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It’s October Baseball, When Relievers Are More Popular Than Pumpkins

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BOSTON — Once upon a time, in a big playoff game between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, a starting pitcher hung around too long. This may be shocking to younger fans, but it’s true. And it wasn’t because the bullpen phone was broken.

The fateful decision by Grady Little, who stuck with a fading Pedro Martinez as the Yankees erupted in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series, now seems as quaint as a flannel uniform. No manager today would risk losing a game — or his job, as Little did — without at least trying a few relievers.

Consider the 2018 postseason. Through the first two games of each of the division series, and including the two wild-card games, starting pitchers had averaged fewer than five innings per start. Only three starters — Hyun-Jin Ryu and Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Gerrit Cole of the Houston Astros — had worked seven innings.

Sometimes, of course, starters are yanked for pitching badly. That is why the Red Sox pulled David Price in the second inning of a 6-2 loss to the Yankees in Game 2 on Saturday night. But it is also the time of the year when micromanaging the bullpen takes over the sport.

“It’s the playoffs,” Price said. “You see it happen all the time, especially over the past couple of years. Managers go into bullpens extremely early.”

It is not just the postseason. As Jayson Stark pointed out in The Athletic, bullpens combined to make 678 more relief appearances in the 2018 regular season than they did in 2017— and nearly 2,000 more relief appearances than they made five years ago.

The October version of the trend crystallized in Game 3 of the 2016 World Series, when the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians both pulled their starters in the fifth inning of a scoreless tie. With analytics favoring a procession of bullpen strikeout specialists, the strategy is only gaining momentum as more and more hard-throwing relievers populate the game.

In the 2016 and 2017 postseasons, 49 of 146 starts — nearly 35 percent — lasted at least 90 pitches. So far this postseason, the figure has plunged to 20 percent (four of 20). In the Yankees’ two victories this October, their starters have lasted just nine innings combined, despite allowing only one run.

Luis Severino collected the first 12 outs of the wild-card game against Oakland last Wednesday, and Masahiro Tanaka got the first 15 outs at Fenway Park on Saturday. That was all the Yankees wanted.

“One of our overwhelming strengths is our bullpen, and when you get into these postseason games — especially when you have some off-days sprinkled in — you don’t worry as much about workload,” Manager Aaron Boone said. “You know you can protect guys. You just kind of weigh what matchups you like better, especially as you get to the second, third time through an order. If you’re lined up in the bullpen with the guys we’re able to run out there, we’re going to do that on a lot of different nights.”

Boone added the obligatory nod to the old ways, saying he would love to get seven or eight innings from a starter. It could happen, he said, if the starter were especially efficient, or the score lopsided.

“So I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said, “but we’ll be aggressive when we feel like our guys are lined up and we can roll them out.”

The reasoning is clear for the Yankees. They have four experienced relievers averaging at least 11 strikeouts per nine innings — Chad Green, Dellin Betances, David Robertson and closer Aroldis Chapman. Another reliever, Zach Britton, has a devastating power sinker when he is at his best.

Like a talented point guard with multiple All-Star options on the court, the starters understand the need to share the ball.

“That was the plan, go four or five good innings and after that the bullpen is going to go do their job,” Severino said after the wild-card game. “When I went into the first inning, that was the mind-set.”

Like the Yankees, who traded for Britton in July, the Milwaukee Brewers fortified an already deep bullpen by adding Joakim Soria in a summer deal. Soria worked a scoreless 10th inning to win Game 1 of the Brewers’ division series with Colorado, then got two strikeouts in the seventh to hold a one-run lead in Game 2.

The Brewers could be the Tampa Bay Rays of this postseason. In the regular season, the Rays upended the traditional notion of starters and relievers, and the Brewers seem intent on doing that now. They have three relievers – Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel — who each earned anywhere from 12 to 16 saves this season, and their starters rarely last deep in games.

“Largely, we’re trying to get away from what the word ‘starter’ and ‘reliever’ means,” Brewers Manager Craig Counsell told reporters last week. “That’s how we’re going to get through the postseason, I think.”

The Red Sox, who resisted a summer bullpen trade, would be challenged to deploy such a strategy. They banked on a comeback from Tyler Thornburg, who never fully recovered from thoracic outlet syndrome, and were encouraged by the emergence of the journeyman Ryan Brasier, but he inherited two runners from Chris Sale in the sixth inning of Game 1 and allowed both to score.

In Game 2 on Saturday, the Red Sox made so many pitching changes that Aaron Judge faced a different pitcher in each of his five trips to the plate. It didn’t seem to help much: Judge homered, flied out, reached on an error, singled and walked.

Now the Red Sox will turn to either Rick Porcello (who faced three hitters in relief in the opener) or Nathan Eovaldi to start Game 3 on Monday. The Yankees will start Severino, with a battalion of strong arms sure to follow.


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