Galdi says that it’s time to embrace bullpening
Did you hear what the greatest pitcher in Orioles history, Jim Palmer, said this week? He went on the Orioles’ flagship station, 105.7 The Fan in Baltimore, and, in response to a question from Vinny Cerrato of all people, Palmer said that he would like to see the Orioles “add about three” starting pitchers.
Palmer, of course, is right. As I’ve said repeatedly, if the O’s truly have decided to give it one more run, despite having a number of key free-agents-to-be and despite the American League East being so top-heavy with Boston and the Yankees, then go all-in. If you’re going to give it another run, then you better do better than Andrew Cashner and Chris Tillman as your offseason moves of significance for upgrading what was the worst starting pitching in the majors last season.
But another week has come and gone, and the likes of Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn remain available. Among all starting pitchers who threw at least 162 innings last season, Cashner ranked dead last – no. 56 out of 56 – in strikeouts per nine innings at 4.64. Tillman is coming off an atrocious season in which he had a 7.84 ERA and a 55 ERA+ over 24 games, including 19 starts. If your plan for your rotation beyond Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman is Cashner, Tillman and then a battle for no. 5 involving a converted reliever in Miguel Castro, a perennial disappointment in Mike Wright Jr., Gabriel Ynoa and two Rule 5 draft picks in Nestor Cortes Jr. and Jose Mesa Jr., then good luck. A whole lot is going to have to go right in order for you to make the playoffs.
And so that brings us to what Tampa Bay is considering. Rays manager Kevin Cash has said that the team will attempt to stick to the following approach: four pitchers working on regular rest followed by a bullpen day. And so every fifth day the Rays could go not with a “starting” pitcher, but with three of four relievers, with each going through the batting order once – i.e., bullpening.
The Rays are doing this partly by necessity, because they aren’t exactly loaded with great starting pitching – just like the O’s, who absolutely consider this. And this is the kind of approach that I have advocated for years.
I did multiple segments on an installment of Chin Music with Al Galdi in February 2016 on how the O’s should embrace bullpening, which has been popular in the sabermetrics community for years and has gained mainstream popularity the last two postseasons in particular. Bullpening can mean a number of different things, but the basic idea is progressive and aggressive usage of relievers, especially given the third-time-through-the-order penalty (the reality that most pitchers are far worse the third time through a batting order versus the first two).
I like to call the O’s “Rockies East,” because the O’s, like the Colorado Rockies, have had horrendous starting pitching for years. Part of the reason is Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which at times is Coors Field East. But the larger reason has been the Orioles’ inability to develop, sign and trade for quality starting pitching. Here are the Orioles’ rankings in starting-pitching ERA in the American League over the last 10 seasons:
2017: no. 14 (last) – 5.70
2016: no. 13 – 4.72
2015: no. 14 – 4.53
2014: no. 5 – 3.61
2013: no. 12 – 4.57
2012: no. 9 – 4.42
2011: no. 14 (last) – 5.39
2010: no. 13 – 4.67
2009: no. 14 (last) – 5.37
2008: tied for no. 14th (last) – 5.51
Those rankings and numbers are just from the last 10 seasons. The futility extends far beyond that. So, rather than continue down this path, why not embrace revolution?
Hopefully Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Cashner and Tillman are all good this coming season. But what if one or more is not? What if that no. 5 spot becomes a black hole? The O’s should be working toward having the option of doing any of the following this coming season:
1. A four-man rotation with bullpenning as the no. 5 “starter” – what the Rays are planning on trying this coming season
2. A four-man or even three-man rotation with the rest of the rotation being filled via what are called tandem starts – i.e., two pitchers teaming up for the start. A tandem start could work in a variety of ways, including, say, Tillman pitching for three or four innings and then Castro pitching for three or four innings. The 2017 World Series-champion Houston Astros used a tandem start in their 4-0 win over the Yankees in ALCS Game 7. Charlie Morton tossed five scoreless innings, but then was pulled (much to the dismay of traditionalists) so as to not face the Yankees’ lineup for a third time. Lance McCullers then came in and tossed four scoreless innings for the pennant.
3. A five-man rotation in which no pitcher ever faces a batter for a third time in a game
How could the results with any of these approaches be worse than what the O’s have had in terms of starting pitching for decades now? Relievers are a perceived strength for O’s. They have Richard Bleier, Brad Brach, Mychal Givens, Donnie Hart and Darren O’Day. The team eventually will get back Zach Britton from his torn right Achilles tendon suffered in December. The team can do this – if it wants to.
And I know what you’re thinking: doing this would require a heavier workload on these relievers. No doubt. Is there risk with that? Absolutely. Taking this progressive and aggressive approach with the bullpen would require stretching these relievers’ arms so that they can each throw, say, 70-90 innings as opposed to 50-60. Taking this approach would require buy-in from not just the relievers but also the starters. I’m not saying that all of this would be easy to pull-off. But it still should be tried. And that none of it is even being talked about drives me nuts. What exactly do you have to lose?
Additionally, the Nationals should be open to this.
Now, they of course don’t have anywhere near the starting-pitching problem that the O’s have. The top-four of the Nats’ rotation is set with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark. In fact, so good are those guys that they actually were actually exceptions to the third-time-through-the-order penalty last season (Roark was great last season, but his third-time-through-the-order numbers were about on par with his first- and second- time-through-the-order numbers).
But the Nats have a battle going on for the no. 5 spot in their rotation between A.J. Cole and their top pitching prospect, Erick Fedde. The favorite in that battle is Cole, in no small part because he is out of minor-league options. But Cole hasn’t exactly set the world on fire over the last three seasons, posting a 4.52 ERA and 1.45 WHIP over 22 major-league games (17 starts). What if the best way of handling no. 5 starts by the Nats this coming season isn’t Cole or Fedde but both? Dave Martinez is known for being sabermetrically-inclined. Going with Cole-Fedde or Fedde-Cole tandem starts is something that Martinez might be open to doing, especially when you factor in a likely innings limit for Fedde, who, remember, was disappointing over three major-league starts last season and then was shut down in September due to a right forearm flexor strain.
Pitching staffs have been handled the same way for decades in baseball. That doesn’t mean that that has been the best way. There is a better way. The starting-pitching-starved O’s and even the Nats should at least be seriously considering this.