With Huascar Ynoa on the IL with a shoulder injury and ace Charlie Morton out with a broken leg, the Braves are now looking at two back-to-back bullpen games as their starting pitchers rest up. The pen’s performance closing out for Morton in Game 1 and for Ian Anderson yesterday should give Atlanta fans little reason to worry, but it does raise the bigger question: is the postseason starting pitcher an endangered species?
As teams face some of the most productive and most aggressive offenses they’ve seen all year in postseason games, the call to take out a pitcher like Anderson, despite his five no-hit innings, is the correct one to make. To allow a lineup like the Astros’ to have a third shot at your starting pitcher can quickly turn dangerous.
Ian Anderson is one of the best postseason pitchers of all-time. Through his eight postseason starts, Anderson has a 1.26 ERA — tied for the second-lowest mark through eight starts since 1913 (Orlando Hernandez: 1.22). His mark is lower than the likes of Madison Bumgarner, Orel Hershiser, Stephen Strasburgh, and Cole Hamels, all of whom had remarkable starts to their postseason careers and were viewed as postseason legends at one point or another. Yet despite Anderson’s success, moving away from him after the fifth inning was the smart move.
With five on the far end of postseason innings pitched by starters, bullpen games are virtually already a reality for World Series teams, as starters suffer from fatigue, injuries, and nervous managers ready to pull them at the first sign of weakness. The role of the SP in the postseason is evolving into less of a necessity, particularly after COVID rules expanded the eligible roster, allowing teams to add another pitcher to the bullpen if they so wished. Whether or not the SPs are dependably striking out opposing batters, their time on the mound is, at best, limited.
This move to limit the effect a single pitcher has on the outcome of a postseason game is a direct result of the increased use of analytics in baseball. While some people love to tear Kevin Cash apart for taking Blake Snell out of Game 6 of the 2020 World Series despite the dominance he displayed over the Dodgers’ hitters in that game, Brian Snitker and the Atlanta Braves are proving that Cash made the right decision.
Shorter outings for pitchers create more opportunity for starting pitchers to leave everything on the table. There have been numerous instances of former starting pitchers moving to the bullpen and being able to increase the velocity on their fastball because they know they no longer have to throw 100 pitches over the course of 7-plus innings. A starter will only have to go about five innings and relievers only face 3-to-5 batters in the postseason nowadays. These shorter outings breathed new life into pitchers like Michael Fulmer, Ryan Vogelsong, and many others who became willing to whip balls to the plate no longer fearing the wear-and-tear on their arms in the regular season, so it only makes sense that the same logic can be applied to a much higher-leverage situation in the playoffs.
The question becomes: “Why would any manager force their starter to face the opposing lineup two or three times, when having three or four pitchers face the entire lineup once each while being able to put more on the line has proven to be more effective?” This isn’t to say that being able to eat innings isn’t a valuable skill. Being able to go late into games is vital at saving a bullpen and the less durable arms that reside there. That’s why having innings-eaters in the regular season is such a big deal, but the postseason is so short in the grand scheme of a baseball season with such a long break after your team wins the World Series or is eliminated, that teams no longer have to worry about saving their arms.
This shortened starting game isn’t just limited to the postseason. Only four pitchers in the entire MLB reached 200 innings this year — half of the number who reached that metric in 2018, and measly compared to the early 2000s, where 40 to 50 pitchers were reaching the 200-inning benchmark each year. With the bullpen already carrying such a heavy load in this World Series, these two back-to-back bullpen games for the Braves may prove to be another nail in the coffin of the starting pitcher in the modern era.