In a time that members of a starting rotation do not necessarily toe the rubber first in a game, the MLB is facing an identity crisis of sorts… but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Historically, pitchers have been known for their durability, as starters used to throw 200 pitches in a game and come back on two days rest. While those days are very much past us, the roles that pitchers now have, especially starting pitchers, have really changed over the past few seasons.
Going from their typical 80+ pitches per start, to now being asked to cover five frames and hand it over to the bullpen is quite a change in strategy for teams and managers. Bullpens are now being given more priority when signing and developing a staff, a testament of time for what matters more now in the game of baseball.
The new concept of an opener has broken into the game as well, as teams have begun to explore using a bullpen arm to open up a game, as the title describes. Normally a guy who could give an inning plus, this tactic was used by the Tampa Bay Rays and the Milwaukee Brewers, among other teams, in the 2019 MLB season.
The Brewers were on the cusp of making it into the World Series, falling one game short against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ahead of the expected curve, this beer-loving franchise has a much larger window that opened much sooner than expected, making 2019 an integral part of their championship plan.
A part of this plan was the usage of the pitching staff by up and coming manager Craig Counsell, who gets to manage the hometown franchise that he also played for a few years prior. In the playoffs, Counsell kept his matchups secret until obligated to release them, giving both the Rockies and Dodgers very little time to act and prepare for the starting pitchers.
In game one against the Rockies at home in Milwaukee, Counsell used a bullpen arm to begin the game, throwing Brandon Woodruff out there for three sterling innings to help bridge the gap until the rested bullpen was able to come in.
Against the Dodgers, the Brewers used even more smoke, as left-hander Wade Miley faced one batter in Game 5 to influence the team’s lineup layout to ensure many right-handed batters were starting before a right-hander from the bullpen came in after Miley. These types of tricks and bamboozling events have taken over the league, taking away some of the lore of a good, old fashioned pitchers duel, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
In 2019, the Brewers have a plethora of options for their starting rotation, with some of their options eventually being relegated to pitch out of the pen if they cannot make it during spring training. With former staff ace Jimmy Nelson still on the comeback trail after injuring his arm sliding back into first base all the back in 2017, any types of contributions they can get from him early on this season would be an added bonus.
The likes of Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, Corbin Burnes, Zach Davies, Chase Anderson, Junior Guerra, Jhoulys Chacin, and Josh Tomlin are all battling to make the opening day rotation. As it stands now, Woodruff, Burnes, Davies, Anderson, and Chacin look to be the five favorites at this point, with Peralta and Guerra looking to go back into the bullpen and Tomlin a likely candidate for release due to not currently having a spot on the 40-man roster.
While they may not be guaranteed to use the opener tool again, Counsell has shown he has that tool in his back pocket and he is not afraid to use it. If a bullpen is well rested and can afford to eat up more innings than normal, then this is the ticket to use if looking for a win by throwing the bullpen out there sooner than usual.
In general, the league is undergoing big-time changes, both good and bad. All of the hoopla surrounding proposed league-wide rule changes is warranted, as this game has been the way it currently is for a long time, and changing America’s pastime is a hard pill to swallow for some.
The likes of a pitch clock and other timing tools to help speed up the game will only force players into worse decisions, something that may have very well prompted the change in thinking for the pitching options.
Regardless, the league is in for a fun year again in 2019, as teams are using analytics and quirky tricks to make the game more interesting. Try and keep up, it is going to be interesting.