Over the past few seasons, the playoffs have evolved (devolved?) in one big battle of the bullpens. Starters don't get much of a leash these days, so at the first sign of trouble, the bullpen goes to work. Dodgers left-hander Rich Hill threw only four innings and 70 pitches in Game 2 of the World Series despite allowing just one run.
Postseason bullpen usage has become what it is today because the numbers show pitchers are generally less effective each time though the lineup, so rather than letting a starter go through the batting order a third time, why not give the ball to a fresh reliever? There are so many built-in off-days in the postseason that teams can rely on their bullpen more often.
At least one big leaguer doesn't like the way starters are handled in the postseason. Cubs lefty Jon Lester, a three-time World Series champion, appeared on "The Tiki and Tierney Show" on CBS Sports Radio earlier this week, and made it very clear he hates the way starters are treated today.
"I hate it. I absolutely hate it. You pay your starting pitchers to be starting pitchers. You pay your studs to be studs. I remember growing up and watching these big-time guys - Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, (John) Smoltz. 'Here's the ball. You guys go get it. We're going to live or die by you.' Obviously if that falters early, you need to make a decision. That's different. But if they are cruising, (leave them in)."
"You're stretching your bullpen to get 15 outs. That's a lot of outs from your bullpen. That's a lot of mixing and matching. That's a lot of high-stress pitches on those guys. Now you're bringing in Kenley Jansen to get six outs, which I'm fine with. I don't mind using your closer for six outs. But for me, you go back to the Yankee days where you had Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, these guys going (for seven or eight innings) and then you give the ball to Mo (Mariano Rivera). That's the blueprint and that's what you want every time.
"But I just feel like when you ask your bullpen to get nine, 12, 15 outs, there's a lot of things that can happen and you went from a 3-1 game to a 7-6 game. I feel like that's what happens when you do that. It puts a lot of stress on your bullpen. They have the off day today. I get it on that side of it. But for me, it's just not baseball. Baseball is your starters go six, seven, eight and then you mix and match and do your things that you need to do from that point forward. That's my opinion on it."
Lester, who has 21 career postseason starts to his credit, made two starts this postseason. He threw six innings and 86 pitches in Game 2 of the NLDS, and 4 2/3 innings and 103 pitches in Game 2 of the NLCS. Both times he allowed only one run.
So far this postseason starters are averaging 4.81 innings and have thrown only 54.5 percent of all innings. That's down from 5.76 innings per game and 73.3 percent of all innings just five years ago. Eventually I think baseball is going to reach a breaking point where relievers are throwing too many innings in the postseason, and they wear down and it blows up in everyone's face. It might not happen this year, but I think it'll happen eventually.
As for Lester, it's a good thing he wants to pitch deeper into the game! You want your starters to be competitive and upset when they're removed. It shows they care. No pitcher likes coming out of a game. That's just the way it is. Teams have found a way to improve their odds of winning in the postseason though, at least in theory, and they're going to stick with it until something better comes along.