- Bringing in your best reliever in high-leverage situations at a high frequency, especially during the playoffs, feels like a relatively new phenomenon. Its origin, however, is from long ago.
The Official Baseball Rules do not contain the words “postseason” or “playoff”; there are no special provisions for October. The Rules are the same. The rules, however, are not. There are different incentives, higher stakes, more room for extreme strategy. The game’s relationship with time is warped. If the regular season is spent managing against tomorrow—against the resources and rest that must be saved and leveraged, for the next day and next week and next month—the postseason is spent managing for tomorrow. Which is, at least partially, how baseball ended up here:
Entering the World Series, relievers had pitched exactly half of the innings in this year’s postseason. The 2018 playoffs will likely end with that number intact, or very close to it. The Series’ first two games have moved it just slightly, from 50.4% to 50.1%, and that’s with the teams’ top-of-the-rotation starters on the mound. Consider it something like the Battle of Yorktown for the Bullpen Revolution: The war is won, and now all pitchers are equally liberated. (In October, at least—but, hey, the Battle of Yorktown was in October, too.)
If starter-reliever equilibrium is a turning point in the war on orthodoxy, there’s a convenient little history that can be written about it. Start with the obvious context: Playoff baseball is different, with the modern trendlines of regular baseball pushed out to their furthest extremes. If relievers threw a record 40% of innings in the regular season—and they did—why shouldn’t they throw a record 50% of innings in the postseason? Fill in the rest of the puzzle with the successful patterns of the last few years. After more than a decade of bopping around between 30% and 40%, bullpens’ share of innings began skyrocketing in 2015. The Kansas City Royals won the World Series that year, due in large part to the strength of their bullpen. Then, the Cleveland Indians fashioned Andrew Miller into a super-fireman in 2016, maximizing his chances at controlling a game and allowing the team to better leverage the rest of the ‘pen on the way to the World Series. Give a year for the rest of the league to share and tweak that playbook, and bang, baseball ends up here, at 50%.
It’s far more complex than that, of course, much like any history of war or WAR. There are layers—of player development strategy, of pitchers’ injury management, of analytics and research and the third-time-through-the-order penalty. And then there’s something else. There’s a rich history of quirky relief management, stretching back all the way to the first World Series in 1903. Decades before teams had a bullpen for ordinary use in the regular season, they were getting creative with pitchers’ roles in October. Just how, then, did the bullpen’s share of the postseason get to 50%? Here are a few of the most interesting inflection points.
1999 NLCS Game 5; New York Mets 4, Atlanta Braves 3: A team has used nine pitchers in a postseason game five times in the last five years. But it had never happened before until the New York Mets in 1999. Look at the box score, and it seems obvious: This game went fifteen innings! Of course someone had to use nine pitchers! But look a little more closely, and there’s more to it than that.
Manager Bobby Valentine had a remarkably quick hook with starter Masato Yoshii. He’d started off sharp, allowing just one baserunner in the first three innings. But he gave up three straight hits—scoring two runs, tying the game—to begin the fourth. That was it for him. Valentine’s strategy didn’t just shine in the quick pull, but in the choice of the next pitcher, too: Orel Hershiser. The veteran hadn’t pitched a single game in relief, postseason or otherwise, in a decade. The Mets didn’t need five starters in the playoffs, though; instead, they needed a long reliever. Enter 40-year-old Hershiser, temporarily converted to the ‘pen.
In Game 5, it worked. Hershiser pitched three scoreless innings, clearing the way for the rest of the relief crew to take over. Eventually, this one devolved into a weary battle of attrition—hey, fifteen innings—but Valentine & Co. might not have been able to take it that far in the first place if they hadn’t been so savvy at the start of the night.
1982 World Series Game 2; St. Louis Cardinals 5, Milwaukee Brewers 4: Hall-of-Famer Bruce Sutter helped define the idea of a closer in the late ‘70s, with manager Herman Franks’s practice of using him primarily in the eighth or ninth inning when the team was ahead. But Sutter was deployed a little differently in the one postseason trip of his career, with the 1982 Cardinals.
