If any team ought to take note of Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash’s creative use of the bullpen, it’s Colorado.
This weekend the Rays used reliever Sergio Romo as a starter, sort of. Cash opted to have Romo face the top of the Angels’ lineup to then allow his young starters scheduled for their turns in the rotation to enter at a Mike Troutless part of the order. In the first game, Romo struck out all three batters he faced. In the second, he threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings.
This could be baseball's next new thing and would fit right in with that the Rockies need.
Colorado this season has allowed 38 first-inning runs while opponents have scored an average of 22 runs in innings 2-through-9. The only inning that has been worse for the team is the sixth, where opponents have scored 45 runs.
Nearly 40 percent of the runs the Rockies have allowed have come in the first and sixth innings, and adopting this revolutionary use of a bullpen could solve both problems.
Think about it. Any reliever coming out of the chute knowing he’s in for a sprint – as opposed to a normal starters’ marathon – is going to throw harder and attack the most potent point in the lineup with more gusto. There’s a reason Rockies relievers are better than their starter counterparts in strikeouts-per-nine-innings (9.6 to 8.3) and opposing batting average (.236 to .258), and it’s all because of pacing and mindset.
Why not bring that to the first inning when you know the opponent is bringing up three or four of its best hitters?
Bryan Shaw has posted scoreless outings in eight of his nine appearances in May while striking out 13 of the 32 batters he has faced. Imagine how someone like that could fare if he knew the exact situation he was entering in advance, giving him time to study specific hitters, as opposed to waiting in the bullpen uncertain if he’ll appear that night and against which part of the order.
Maybe Shaw gets the first inning four times a week and Jake McGee gets it twice.
Then you go to the starting pitcher. Rockies starters have averaged about 5 ½ innings per start. On nights when they go an effective six innings, that leaves only innings 8 and 9, where Adam Ottavino and Wade Davis can slam the door.
And getting through that sixth inning of a start (which would now be the seventh inning) should be easier for starters. In the third trip through the order, opponents are slashing .284/.345/.473 against Rockies starters as opposed to .263/.315/.414 the first time through and .234/.310/.401 the second. But when the third time through is beginning with the No. 5 or 6 hitter instead of Nos. 1-2-3, the pitching numbers are sure to improve.
In most games, the starters would only be expected to face the opponents’ best hitters twice; and that will benefit the starters and help make the sixth inning less of a minefield.
This would define roles for pitchers in innings 1, 8 and 9, with the starter's effectiveness being the variable for how you approach innings 2-7. That may not seem much different from defining roles for innings 7, 8 and 9 with the starters hoping to handle innings 1-6, but the key differences would be the points of the order the starter if facing and the fact that a key reliever would be involved in more games. It can be infuriating to follow a team with a strong bullpen that is utilized only when the starters leave the game in good enough shape for relievers to make an impact.
Nothing moves slower than the thought-process of baseball teams. Heck, an Academy Award-nominated movie was made about a guy simply willing to think a little differently. This is an area that could eventually catch on and help teams win; and the Rockies would be wise to give it a try before teams have not only moved in this direction but begin to find ways to counteract the change.