If you didn’t know better, you might have thought the Los Angeles Dodgers were facing elimination in Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night.
Manager Dave Roberts lifted starting pitcher Rich Hill after just four innings, even though Hill had given up just one run on three hits and struck out seven batters.
He didn’t even have a high pitch count.
The move worked out fine in the immediate sense, since the Dodgers rallied from a 1-0 deficit to take a two-run lead, but the case can be made that Roberts’ early hook contributed to the decision to go with closer Kenley Jansen in the eighth inning and ask him to convert a six-out save for only the second time in his career.
Instead, Jansen gave up a run in the eighth and another in the ninth to blow the save opportunity, and two lesser Dodgers relievers allowed two runs each in extra innings to let the Astros salvage a split of the first two games of the Series.
In defense of Roberts, he has been quick to make pitching changes all season, but the Astros are one of the best offensive teams in baseball and it’s folly to think that you can trot eight relief pitchers out to the mound and think that all of them are going to be lights out.
It’s one thing to play all-hands-on-deck baseball in an elimination game, but it’s quite another to play that way throughout a long playoff series.
Sure, the Dodgers bullpen carried a string of 28 scoreless innings into the eighth inning Wednesday night, but there comes a time under the best of circumstances when you’re just pressing your luck.
This postseason has had several odd pitching decisions. Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker removed ace Max Scherzer from Game 3 of the National League Division Series after he allowed his first hit of the game in the seventh inning.
Scherzer was coming off a hamstring injury and looked like his command was deteriorating, but he’s still Max Scherzer, which means he probably a better choice after 98 pitches to get the last two outs of that inning than left-hander Sammy Solis, who came on to give up back-to-back hits and a run in what would end up being a 2-1 loss.
Of course, in the same game, Cubs manager Joe Maddon removed José Quintana in the sixth inning after he had allowed just two hits and an unearned run, but that move worked out because the three Cubs relievers in that game were a run better than the three Nationals relievers.
If you recall, Maddon was criticized during last year’s World Series for over-using closer Aroldis Chapman, but he got away with it when the Cubs survived a late bullpen blowup to win Game 7 in extra innings.
Game 4 of this year’s American League Championship Series featured quick hooks on both sides of a game the Yankees won with a four-run rally in the eighth inning. That was not long after Astros manager A.J. Hinch pulled Lance McCullers Jr. out of a start in which he allowed just two hits over six innings and was working with an unusually high pitch count.
The next three relievers combined to give up five runs.
And that was shortly after Yankees manager Joe Girardi yanked Sonny Gray after five innings in which he had given up only one hit. The next two relievers gave up runs.
This is new-age, analytics-driven baseball and this bullpen thing is getting out of hand. Bullpen specialization arrived long before this and spawned the era of the six-inning starting pitcher. Now, it looks like we’re headed into the age of the four-inning starter and the nine-man bullpen.