In 70 appearances that year, Sutter entered in the seventh inning or earlier just four times. He never entered that early in a tie game. But the postseason’s rules are different, and so he came in during the seventh in three of his six playoff appearances. The most daring of those? Game 2 of the World Series, when St. Louis put him on the mound in a tie game.
It worked. Sutter shut down Milwaukee for the rest of the game, and St. Louis took a one-run lead in the eighth to win.
1971 ALCS Game 3; Baltimore Orioles 5, Oakland A’s 3: If Sutter pioneered the idea of the closer as a man brought in late only when his team was ahead, Rollie Fingers pioneered the idea of the closer. For most of his career, Fingers wouldn’t enter a game before the seventh inning, regardless of the circumstances. But in his first few seasons, when he was still freshly converted from the rotation and establishing his role, he was used a little differently. In 1971 for example, he came in four times during the sixth in the regular season. In Game 3 of the 1971 ALCS he did something even more unorthodox: He came in with two outs in the fifth, in a losing game.
With a loss, Oakland stood to be eliminated from the postseason. Losing 3–1 in the fifth, with the bases loaded, the team turned to its best relief option. Fingers successfully got out of the jam and had a shut-down sixth, being pulled after allowing a run in the seventh. The A’s lost and went home for the winter. But their idea here—using their best reliever in a high-leverage moment, inning be damned—hung around, even if it would be decades before it really sprung to prominence.
1950 World Series Game 1; New York Yankees 1, Philadelphia Phillies 0: Okay, this one isn’t technically relief pitching. Instead, it’s a prime example of emphasizing flexibility in pitchers’ roles and embracing the unconventional.
The Phillies’ Jim Konstanty was named MVP in 1950, despite not starting a single game. The concept of regular relief pitching had steadily caught on through the last two decades, and that season Konstanty did it better than anyone. Most often, he entered in the eighth inning, and he very rarely pitched more than three frames. But he was arguably the team’s single best pitcher at the time, and so for Game 1 of the World Series… why not start him? “The busiest relief pitcher of all time is going to start the opening game of the World Series. This could only happen in fiction—and Philadelphia,” wrote Bill Lee of the Hartford Courant.
Everyone was shocked, including Konstanty. But there was something practical here, too. The team’s ace, Robin Roberts, had started the final game of the season, three days before. If someone else stepped in to take Game 1, Roberts could be fully rested for Game 2.
“I got the biggest surprise of my baseball career yesterday,” Konstanty told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “That, of course, was when Manager Eddie Sawyer told me that I was going to start the first game of the World Series today against the New York Yankees at Shibe Park. But I’d like to point out, right at the beginning, that while I appreciate the honor of being named for the opener, I feel it is merely a ‘delayed action’ decision. By that I mean that the Skipper is merely giving our regular starters a chance to get their normal rest…. This way, Robbie will get his full rest, be ready for tomorrow’s game and he’ll still be able to pitch two games.”
Konstanty did have a little bit of experience as a starter, but it had been four seasons since his last start. Even so, he pitched beautifully in Game 1—eight innings, four hits, one run. Philadelphia lost, 1-0. Roberts, now well-rested, met a similar fate in Game 2. He threw ten innings of two-run ball, and Philadelphia fell again, 2-1. Still: The Phillies may have lost, but their creative pitching strategy gave them the best chance not to.
1924 World Series Game 2; Washington Senators 4, New York Giants 3: The box score in this one looks completely normal. Washington’s Tom Zachary had a strong start, allowing one run through eight innings. The Senators were winning 3-1. But Zachary started to struggle in the ninth. On a walk and two hits, he allowed two runs to score. With two outs and a man on second, he was yanked and replaced by Firpo Marberry. Marberry got a swinging strikeout to record the final out, and Washington came back to win it in the bottom of the ninth. Straightforward, right?
Not quite. Marberry was baseball’s first significant relief pitcher. Before him, “reliever” wasn’t a dedicated role, and it certainly wasn’t one for a pitcher who was any good. Marberry was the first to change that, often taking over the last two or three innings of a game. Calling on one of the team’s best pitchers to take care of a single out in the ninth inning might not seem like particularly remarkable strategy now, no. But in 1924? It was its own Bullpen Revolution.
