — already 67% of the way to pitching bingo. Altogether, the trio has only allowed runs in three of their 18 appearances as of April 19th.
Even more incredibly however, is that none of these pitchers may be the Reds’ “Andrew Miller.” Only Lorenzen has pitched more than two innings and did so only once, while Iglesias has thrown exactly two innings just twice. Enter Robert Stephenson. The former top prospect of the Reds’ system has flamed out out over the last couple of years posting a career 5.98 earned run average. Yet this renders him far from useless in this unconventional bullpen.
This past Saturday when starter Brandon Finnegan left the game with a shoulder injury after only one inning, the Reds brought in Stephenson. They were already down 2-0 and needed some length out of the right-hander. Stephenson went on to give the Reds three innings of one-run ball while striking out five. By the time the top of the fifth rolled around Stephenson’s efforts allowed the Reds to turn a first-inning deficit into 3-3 tie. In came Iglesias, Tony Cingrani, Storen, and Lorenzen, leading the Reds to a 7-5 victory. Stephenson’s numbers in three appearances have not been great so far, but with some polish he can serve as the Reds’ Miller and pitch through some vital innings for his team’s bullpen.
How quickly, if at all this new bullpen strategy is adopted across baseball all depends on its success. If teams like the Indians, Astros, and others mentioned above do not benefit from this methodology then it will likely go by the wayside. Nonetheless, teams that have strayed away from one-inning relievers have profited from it. Will the Mets or Yankees be the next team to join the bullpen renaissance? Each team has its own reasons to or not to do so.
Early-season success aside, the Yankees’ starting staff remains suspect. Masahiro Tanaka is a stud, but behind him lie many questions of consistency. A team with a subpar starting staff, especially some of whom are prone to high pitch counts (Pineda) or are not fully stretched out (Montgomery) would be well-served by a pitcher utilized like Miller or Devenski. Even better for the Yanks, they have some great candidates already on their team.
Former starter, and current dominant reliever, Dellin Betances, would fit the role of relief ace for the Yankees rather well. Gifted with lights-out stuff, Betances may not only be the best reliever on the Yankees, but possibly across all of baseball. He should be pitching in the most important point of all Yankee games, not automatically saved for the eighth inning. Like Miller has been able to do, Betances would have to be able to transition himself from a one-inning pitcher, to one who is able to go two or more on any given outing. This is not an easy ask because in 2016 only 13 of his 73 appearances were more than an inning; none more than two. Stretching him out would require the Yanks to get him more rest in between appearances. To get four innings from Betances would likely never be reasonable, but locking down any given game’s two most important could be a great move by the Yankees.
If the Bronx Bombers preferred to have a relief ace capable of going three or four innings they do not have to look far either. Both Adam Warren and Bryan Mitchell have experience in and out of the ‘pen. The major difference between the pitchers mentioned above and Warren and Mitchell, is the latter two have not dominated to the level as Devenski, Miller, and others. These pitchers will be entrusted with the most valuable outs of a game. They have to be able to dominate. You never know until you try though! Warren and Mitchell have been middle relievers thus far in their careers because that is what has been asked of them. Maybe Adam Warren as reliever extraordinaire of the Yankees is their best option.
The Mets are a completely different story. For one, their bullpen almost exclusively functions by way of one-inning and even one-batter pitchers. The majority of the better arms in the ‘pen such as Reed, Salas, and Robles have never started a single major league game and have extremely little experience pitching more than an inning. Of current members of the ‘pen the one arm who fits the profile of having high-caliber stuff and has some, or recent starter experience is Jeurys Familia. However, all relief ace comparables end there. Only five! of Familia’s 78 appearances in 2016 were more than one inning. Two of these came in late September when the Mets were in desperation mode. Simply put, Familia is a highly improbable candidate for multi-inning work.
This leaves us two places to look. The minor leagues and the starting rotation. While the minors may provide a vast number of options for the Mets into the future for a relief ace, their most plausible current option likely comes from their starting staff. Zack Wheeler has looked solid across three starts this year. However, the Mets plan on giving him a hard cap of 125 innings for the season. Any healthy starting pitcher would blow past this in a season. Reasonably, there are several things in play for Wheeler and the Mets:
- Have Wheeler stop pitching altogether
- Shatter his innings limit
- Hope he gets hurt
- Send him to the bullpen
I like option four.
Not only does having Wheeler serve as relief ace solve the Mets’ issue of his inning-cap, he also would fit the role extraordinarily well. Pitching in mainly two to four inning spurts, Wheeler’s already electric fastball would become even more dynamic. Similarly to Miller, Devenski, and others, Wheeler has always lacked a third effective pitch. His fastball and curve/slider combo would also play up in shorter appearances. If the Georgia-native remains healthy and the Mets want to keep him at 125 innings, something eventually has to give. A multi-inning reliever would solve a lot of problems across the board. Beyond him other arms such as Lugo and Gilmartin come to mind, but none quite fit the role like Wheeler.