This past month the Colorado Rockies were out to prove to everyone they mean business. They signed elite closer, Wade Davis, to a three-year deal worth $52 million to take their biggest offseason need and capitalize.
The team with the NL’s best offense rightfully chose to upgrade its bullpen. In addition to Davis, the Rockies added reliever Bryan Shaw and re-signed Jake McGee to go along with Adam Ottovino and Mike Dunn. While it’s no secret that Coors Field isn’t the best place to pitch, the Rockies are willing to take a new approach to preventing runs at the hitters’ haven.
This year their bullpen is expected to make upwards of $50 million, one of the most expensive bullpens ever. Recognizing the value of an elite bullpen has been a growing trend throughout Major League Baseball to compete in October. We’ve entered a new era in baseball that no longer values the workhorse mentality of starting pitchers. Instead, baseball’s data revolution has promoted earlier pitching changes than what we’re accustomed to. There are several reasons for this.
Shift to Less Innings Pitched
Over the past decade, pitchers have become increasingly susceptible to arm injuries. Just three years ago, there were 27 Major League players who underwent Tommy John surgery on their arm (compared to 19 last year for perspective). One proposed reason is that, as players are becoming stronger and throwing harder than baseball players of the past, increased use has put more stress on their arms.
For instance, the New York Mets have been building one of the best young rotations in all of baseball. Arms like Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Zach Wheeler were all very young with tremendous upside. Each of them, at one time, threw their fastball in the upper 90’s while also managing to spend significant time on the disabled list within the last three years. To combat their injuries, the Mets tried employing a 6-man rotation to take stress off of their starting pitchers. This year, reports have indicated that the Mets will be shortening the outings of their starting pitchers in an attempt to preserve their health.
They may not be the only ones to implement such a strategy either. By shortening a pitcher’s outing, a team will be able to decrease the wear and tear on their player’s arm over the course of the season. Decreasing the risk of injury is a very important part of the prolonged success of the franchise.
Strategic Use of a Bullpen
However, that’s not the only reason a manager would choose to go to his bullpen sooner in a game. It’s statistically proven that the more times a lineup faces a pitcher in a game, the higher the batting average against that pitcher will be. This results naturally from a combination of a pitcher’s fatigue and the lineup’s familiarity with the pitcher’s repertoire on that night. Therefore, if the manager takes the pitcher out sooner rather than later, he’s playing the percentages. The fewer opportunities the other team is given to adjust, the tougher it will be to achieve a positive outcome at the plate.
Imagine facing “soft-tossing” C.C. Sabathia for five innings and stepping in against him one or two times. Maybe you get a hit, maybe you don’t. Then the Yankees proceed to bring in Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, Dellin Betances, and Aroldis Chapman. Each of them throws an inning of twenty pitches or less (most pitches being 95+ mph), and you may face one or two of them if you’re lucky (or not so lucky). It’s very challenging to make adjustments when the other team is varying their strategy every inning. This is the crux of the newfound philosophy: call on hard-throwing pitchers to pitch an inning at a time and mess up a team’s offensive game plan.
“Shortening the game” was a term first attributed to the 2014 Royals who finished the back end of their games with Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland. That team went to the World Series and won the next year in 2015. In the following years, teams took that to heart and acquired as many closer-type relievers as they could. It’s become the popular trend employed by many teams like the Yankees, Nationals, Indians, Orioles, and now the Rockies.
When it comes down to it, managers are looking to find the right combination of pitchers to win. The data-driven strategy for bullpens believes that the order pitchers pitch in should be considered only upon the leverage of the situation. For years a team’s best reliever has pitched the ninth inning because the pressure of the situation dictated the ultimate sink or swim outcome. That is quickly changing because of the perception of a game being won in the ninth is fading away a bit. Organizations need shutdown innings several innings beforehand. The greatest example of this is when we saw it in the playoffs two seasons ago with Andrew Miller. Terry Francona would bring him into high-leverage situations prior to the 9th inning.
Traditional thinking would mock the idea of bringing in your closer in the sixth or seventh inning to get out of a jam, but new ideology has front offices and coaches thinking a new way. Many teams would rather have their best reliever pitching with the tying run in scoring position in the seventh than with bases empty in the ninth. The seventh inning would be the more stressful situation, so you’d want to exercise your best chance of escaping the jam. If you escape the jam with the lead, you not only increase your chances of winning, you also allow your team the opportunity to ride the momentum and extend the lead further. It’s also important to remember that if you lose the lead, you may never get it back.
Baseball has once again brought forth a new revolution in the pursuit of winning games. Is it crazy? I don’t know. Numbers don’t lie. The bullpen is becoming more valuable than ever before. Relying on relievers to contribute more innings to a game deepens their value to the team as a whole in more ways than one. Whether it’s a long-man, situational plug, stopper, specialist, or closer, relief pitchers are getting paid more money than ever thanks to the data and analytics era.
Photo Credit to rockieszingers.com
My name is Sam Starosciak and I am a recent graduate of Arizona State University majoring in Business Data Analytics.