Tuesday June 30th, 2015

Wide shot of a deserted ballpark at dusk. Partially lit. Wind blowing. Paper and food wrappers tumble across the empty field.

Sound: The whistling of the wind.

Slowly bring up music: Wagnerian operatic score.

Basso profundo off-camera announcer: “In a world … where runs are hard to come by, where hitters face the nightmares of increased velocity and a bigger strike zone, where late-inning comebacks are rarely seen…”

Wide shot of an outfield wall.

Announcer: “… there is one monster that hitters fear most of all; one monster that lurks behind this wall and threatens to overtake baseball. That monster…”

Camera zooms toward the outfield wall. We see a gate in the wall. Zoom continues. We see hinges on the gate. The gate begins to open slowly. Hinges creak…

Announcer (voice rising): “is the modern bullpen!”

Crash of cymbals. Shrieks of men and women.

Fade to black.

The two best teams in the American League began a three-game series Monday night, far from the glare of either coast. While it might surprise you that the Royals and Astros have won games at a better clip almost halfway through the season than anybody else in the league, it might also shake your traditional notion of what makes a good baseball team when you understand that it also was a matchup of the 16th- and 21st-best rotations in baseball.

What Kansas City and Houston do have are deep bullpens, the new killer app in baseball.

Like a monster from a B-movie, the modern bullpen is becoming bigger and better. Matchup managing, increased velocity, limited exposure, a burgeoning supply of pitchers and, yes, a bigger strike zone have made for a successful formula to depress offense and protect leads.

Power Rankings: Cardinals still first, but Orioles and Nationals rise

This note from the Elias Sports Bureau caught my attention at the end of last week: The team that scores first wins 71.6% of games this year. We know scoring first is important in baseball, but this … this is crazy important now. In the past 109 seasons, there has been only one season in which the conversion rate of turning the first run into a win was even 70%: 1968 (71.8%), which was essentially the worst year ever for hitting.

There you have it. Except for that outlier of 1968, when baseball was so boring the owners changed the height of the mound and the size of the strike zone, not since Teddy Roosevelt began his full term as president in 1905 has it been so difficult to mount a comeback in baseball.

Want to know the quickest, cheapest way to become a winning team? Build a monster bullpen.

Take a look at the five best bullpens in baseball at the start of this week, none of which you could find among the 10 teams with the highest Opening Day payrolls:

Team ERA Position Payroll rank
St. Louis 2.01 1st place, NL Central 12th
Kansas City 2.07 1st place, AL Central 17th
Pittsburgh 2.37 1st place, NL wild card 24th
Houston 2.60 1st place, AL West 29th
Baltimore 2.73 1st place, AL East 14th

The Cardinals and Royals are on pace to post the two lowest bullpen ERAs since divisional play began in 1969. St. Louis’ mark would be the second-lowest in the Live Ball Era, trailing only that of the 1942 Cardinals.

The list of leading bullpens this year does not include Tampa Bay, which, though it ranked 15th in ERA, is on the cutting edge of the bullpen revolution. The quants who run the Rays know that the statistical gap never has been greater between when a starter faces a hitter for the third time and when a reliever faces a hitter for the first time. Better to trust the statistics and yank the starter preemptively.

At the start of this week, only the Phillies pulled their starter more often after six innings or fewer (62) than the Rays (57). Philadelphia makes sense; it is the worst team in baseball. But a winning team like Tampa Bay getting so many truncated starts? That never made sense in baseball—not until this era when bullpens started taking over the game. Now it’s done on purpose.

In the first 91 years of the World Series Era, dating to 1903, one team—the 1982 Braves—made the playoffs with 95 starts of six innings or fewer. In the past 20 years, it’s been done 51 times.

Hit and Run: Greinke finally gets support, Correa keeps it 100 mph

Yes, we have more playoff teams now, and yes, pitchers aren’t trained to go deep and yada, yada, yada. The point is that the game has changed so significantly that length by starting pitchers, while still desirable in a perfect world, is now overrated. The Royals are on pace for 122 starts of six innings or less, which would break the record of the 2006 Dodgers for the most abbreviated starts by a playoff team (120). The Rays are on pace to tie the record.

