clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The horrible aesthetics of baseball moving to an all-reliever strategy

The Rays are experimenting with pitcher usage. If they succeed, what does that mean for the watchability of baseball?

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Philadelphia Phillies v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Even just the riff and opening bells would have caused a mass panic in 1950. The lyrics, specifically, “I’m gonna get you, Satan get you,” would have melted the collective mind of a society that wasn’t ready for a married television couple sleeping in the same bed, but focus on the bells. The idea of 100-decibel dinging and donging bells echoing through the ballpark would have been too much. And that riff, for the love of all that is holy, what is that person doing to that poor guitar?

That’s before you even get to Trevor Hoffman coming out of the bullpen. What is Durocher doing? Didn’t he do the same thing the last two nights, bringing in this guy to pitch the final inning of the game? Why just one inning? Heck, Hoyt Wilhelm is good for four or five if you need him. What’s with this fancypants pitching only one inning every time?

Now to the aesthetics of it all. The starting pitcher was throwing beautifully, on his way to his 25th complete game of the year. There’s nothing like the thrill of a pitcher finishing what he started. That feeling of closure was encoded in baseball’s double-helix. Get out of here with this coxcomb of a dandy pitching just one inning after subjecting the rest of us to his rock-and-roll shrieking.

Which is all to say that a baseball fan in 1950 was unequipped to appreciate the spectacle of Trevor Hoffman. By now it almost seems quaint. Every one of us has participated in the “What would your closer entrance music be?” game*. The thrill that San Diego fans got from the opening tones of “Hell’s Bells,” the dopamine and endorphins, was an inextricable part of loving the Padres, and there was a pavlovian response to the song. It’s not hard to understand why, considering it was played before a win about 92 percent of the time.

* “Thumb” by Kyuss is the only correct answer

It would have been impossible to convince someone from the middle of last century that there were any advantages to a designated closer. We’re still arguing about how best to deploy the position today, but most of us can agree there’s at least some of it that is fun. In 1950, our arguments would have sounded like the unintelligible shrieking of a moon man.

Our job now is to take similar moon man shriekings from a distant future and attempt to make sense of them. Is there a way that we’ll grow to love the “opener?”

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, bless you. You don’t internet as hard as the rest of us, and that’s a much healthier way to live. The rest of us have to form opinions about the Tampa Bay Rays, Sergio Romo making two starts on back-to-back days, and the big-picture discussion about relievers taking over the game. There are economic concerns, as articulated by Zack Cozart. There are logistical concerns about if it will even work. There’s a chance, a real chance, that in three or four years, we’ll look back at this and giggle, like we do with the Rockies’ piggyback rotation.

I’m curious about the aesthetics, though. I’m wondering if there’s a way that it will make baseball more fun, and right now I’m someone from the ‘50s trying to make sense of Trevor Hoffman. And I’m failing.

The closer had an inherent advantage over the opener, and it’s, well, closure. “Hell’s Bells” isn’t just about a great pitcher coming in to wow the masses with his changeup; it was about the smell of the finish line, a reward that was earned after watching a hard-fought game for three hours. There’s a progression about it that makes sense.

Now picture the best opener of all time. Because if this were to become an established strategy, it would become a warped version of itself, there would definitely be a group of pitchers who succeeded in the role more than others. This, in turn, would allow managers to feel safe and comfortable by making the obvious choice. There would be a new class of openers, so try to picture the best one.

It would probably be someone so good against lefties or righties that he forces the opposing manager to move his best hitters down in the order, while still effective enough against the other side of the platoon to justify his status as an opener. Picture Sergio Romo, but the 2011 version, who fashioned a 70-to-5 K/BB ratio over 48 innings. Left-handers were limited to a 599 OPS against him, but almost every right-hander turned into a starting pitcher, hitting just .150/.177/.225. He faced 126 right-handers and struck out 61 of them, walking just four.

In this scenario, a future Romo comes in to face the Angels. Future Mike Scioscia — I’m picturing a head in a jar from Futurama, if we’re being honest — decides to move future Mike Trout and future Justin Upton down in the order because he doesn’t want to waste them against the freaky future foshball that future Romo throws.

It doesn’t work. Romo strikes out three lefties in a row. The opener worked. It worked to perfection. The crowd roars.

And then there are eight innings left. Innings in which that bullpenning team can give up 18 runs. There was no closure with the opener. There was just a sense of pride and accomplishment in a job well done, but there’s still a whole lot of baseball left, and it just might suck.

Perhaps there won’t be a thing like the opener, a designated role. Perhaps we’re just talking about a 17-man staff that eliminates the need for starting pitchers. It’s all bullpen, all the time, and it’s made possible by the MLBPA trading the traditional high-salaried starting pitcher for more salaried members of the MLBPA. Now there are teams fully committed to the idea of an all-reliever game.

To us simpletons in the past, it seems like a nightmare. Pitching change after pitching change. A conveyer belt of high-velocity pitchers, each one nastier than the other, ready to fill in when the other high-velocity pitchers break. Match-ups, match-ups, match-ups. It would be a herky-jerky experience that would rob us of the feeling of watching a starter having a transcendent game. That feeling of being absolutely positive that a pitcher is “on,” would be replaced by an inning or two of a Craig Kimbrel-type and hoping that the next five or six pitchers would be just as effective.

It sounds gross, really.

But I’m the dummy who would be scared by AC/DC in this analogy. There has to be something I’m missing, something that could be eloquently argued by someone in the future. And I think it goes a little something like this: If it worked, over and over again, it would be awesome.

In both the 2014 and 2015 World Series, there was an aura of mystique around the Royals’ bullpen. You had better have a lead before the sixth inning comes around because, woof, you were in trouble otherwise. There was a tangible fear that every team felt as the innings crept along.

If bullpenning becomes a thing, there will be a team that apes the Royals’ success, but for all nine innings. It would require a mix of six or seven utterly dominant arms to avoid fatigue, I’m guessing, with some lesser pitchers mixed in for the blowouts and low-leverage games, but it’s theoretically possible. And the fans of that team would be giddy at the sheer firepower they could throw at the other teams. One after the other, pew, pew, pew, pew, fastball, slider, splitter, change, different looks, different arm slots, same results, pew, pew, pew.

It would be remarkably fun. If it works. It would be like the Avengers of pitching, with different superpowers combining for a delightful mess that’s maybe a little too long because they had to stuff everyone in there but still awesome. If it works.

If it doesn’t work, it’s like a three-hour Avengers knockoff in which Jar-Jar Binks and Snarf and Orko and Ross from Friends all take turns drinking spoiled milk and throwing up on screen. It might sound funny in theory, but we’re talking three hours times 162. The risk of failing at this strategy would be to force fans to watch the most obnoxious iteration of baseball possible. Of course, there’s no way to really force them, so people just wouldn’t watch.

If it works, though, it would be cavalcade of unstoppable talent that would be fun to watch, just like the modern closer. If it works. For the teams that are lucky enough to get it to work.

My guess is that it won’t work. We’re in the earliest of early stages of what the Rays admit is an experiment, and considering baseball still hasn’t figured out how to keep pitchers healthy, it’s hard to imagine a team coming up with a full-bullpen strategy on the first try that doesn’t somehow turn its bullpen into powder by August. And if it fails for the Rays, it’ll go the way of the Rockies’ piggybacking, with no one willing to tweak the idea and try it again.

From here, that seems like a good thing. From an alternate future where people have accepted the opener and the aesthetics of bullpenning, they might think we’re missing out. The most likely scenario, though, is that we’ll never have to find out. This idea’s young, but it’s gonna die.