A spectre is haunting the 2017 playoffs — the spectre of Madison Bumgarner.
YOU, THE EDUCATED MCCOVEY CHRONICLES READER: I sure hope this parody of The Communist Manifesto continues through the second sentence!
ME: aw crap
Bumgarner famously came out of the bullpen for five scoreless innings to lock up Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, and managers immediately saw him dominate the Royals and thought, “I too should have my ace do this.” Three of the four Division Series the next year featured an ace appearing in relief: Dallas Keuchel pitched an inning in Game 5 of the Astros-Royals ALDS, Noah Syndergaard pitched one in Game 5 of the Mets-Dodgers series, and David Price threw three in Game 4 between the Blue Jays and Rangers. It was a veritable trend.
Of course, it wasn’t a trend that produced universally stellar results. Syndergaard’s inning was solid; he struck out two, walked one, and didn’t allow a hit or a run. Keuchel, though, came into the eighth inning of a winner take all game where his team was trailing 4-2 and gave up three runs, transforming it from Unlikely Comeback Game to Totally Out Of Reach Game.
Price’s relief appearance was the oddest of all. The Blue Jays were up 7-1 when he came in, in the 6th inning of a game the Blue Jays could afford to lose, and he pitched three innings. The first was a solid 1-2-3 inning, in the second he gave up a run on a double and a single, and in the third he gave up two more runs on three singles and a groundout. It was a bizarre use of David Price, Ace, and while you absolutely cannot look at his poor performance in the ALCS that year as a direct result of it, you also can’t deny that David Price tiring in the seventh inning in his next start, when he hadn’t even hit 100 pitches yet, sure seems like the exact sort of drawback you consider when deciding whether to pitch a starter in relief.
Until Game 7 of the World Series, the 2016 playoffs weren’t too dissimilar. Ubaldo Jimenez came in to lose the AL Wild Card game and Clayton Kershaw earned a save in Game 5 of the Dodgers-Nationals Division series (if you want to argue that his overuse in that Division Series contributed to his poor start that got the Dodgers eliminated in the NLCS, go right ahead), but otherwise, starters mostly stayed out of the bullpen until the last game of the year. Jon Lester and Trevor Bauer both appeared in that Game 7, Lester giving up a run in three innings and Bauer getting out of a bases loaded one out situation without allowing any of his inherited runners to score.
But something kicked it up a notch (TM me, no one has ever used that phrase before) this postseason. In the NL Wild Card game, Arizona used Robbie Ray to relieve Zack Greinke, which meant that when Taijuan Walker faltered in Game 1 of their series, they had to bring in Zack Godley in relief, thus using all four of their playoff starters in a 2 day period.
The Red Sox used Rick Porcello in the 8th inning of an 8-2 game (he did fine, but had a poor start four days later) and Chris Sale for almost 5 innings in Game 5 (he did well at the beginning, but ended up taking the loss). The Astros countered by using Justin Verlander in relief for the first time in his adult life (he immediately gave up a game tying homer, but ended up getting the win).
The Cubs threw Jon Lester for 3.2 relief innings in Game 4 of their NLDS (he was very good, though he left a runner on base who eventually scored) and Jose Quintana for a couple outs last night. The Nationals used Max Scherzer in relief for an inning last night, and it was an extremely poor (and bizarre) inning that ended up costing them their season.
Every one of these teams is doing its best to adapt to a post-Bumgarner world, to Win At All Costs, even when that cost is possible future losses. It’s not like we can ever prove that any individual starter would have had a better October had he not pitched in relief, but on the other hand, it certainly stands to reason that when pitchers are already tired from pitching an additional month, and they’re already facing the best competition, it’s shortsighted at best to have them pitch more, in a different routine than they’re used to. As a strategy, that seems to be asking for trouble.
There is a difference between the final game of the World Series and the final game of the Division Series. For one, World and Division are different words. For another, one is the entire point of the postseason, the thing where it makes sense to throw caution to the wind and push a player to give everything he’s got because he’s got months to recover, while another is a stepping stone. But the lure of The Madison Bumgarner Moment, that part of the game where one guy puts his team on the back and wins the whole game for them, that iconic moment when a manager and a player put it all on the line and win, that lure has become so strong that it overwhelms everything. And it shouldn’t.
It’s understandable that managers want to do everything they can to win their first playoff series, but since the ultimate goal is to win their last playoff series, this is bad strategy. Relievers are better relievers than starters are — make an exception for David Price if you’d like, but he spent September preparing for his role in the bullpen — and they’re being sidelined while starters are being overworked and ineffective. It’s a bad strategy in the short term and a bad strategy in the long term, and it should be deployed with far more caution, thought, and care than it has been this year.
Because of Madison Bumgarner, fans and owners think that using an ace out of the bullpen is a magic bullet, and it just isn’t. I understand that the optics of not following that trend might get a manager fired, but it’s not like using Chris Sale saved John Farrell. The managers have nothing to lose but their jobs. They have a World Series to win. Working managers of all teams that are still alive in the playoffs, unite.