How the 2017 Pittsburgh Pirates would have used bullpenning

Bullpenning is the latest quirky topic in MLB. Teams in the postseason have turned towards it to get the best out of their pitchers. How would the 2017 Pittsburgh Pirates have fared if they used bullpenning?

When fans, media and all other associated with MLB reflect on the 2017 Postseason, they will best remember it as the start of bullpenning. Sure, it’s a theory that has been attempted and executed before, but not this widespread throughout the league. The Pittsburgh Pirates are a team that takes every available angle to get an edge…except for this one.

Bullpenning is not in the dictionary, but it is best defined as getting the most out of your pitching staff by not relying on the typical expectations of a starting pitcher. There is no proven formula of how to properly execute bullpenning to guarantee a win. That’s what makes it fun for fans and media alike: figuring out what is the best way for a team to employ its pitchers to secure a victory.

It is not a conventional way of thinking and is often met with laughter and skepticism from traditional thinkers. However, there is benefit from it when looking into the data.

Ahead of the Curve

The biggest proponent for bullpenning is MLB Network analyst Brian Kenny. In his book Ahead of the Curve, Kenny outlines a team’s use of bullpenning in this way: a “starter” tosses two or three innings, working through the order two times at most. From there, relievers are employed to get as many outs as they are capable of depending on the worthiness of the situation. For example, if the Los Angeles Dodgers are leading the Houston Astros 4-2 in the seventh inning with runners at second and third with one out, Kenny would advocate the usage of Kenley Jansen.

The idea of bullpenning renders the save stat useless. Instead, the best relievers are used in the highest leverage situations. Before the A.L. Wild Card Game between the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees, Kenny recommended that the Yankees use bullpenning to defeat the Twins, instead of starting Luis Severino.

As it turned out, the Yankees had to use their bullpen to win the game. Severino faced four batters, allowing three runs and only inducing one out. From there, it was simply a masterpiece of a performance.

The Yankees used a stellar bullpen to come from behind in the Wild Card Game, upset the hottest team in baseball and come as close as a game to reaching the World Series. Yankees manager Joe Girardi never fully used bullpenning in the way that Kenny proposes, but his relief corps became the perfect model for bullpenning. With Girardi gone, the Yankees may consider getting more wins in 2018 using their bullpen to its peak efficiency all season long.

Hindsight is 20-20, but let’s break down how the Pittsburgh Pirates could have employed bullpenning in 2017. All decisions made for the execution of Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers is based on the 2017 Opening Day Roster.

The opener

The biggest takeaway from Kenny’s presentation is that the first three outs of a game are the three toughest to acquire.

So the Pirates need an opener to get through the first inning and potentially toss another inning or two afterward.

Let’s take a look at the results of Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitchers versus a batting order for the first time. Again, this is just based on the Opening Day rotation.

Pirates starters' results in first time through the batting order

 BABIPOBPSLGSO/BB
Gerrit Cole.310.310.4393.45
Jameson Taillon.338.312.4033.63
Ivan Nova.303.289.3834.54
Chad Kuhl.368.380.4731.85
Tyler Glasnow.343.405.5461.28

Yes, Chad Kuhl had the worst numbers against hitters the first time that they saw him. However, his stats did steadily improve with the second and third times that batters faced Kuhl. Jameson Taillon did the exact opposite and steadily got worse the more he saw hitters:

Now, here’s how the relievers fared in the first time that hitters faced them (Trevor Williams‘ numbers will come as a starter since he had a larger sample size there).

Pirates relievers' results in first time through the batting order

 BABIPOBPSLGSO/BB
Daniel Hudson .314.352.4092.00
Trevor Williams.344.361.4392.41
Wade LeBlanc.279.300.4473.06
Juan Nicasio.279.277.3333.60
Felipe Rivero.234.237.2364.40
Tony Watson.318.340.4262.65
Antonio Bastardo.367.490.8100.78

Yes, just another reminder of how bad Antonio Bastardo was.

