Ahead of the Curve: “Bullpenning” & the San Diego Padres

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Admittedly this isn’t exactly breaking news, but it illustrates why the Padres should adopt Bullpenning as their main pitching strategy.

Tyson Ross and maybe Clayton Richard are the only two pitchers here that can be trusted to tough out the opponent’s lineup more than once. The rest just don’t show out well when tasked with navigating through opponents’ lineups, so why keep sending them out there? Why not let them run through the lineup just once and then pull them for another pitcher to do the same?

Allow Luis Perdomo go out there for 2-3 innings and then pull him for another pitcher to do the same and so on. Perdomo could then come back 3 days later and do the exact same thing as unless he somehow threw 100 pitches over three innings, he should be relatively fresh and able to contribute more innings to the Padres’ cause.

Another option that still fits under the same strategy would be to “piggyback” starters on a 3-day rotation. This would entail allowing starters to consistently go on three days rest, but pull them after three innings for another starter to take over. So, for example, Perdomo starts the game but is followed by Erlin or Mitchell. The next day Lamet and Rea are scheduled to be used, with Lyles being used as insurance, and so on. Not only would this maximize the effectiveness of each pitcher, but it also allows the Padres to manage pitch counts and innings limits for their younger pitchers.

Heck, the Padres could even use a 7-man rotation where Richard is the only pitcher allowed to go deeper into the game in an attempt to save some of the bullpen arms. He would be doing this on four days rest, but he is also throwing fewer innings, so the hope is he will be fresh every 4th day to aim for 4-6 innings instead of every five days to aim for 6-8. This is the beauty of Bullpenning and going against the conventional wisdom that starters must go every five days and need to force their way through the opponent’s lineup as many times as possible. Utilizing this strategy gives the Padres a plethora of opportunities and tons of flexibility as they try to piece together their staff.

If the Padres do decide Bullpenning is their preferred method of pitcher usage, they will need to remove Brad Hand from the closer’s position. Hand will need to be used as a multi-inning reliever who comes into the game as early as the 5th in order to keep the game in the Padres’ favor. Top of the 6th with runners on 1st and 3rd with one out? Brad Hand. Bottom of the 7th with two out and none on but Bryce Harper is coming up to bat with the Padres up two runs? Brad Hand. There’s no point in saving Mr. Hand for the 9th inning when the team has a lead as doing so wastes his talent immensely. Hand needs to be the team’s swiss army knife, their relief ace, their go-to arm when the game is on the line. Waiting until the 9th to go to your best arm benefits no one but the opponent as you need a lead to use a closer. Besides, Hand has proven he could thrive as the Padres’ relief ace as he has thrown 168.2 innings the past two seasons combined and shows no signs of fatigue.

There are some negatives to Bullpenning, but none are tactical issues. For one, it would be hard to convince every starter to buy into this concept. These men who have been starting games their whole lives will be giving that up to go a maximum of three innings per appearance. This is understandable and I don’t blame them for carrying that competitive fire, but it’s also a money issue. Fewer starts mean fewer innings, and without the 150 inning seasons under their belts, they won’t receive large annual raises. The arbitration process favors durable starters who pitch a lot of innings and limiting these guys will hurt their chances at a big payday. Essentially, the team would be asking the player to seek out less money if they were to buy into Bullpenning, and unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of pitchers who would agree. I don’t necessarily blame them, I mean this is their job and they deserve to be paid handsomely, but it is no doubt an obstacle standing in the way of progress.

Another perceived downside is that there would be way too many pitching changes, slowing down the game immensely, but that really shouldn’t be an issue. I mean, what’s the big difference between the four pitching changes used in a traditional starter-setup-setup-closer strategy compared to the 3-4 pitchers used when Bullpenning? Realistically, pace of play isn’t really affected here and shouldn’t be an issue if the team is just trying to gain the upper hand. Finally, the “entertainment value” of the game might drop as fans love to see starters go 9 innings or strike out 13 and that isn’t really possible under this system. Sure it will be a bummer, but those are the risks you have to take if you want to get ahead of the game.

In a perfect world, the “starting” staff is comprised of Perdomo, Ross, and Mitchell (who is still a bit of an unknown at this point). That leaves nine bullpen arms for Andy Green to mix and match depending on the situation. Richard is a pitch-to-contact hurler who excels at inducing groundballs. Lamet is a hard-throwing youngster whose stuff already projects to well above average if he were to move to the pen. Stammen is a non-flashy, steady bullpen hand who is a nice break from a guy like Kirby Yates who likes to attack hitters head-on. Makita is perfect because he can come in and provide a different look, especially if he is following young strikeout specialists Matt Strahm and Phil Maton. The beauty of this strategy is the team isn’t pigeonholing its pitchers into specific roles and can instead use them as they wish, creating endless combinations and opportunities while putting themselves in a great position to succeed.

I realize the Padres are most likely not going to bullpen their way to a surprise playoff appearance in 2018, but the data is very clear. Why not try something new and mix it up a little? Just something to think about as Padres baseball approaches.

2 thoughts on “Ahead of the Curve: “Bullpenning” & the San Diego Padres

  1. Thanks Ryan, for taking the time to collect the facts. Well Padre front office. Could have done this and saved a Whole lot of money and would have negated any need for two or three wins above replacement.
    With what the Padres have as a potential staff, this type of rotation is the only possibility to become competitive, until/when the ” youth” arrive, and maybe the MLB rotation of the future. Facts are facts.

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