“It’s why I like to hit [slugger Anthony Rizzo] second,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.

The in-game race in baseball no longer is to take pitches, grind out at-bats to wear down the starting pitcher to drive him from the game and get into the opposing bullpen. The race is to get an early lead. Getting into a bullpen—where the ERA drops by more than half a run and the batting average drops by almost 20 points—is not preferable.

As with Rizzo in the two hole (the same goes for the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter, the Blue Jays' Josh Donaldson, the Angels' Mike Trout, the Reds' Joey Votto and others who probably would be hitting in the traditional “meat” of the order a decade ago), it's better for a manager to get his best hitters to the plate early and often. And some of the best teams are more concerned with never conceding strikes than they are with “seeing pitches.” The four most aggressive teams at swinging at pitches in the zone are Baltimore, Houston, St. Louis and Detroit—all winning teams.

Maddon should know something about modern bullpen usage. By the end of last week, with slightly less than half the season passed, Maddon had changed pitchers 257 times—already more times than Davey Johnson and John McNamara did through the entire 1986 season with their pennant-winning Mets and Red Sox, respectively.

Steven Matz electrifies at plate, on mound with historic debut for Mets

Bullpens are another reason why Maddon bats his pitcher eighth instead of ninth. Yes, it’s the perfect spot to break in young second baseman Addison Russell (easier to hit when protected by the leadoff hitter rather than a pitcher) and it essentially turns Rizzo into a No. 3 hitter when the lineup turns around, creating more RBI chances for his best hitter. But as Maddon explained, “It allows you to [pinch] hit for your pitcher earlier. If you don’t have guys pitching deep into games, it gives you the opportunity to take him out for a hitter earlier.”

The modern bullpen is gaining power for an obvious reason: It works. Hitting in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings essentially mimics offense from the Deadball Era (.240/.305/.370). Relievers are chewing up 34.0% of all innings this year, up from 32.9% from five years ago and from 32.6% 10 years ago.

In another era, we might have looked at the Giants (14th in starters’ ERA), Astros (16th), Orioles (18th), Royals (21st), Blue Jays (23rd) and Yankees (24th) as lacking the starting pitching to be a playoff team. Not today—not as long as they have a wipe-out bullpen. (The teams that won the pennant last year, Kansas City and San Francisco, ranked 10th and 16th, respectively, in starters’ ERA.) And power bullpens become even more important in postseason play, when the increased off days between and during series allow a manager to use his top arms more often than in the regular season.

Carlos Martinez thriving for Cardinals while dealing with Taveras's death

No one has extracted more bang for their bullpen buck than the Astros. Houston may appear to have a leaky rotation behind ace Dallas Keuchel: Aside from ranking 16th, the Astros have tried 10 starting pitchers already, including four who could be key for them but who have never thrown 175 innings in a season (Brett Oberholtzer, Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers and Vincent Velasquez). No worry. Since May 1 of last year, general manager Jeff Luhnow has picked up five relievers, all in their 30s, without giving up a single player in return. Whether off the waiver wire or the back shelves of free agency, he added Luke Gregerson, Will Harris, Pat Neshek, Tony Sipp and Joe Thatcher. Those pitchers are 12-8 with a 2.47 ERA.

Houston, after losing 92 games last year, is the biggest story of the first half of the season. You have to forget everything you once knew about baseball to appreciate the Astros. They don’t have a deep rotation, they don’t take pitches, they don’t hit for average (.240, 27th in the majors) and they don’t position their fielders where you would expect them to be standing.

(Keep an eye on their corner outfielders, especially. They typically are positioned near the power alleys—far away from the foul lines. Why? They aim to catch more hard-hit balls. The softly-hit ones, which tend to hang in the air longer, are more easily run down. The odd positioning works; Houston is fifth best in baseball at turning batted balls into outs. The Royals and Rays rank first and second, respectively.)

A decade ago, the Astros would be considered a fluke—a team due for a second-half fade unless, as people still like to shout, “they need to go get an ace at the trade deadline!” Maybe Houston, like the Brewers last year, does regress, but this team is not a fluke. The Astros are playing winning baseball with what works in this new realm, one in which bullpens are killing comebacks and in which scoring first has become even more important.

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