That said, the numbers of Juan Nicasio and Felipe Rivero are stellar. Tony Watson‘s numbers were about as bad as Daniel Hudson‘s, so that’s a sign of how far he fell in 2017. Trevor Williams and Wade LeBlanc also had below average figures.

As a whole, the Pittsburgh Pirates finished 19th in MLB with 0.60 first inning runs allowed per game. Getting outs early is crucial given it’s the highest scoring inning in MLB since 1973.

The best pitchers to use as starters aren’t necessarily meant to be the best pitchers. Those men need to be employed in high-leverage situations. However, these pitchers need to still be pretty good. They’ll need to toss two or three innings, depending on their effectiveness thus far and upcoming hitters.

If they commit to bullpenning, the Pittsburgh Pirates need to use Taillon, Nova and Hudson as openers. Yes, Hudson. He had a poor numbers in 2017, but compared to the other options, he’s one of the better options to take on batters in their first plate appearance. Taillon and Nova belong early on because of their low walk rates and struggles with hitters the second and third times through the batting order.

Middle relievers

These relievers can come in at any point. They may need to clean up the opener’s mess in a still-winnable game or just eat innings in a close game, whether their team is ahead or not.

There need to be more middle relievers than openers, since these pitchers have to bridge the gap from the openers until the conclusion of the game. These pitchers can close out games, but it all depends on the situation.

Gerrit Cole has started every MLB he’s ever pitched in, but what if he was more effective as a “reliever?” Photo credit: MLB.com

Pitchers put in the middle-relief role may toss more innings than openers. As a result, they may go through a lineup more than once. They would regularly be expected to toss at least two innings and a different one of them likely needs to pitch three innings in every game.

Pittsburgh should use Cole, Kuhl, Williams, LeBlanc and Watson as middle relievers. The first three pitchers would be the most used for multiple inning scenarios while LeBlanc and Watson would be shorter options.

These pitchers won’t come in when the opener has thrown too many pitches, they’ll come in when the opener is finished with the second or third inning. Middle relievers also won’t throw 100 pitchers, or even 70. Instead, they will pitch as long as they can based on how long they pitched their last time on the bump.

Cole, Kuhl and Williams all had better numbers against batters in their second time facing hitters. Thus, they all could be useful in the middle games or in the final innings depending on the degree of leverage. Watson and LeBlanc are for short situations and as lefty options. Moreso than any category, it’s important that this category of pitcher has more members than any other.

High-leverage situation relievers

This situation is meant for select-few. This is where a “closer” would typically go, as would one of his setup man (two on elite teams).

Here’s a situation: the Pittsburgh Pirates are trailing the St. Louis Cardinals in the seventh inning after LeBlanc allowed two runs as a middle reliever and there are runners at first and second with one out. The Pirates have Andrew McCutchen, David Freese and Josh Bell due up in the bottom of the inning.

The Pirates need to keep the game close and hope that their bats can pick them up. It’s time to bring in Juan Nicasio or Felipe Rivero. Whether the batter is left-handed or right-handed doesn’t matter. Nicasio and Rivero were both better against lefties than against righties.

Here’s the Pittsburgh Pirates five-best pitchers from 2017 in high leverage situations in terms of OPS (according to Baseball Reference, min. 50 PA)

Pirates pitchers in high-leverage situations

 OPS
Felipe Rivero.444
Jameson Taillon.728
Gerrit Cole.746
Trevor Williams.756
Juan Nicasio.758

Not the most optimal numbers. Nicasio and Rivero are the only regular relievers on this list and aren’t used to tossing more than two innings at most. As a result, it’s best to save them for situations like this in hopes that they can be used more than any other pitcher.

Mop-up men

No other way to put it: these guys stink. The Pirates had far too many of these relievers last season. However, had they operated under bullpenning, if they had been aware that these relievers were so bad, they could have used them in unwinnable games instead of wasting valuable mid-relief options.