1906 World Series Game 5; Chicago White Sox 8, Chicago Cubs 6: “It was like one long parade of pitchers, hurrying forward to hurl themselves into battle, amid the plaudits of 25,000 persons packed on the reviewing stands before which the warriors must pass on their way to the front. It was a mad orgy of bungles and hungles,” Joe S. Jackson of the Detroit Free Press began his game story. What constituted a “long parade,” “a mad orgy”?
Three pitchers. The 1906 World Series’ Game 5 was the first time that a team ever used three pitchers in a postseason game, which was significant enough that some newspapers even gave it the headline. CUBS LOSING IN BATTING BEE; THREE PITCHERS USED, blared the Moline (Ill.) Daily Dispatch.
If an opponent scores eight runs, using three pitchers might not sound like strategy so much as it does like damage control or common sense. The Cubs, though, were very much chasing victory here, in a close game in a tied series.
Manager Frank Chance began with Ed Reulbach, a righty. The Cubs took a 3-1 lead into the third inning, but Reulbach gave up back-to-back doubles, allowing a run to score. Chance wasn’t about to risk the lead any further, so he pulled his man early, replacing him with southpaw Jack Pfiester. The 28-year-old lefty wasn’t a reliever, because no one was a reliever in 1906. The concept simply didn’t exist. (See: The Cubs used just four pitchers—not four starters, four pitchers—across all six games of this series.) “Jack The Giant Killer” had gone 20-8 in the regular season, with a 1.51 ERA. But this was the World Series. The rules were different.
Chance’s plan, though, didn’t work out. Pfiester allowed the runner to score (to steal home, actually, after another man got aboard when he was hit by a pitch), and he allowed three more runs in a disastrous fourth inning. Chance pulled him midway through the frame, swapping him out for righty Orval Overall. Overall—16-8 in the regular season, 2.74 ERA—pitched five strong innings to finish out the game, allowing just one run, but the damage had been done.
Here’s what Chance had to say after the game, as recorded by the Washington Post: “I do not understand what was the matter with my twirlers. Reulbach had the Sox completely under his thumb the other day, and he warmed up well this afternoon, having a world of speed. When they began to hit him so hard, I switched to Pfiester, believing that the change to a left-hander would halt the enemy. But Jack had nothing.” Pulling a right-handed starter in the third inning, at the first sign of trouble, to go to a powerful lefty? That’s playoff strategy.
And, yeah, people did complain about pace-of-play in a game with multiple pitching changes, even in 1906. Jackson, of the Free Press: “Though it was but a nine-inning game, only twenty minutes less than three hours was consumed in playing it. Visit the west side field today and you will find a path worn in the turf from first base, where Manager Chance operates, to the home plate, where he conferred with his pitchers at least three times an inning, thereby using up much valuable time. Across the outfield there is another, but less beaten path, over which strolled the reinforcements.”
1903 World Series Game 2; Boston Americans 3, Pittsburgh Pirates 0: Yep, creative playoff bullpen use started all the way back in the first-ever World Series. Not the first game: Game 1, like so many at the time, was one starter’s complete game versus another’s. In Game 2, though, Pittsburgh went a little unconventional. Starter Sam Leever—one of the best pitchers in the regular season, with a league-leading 2.06 ERA—allowed two runs in the first inning, and his skipper wasn’t about to wait around and see what would happen in the second. “He had absolutely nothing, neither speed, curves nor control, and Manager Clarke quickly saw that Boston was preparing to slaughter him,” wrote the Pittsburgh Press. Clarke pulled him, and he went with a bold choice to replace him: 21-year-old rookie Bucky Veil. “When the spectators first saw the pale-faced lad take his place on the rubber, they pitied him, but this feeling soon gave way to admiration, for Veil held the Bostons safe in every inning,” claimed the Press. (The exception was a solo home run in the sixth.) But Pittsburgh’s offense couldn’t get anything going, and that was it.
It was a bold move, and arguably not the right one. Pulling your ace in the second inning, after just two runs? But, hey, there are different rules in the postseason. There always have been.