There was nothing wrong with the Brewers pulling Wade Miley, their starting pitcher for Game 5 of the NLCS, after one batter. There was nothing ethically wrong about the deception, no unwritten rules to invoke. There was nothing strategically wrong with getting a lefty in to face a left-handed leadoff hitter, then ditching him for a more suitable pitcher. I’m sure the abacus twiddlers can make a good case for it.
If one weird trick helps a team win, it helps a team win. I’m in. Use it.
We’re here for the contrast, though. The Dodgers defeated the Brewers and are one win away from the World Series. The most important point is that it was exponentially more satisfying to watch an actual starter — Clayton Kershaw, a Hall of Fame starter, no less — do better than the gaggle of relievers. From an aesthetic standpoint, there was no comparison. The Dodgers are a win away from the World Series, and they looked better getting there.
This strategy is here to stay, of course. It’s probably a net positive for a team to announce a starter, let the opposing team stack their lineups in response, and then pull the ol’ switcheroo. The Dodgers didn’t do play along (they started two lefties because they had an idea that Miley wasn’t sticking around), but the plan still works well if your fake starter is already scheduled for a bullpen day, which Miley was.
Baseball is all about the margins. Consider the difference between .240 and .300 being six hits out of 100 at-bats, for example. Any isolated humiliating failures for an opener shouldn’t affect the general principle. The Brewers were making the best of what they had, and they’ve gotten away with it to this point. We’ll see it again from other teams in future postseasons.
The Dodgers had Clayton Kershaw, though.
That was more effective.
Ben Lindbergh beat me to the biggest problem with bullpenning, and it has to do with how it all looks. The starting pitcher is a protagonist in the story of each individual game, and an increased level of reliever-driven games mean that we’re going to get fewer chances at a Morris-Smoltz classic. It’s just far more enjoyable to watch Legitimate Hall Of Famer dominate a postseason game than it is to watch Five Or Six Different High-Strikeout Guys, especially when there’s a chance that only a couple of them will still be in the league in five years.
If you’re doubting that last claim, ask yourself when the last time you thought about Al Alburquerque, Steve Delabar, or Ernesto Frieri was. A few of the current fastball monsters will stick around in bullpens for the next few years, but not all of them. Not most of them. And when you look back at the box score for the NLCS games of today, you’ll see a lot of Delabar-adjacent pitchers. It’s fine, it’s what helped teams like the Brewers win at the time. There’s no shame in it.
It’s just exponentially cooler to have an actual fire-breathing deity shut down the other team. There’s something mythic about it, having Kershaw come out there with 21 different monkeys on his back and watching him fire each one, howling and shrieking, directly at the other team. Unless there’s a team assembled that’s filled with seven Andrew Millers, each more freaky and dominant than the last, nothing will compare to what Kershaw just did. A team sends out their best guy, and he’s better than the other team’s best guys. It’s familiar and preferable.
That isn’t to take away from what the Brewers are trying to do. They can’t afford a Clayton Kershaw — if they had drafted him back in 2006, they would have had to let him go years ago. They haven’t been able to develop anyone remotely comparable, either, so they’re using what they do have. They’re using their cadre of 97-MPH arms and hoping like they’ll act like a Kershaw-level starter. Think of it like three relievers in a trench coat trying to get into an X-rated movie. Maybe it’ll work!
But for now, for all of the hubbub about the opener and bullpenning, it’s still entirely preferable to have a badass starting pitcher badassing all over the place.
Apologies if that seems obvious, but the current trend is all anybody is talking about. Opener this, bullpen that. It’s still entirely, empirically better to have someone like Clayton Kershaw, even if he has a spotty postseason history. Here’s the calculus for a team starting Kershaw:
Boy, I sure hope Kershaw does well tomorrow. Let’s hope he performs as well as he’s capable of.
Here’s the calculus for a team pitching Brandon Woodruff for a couple innings, followed by an armada of relievers.
Boy, I sure hope Brandon Woodruff does well tomorrow. Let’s hope he performs as well as he’s capable of.
Also, I sure hope Corbin Burnes does well tomorrow. Let’s hope he performs as well as he’s capable of.
Also, I hope Joakim Soria does well tomorrow. Let’s hope he performs as well as he’s capable of.
And, uh, [checks note written on palm] Xavier Cedeño, let us also hope he does the things ... that he is known for ... best.
Also, Zach Davies, do whatever it is you do. I’m sorry, I mistook you for Kyle Davies, so I got freaked out for a second, but, sure, do Zach Davies things.
It feels like the chances for chaos are exponentially improved with a bullpen game. Each one of those relievers have to be at their best. There can be no weirdos. There are often weirdos. Whereas the Dodgers can hope for excellent Kershaw things and then pivot quickly if needed.
They’ve needed in the past. They didn’t need for Game 5. And there you have it. The Brewers did nothing wrong. The Brewers did something that made sense at the time. The Brewers still didn’t have Clayton Kershaw, and the Dodgers did.
It’s easy to forget just how much of a difference that makes these days. But it’s a pretty big freaking deal.