In Game 5 of the 2018 NLCS, Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell started lefty Wade Miley against a righty-heavy Los Angeles Dodgers lineup, then pulled him after one hitter and replaced him with right-handed pitcher Brandon Woodruff.
Miley started the next game. It was all part of a plan to take advantage of the Dodgers platoon-heavy lineup and try to steal a game against the series favorite.
The plan didn’t pay off, of course, as Woodruff gave up three runs, went 5 and 1/3 innings and the Dodgers won the game 5-2. The topic came up in the Minnesota Twins clubhouse on Tuesday, however, before they were set to face Los Angeles Angels opener Cam Bedrosian. Bedrosian pitched the first inning, and Felix Pena replaced him as the “bulk” or “secondary” pitcher as expected.
Both are right-handed pitchers, so the Twins had Max Kepler lead off and constructed their lineup like they would if Pena was just starting.
“Are we running a lineup out there that looks fairly similar to what you might expect it to look like under a normal starter situation?” Baldelli asked rhetorically. “Yeah, but it doesn’t mean we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.
“Pena’s going to face kind of like a bulk inning situation, he’s going to throw a bunch of innings for them and see where he can get them. But then you also look at it in a situation where you look at (what) the bullpen also looks like and how that factors into your lineup and the last time around the order, who is going to be throwing and who is going to be hitting for us.”
But what if the Angels had instead replaced Bedrosian with a lefty? Mitch Garver typically replaces Kepler as the leadoff man and Minnesota’s analytics team may have suggested a completely separate lineup for a righty opener who leads into a lefty secondary pitcher.
“This is an interesting conversation, because there’s no protocol. I think it’s like a gentlemen’s agreement between teams,” he said. “Truthfully I’m not even sure if Major League Baseball regulations actually state that you have to announce probables, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someday teams are just not telling you who’s pitching and you’re gonna have to figure it out.”
A team like the Brewers, Tampa Bay Rays or Oakland A’s might try it because innovation is often a necessity when you’re in a small market or have an outdated stadium and need to compete with teams from New York, Boston and Los Angeles. Team payroll is often connected to television revenue and attendance, so Milwaukee (No. 35 TV market) were up against it already when facing Los Angeles (No. 2). And it’s hard to sell season tickets, another major form of revenue, in a dilapidated stadium like in Oakland and Tampa.
One of these teams, especially the A’s or Rays, may try this at some point.
“I’m not sure if it will ever get to that, but I don’t think it’s out of the question,” said Badelli, who spent most of his major league career with the Rays.
“But as soon as one team decides they’re gonna intentionally kinda hide what’s going on, then a lot of different questions are gonna start popping up because of that, and then we’re gonna have to answer a lot of different things that we probably don’t wanna have to deal with right now.”
So let’s unpack this a little.
First of all, Counsell used his sleight of hand in a playoff game, where the stakes are higher. Constant trickery in the regular season, when games are far less meaningful, might not be worth the risk. Secondly, it didn’t work! That doesn’t mean it was a bad idea, but managers may be less inclined to do it in the future, especially if it means unnecessary backlash from the rest of the league.
The player’s side has to be considered as well. Pitchers have a routine that they adhere to in order to optimize their performance and reduce the risk of injury. Pitching on short rest typically only happens in the playoffs, and we don’t know the compounding effect of doing it all season long — even if it’s just a day earlier than expected. And pitchers who would normally start may be reluctant to pitch in the bulk role, in general, because of how it may affect their salary.
Opposing teams could take an educated guess as to who would be available to pitch in the bulk role, so the risk of using a pitcher a day early or not allowing them to know exactly when they’ll take the mound might not be worth keeping the other team guessing.
But it may happen one day, and managers around baseball will have to adjust to it.
“The answer is that they can do whatever they want, and there’s nothing that anyone is gonna be able to do about it,” said Baldelli. “But once one team does that, I think other teams will.”
The tactic may be adapted eventually, but it’s unlikely it will be the best teams in the league. A contending team with a reliable starting rotation will probably be inclined to send out their best pitchers and try to force other teams to beat them. Like the opener, it’s a strategy that a team will be forced to use to compete with the league’s best, not something that becomes commonplace among teams with the deepest rosters.
It may happen one day, though. And if it does, it will be part of the evolution of a rapidly changing game.