The World Series matchup between the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals is a reaffirmation of the value of dominant starting pitching, a reminder that in this era of creative bullpen usage, rotations that consistently haul innings remain the ideal.
Consider that in advancing to the Fall Classic for the first time, Nationals starters logged 61.2 of the team’s 90 frames, leading all 10 playoff clubs at 69 per cent. Right behind them at 64 per cent – 62.2 of 98 frames – are the Astros, who are seeking their second title in three years.
Of the other eight playoff teams, only two got more than 50 per cent of their post-season innings from the rotation – the St. Louis Cardinals at 61 per cent (48 of 79) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (26.1 of 45).
The New York Yankees, who leaned on a strategically stacked bullpen to counter for a thinned-out rotation, had their starters log only 38.1 of their 81.2 innings, or 47 per cent. At the back end of a long American League Championship Series, the workload caught up to them when a midweek rainout led both clubs to run bullpen games during the decisive sixth game.
Chad Green, pitching for the sixth time in the post-season and fourth in the ALCS, surrendered a three-run homer in the first inning as the opener. Tommy Kahnle, pitching a third straight day, was grinded out for a run in the sixth, while Aroldis Chapman, pitching back-to-back days, surrendered Jose Altuve’s walkoff, two-run homer in the ninth.
Over the first five games, the Astros got two seven-inning outings, a 6.2 inning start and a six-frame performance. The Yankees had only two six-inning outings and the issue of fatigue over such a short period is exacerbated, but the familiarity hitters gain by regular looks at a reliever.
Even in Friday’s 4-1 loss that sent the series back to Houston, the Astros got seven innings from Justin Verlander, which allowed them to keep their bullpen fresher. The Yankees, in contrast, got six outstanding innings from Canadian James Paxton, which meant Kahnle, Zach Britton and Chapman were needed to close things out, and then again in Saturday’s bullpen game.
“It was really important for us to stay close (Friday) so that they needed to use their ‘pen that they use in high leverage,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch noted presciently ahead of Game 6.
“Chapman coming in the game, Britton getting extended, Kahnle coming in – hopefully that pays moving forward into (Saturday’s) game.”
It did, and by avoiding a decisive seventh game, the Astros can now align themselves optimally for Tuesday’s opener against the Nationals, who completed a tidy four-game sweep of the Cardinals on Tuesday.
Gerrit Cole, scheduled to start a Game 7 versus the Yankees if needed, is now available to match up with Max Scherzer in Game 1, with Verlander expected to follow against Stephen Strasburg and Zack Grienke against Patrick Corbin beyond that. Anibal Sanchez, whose 7.2 inning, one-hit shutout in the National League Championship Series opener put the Cardinals on their heels, is likely for Game 4 while the Astros, missing the injured Lance McCullers Jr., and Aaron Sanchez, will have to decide whether to employ another bullpen game or not.
Bringing back Cole on short rest is unlikely to be on the table given that ahead of Game 6 Hinch said, “A fully rested Will Harris and Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna, Joe Smith, guys that have gotten really critical outs for us, still outweighs for me the heroic pitcher that comes back on no days’ rest or one day’s rest.”
Still, it’s on the strength of their rotation that a bullpen game doesn’t become an overwhelming burden. More than any team in the playoffs, the Astros feature the best balance between rotation and relief talent.
The Nationals are almost completely reliant on their rotation given that Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson are their only trusted leverage relievers. Yet, the dominance of Scherzer and Strasburg, in particular, has helped to make it work.
Whether both teams can maintain the same pace in the World Series is intriguing, and the Astros appear better positioned to handle attrition.
Last year, the Red Sox got only 53 per cent of their post-season innings from the rotation (71 of 134), while the Dodgers were at 57 per cent (87.1 of 152). In 2017, the Astros were at 61 per cent (97.1 of 159) while the Dodgers were at 53 per cent (71.2 of 135.2), mimicking the wider trend across baseball.
Generally speaking, data supports limiting starter usage beyond two times through the order and teams will more specifically map out ideal coverages based on situations that may arise over the course of the game.
Teams go to the bullpen more quickly now because they often have information detailing how that’s their best path to a win. They look to cover outs more than innings. Give the ball to the most trusted pitchers as often as possible.
“You have to manage based on your personnel and how you you’ve built your team and how you’ve built your personnel for this specific series,” said Hinch.
“Strategically, it’s become a little bit more in vogue and teams like to use it. We just went through a whole series against Tampa where they’ve done it. I know Oakland did it in a Wild Card game against the Yankees last year. It’s just part of baseball now as an option. Maybe not the option that you necessarily want all the time. Some teams want it. Some teams don’t. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Where the Astros and Nationals lie on the matter is obvious.
Hinch described managing a bullpen game as “miserable” and the constant mixing, matching and accounting for health and fatigue make it easy to understand why.
All of which sets the stage for an intriguing market this winter. Cole is a free agent. Strasburg can opt out of the $100 million and four years remaining on his contract. Both have showcased not only what they can do individually during these playoffs, but how the rest of the roster benefits, too.
Openers and bullpen games can make a ton of sense. Truth is, though, no team would employ them if they didn’t have to.