Tyler Glasnow and Antonio Bastardo both belong here. Once put into the game, the Pirates would not be expecting to win, but rather eat up innings. If these relievers came in and tossed scoreless frames, great. The game had already been chalked up as a loss because of reasons that weren’t Glasnow and Bastardo’s faults.

There is always the possibility that these relievers could work themselves out of mop-up duty at times (i.e. openers, middle relievers or high-leverage situation relievers have tossed too many innings). However, they are expected to remain here for the bulk of the time.

Looking to the future

Is bullpenning perfect? Absolutely not. The Dodgers learned this the hard way in Game 2 of the World Series. After four scoreless innings, Rich Hill exited despite only allowing one run and only throwing 60 pitches. His frustration was obvious, but the Dodgers bullpen finished third in MLB in fWAR and was justifiably suitable to handle the rest of the game.

As we all know, it didn’t work. Brenden Morrow and Kenley Jansen allowed a run apiece in the eighth and ninth innings, respectively. In extras, Josh Fields and Brandon McCarthy struggled and the Dodgers lost. Manager Dave Roberts was unjustly criticized for going to the National League and the postseason’s best bullpen early.

However, it is an advantageous way to use traditional starting pitchers more in the season. If the Cleveland Indians could use Corey Kluber 60 times a year instead of 30, wouldn’t that be more advantageous? Similarly, if the Pirates could harness the best of Jameson Taillon without having to deal with him faltering late in starts, wouldn’t that be getting the most out of him?

What about Felipe Rivero? He sat on the bench for far too many games in August and September because the Pirates let games get away too early on. Using him more often, even if only to face a couple batters in tough spots, would have helped the Pirates.

Bullpenning is more feasible in the American League, where teams don’t have to worry about pinch-hitting for a pitcher. Nonetheless, it might be worth the pinch hitting. That’s a fair counterpoint, but perhaps getting pinch hitters into games earlier to contribute might be useful. That debate is for another day.

The Pittsburgh Pirates still may not have made the playoffs even with bullpenning. However, they may have been closer to it. Bullpenning is interesting in that it could help give starters more appearances and affect more games. Traditionalists don’t like it, but the Yankees proved in the Wild Card Game that it can be effective. Let’s see if more teams take notice and attempt to mimic it in 2018.

Image Credit – Daniel Decker Photography

Joel Norman

Joel Norman is a journalism major at West Virginia University. In addition to writing for Pirates Breakdown, Joel covers WVU sports for the Daily Athenaeum and writes game recaps and features for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Joel also does play-by-play broadcasts of WVU hockey and baseball for WWVU-FM in Morgantown.
  • GN

    i would think a couple of AL teams with average and young pitchers would try this out. They would get a better look at the young pitchers with more appearances and the other teams would get less of a chance to study the pitchers. The leagues are moving in this direction with a quality start being considered 6 innings. how much longer till several teams look for 5 innings at most from starters. The key to doing this in the NL would be to have super utility players who can also hit 0.280 so you could deal with the pinch hitting issues.

    I think an AL team will try this next year.

  • Hurdled Again

    Excellent breakdown of the hypothetical rehash, thank you! I have wondered how such a change would affect the players mentally, as well. As a general rule, MLB batteries (especially starting pitchers) tend to be traditionalistic, superstitious creatures of habit who vehemently resist change.

    You’re absolutely right about relievers and leverage versus the traditional closer role (Watson’s struggles are an exception, not rule). The Bucs definitely squandered Rivero, as do many managers with their best relievers. Francona definitely helped to make ‘bullpenning’ mainstream in 2016 with Shaw, Allen, and especially Miller.

    I am unsure of your proposal regarding the most dominant aces, such as Kluber, but I definitely think the starters who do best the first two times through the order would benefit, such as your Taillon example. For aces, is it more beneficial to have Kluber go seven to nine and allow one run or potentially get three or four shutout innings twice in the same span? I am not sure.

    Plus this doesn’t even begin to address the effects on the arms, which already are an epidemic of injuries.