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Bullpenning may be effective, but it’s not for me

Tampa Bay Rays v Toronto Blue Jays

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 3: Ryne Stanek #55 of the Tampa Bay Rays delivers a pitch in the first inning during MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre on September 3, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

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I wrote this up in this morning’s recaps. Not everyone reads the recaps, though. Also, it’s long so I figure that, with a few minor alterations, it can stand on its own as a post -- Craig

Last night seven Tampa Bay Rays pitchers combined for a three-hit shutout against the Toronto Blue Jays, striking out ten. That was a tremendous team accomplishment. Indeed, it’s just the latest in a series of triumphs for “bullpenning,” which has become a big part of the baseball landscape in recent years.

This came first in the playoffs, where managers’ quick hooks in the past few years have led to defacto bullpen games and then in the 2018 season in which the Rays have made bullpen games part of their actual approach. Sometimes with group efforts, more or less evenly split, sometimes with “openers” taking the first inning before handing things over to someone who might handle several innings. Either way, it’s a new, innovative and unconventional approach which has helped the Rays win a lot more games in 2018 than many of us assumed they would.

Baseball has a long and rich history of teams playing copycat off of one another so it should not be surprising that, as the Rays have realized success with this approach, other teams have begun to take notice. The Oakland Athletics have stocked up on relievers in the second half of the season and have began to use openers, as they did last night against the Yankees. I suspect a lot of other clubs will approach this coming offseason with an eye toward signing relievers to do much the same thing. It may or may not work and the bullpenning thing may or may not turn out to be a fad, but we’ll likely be seeing it and talking about it for at least the next few seasons. Possibly many more.

I appreciate the bullpenning approach intellectually and I appreciate what analysts have to say about its effectiveness (short version: it has helped the Rays get more out of bullpen days than they likely would’ve with back-end starters). I have to admit, however, I still do not know how to process it as a baseball fan. For reasons I’ll explain below I am having great difficulty warming to it aesthetically speaking and for those same reasons I doubt I’ll ever truly warm to it. To the point where, if it becomes the rule in baseball rather than an odd exception, I could even see it interfering with my enjoyment of the game itself.

My particular approach to taking in a baseball game as a narrative or aesthetic experience is and always has been about seeing it as a battle between starting pitchers. Yes, there are 48 other players in the park on a given night and what they do is important and can be exciting, but I think of games first and foremost as competitions between the starters which unfold as the innings wear on. Who starts strong and who doesn’t. Who breaks first, who makes adjustments or gets out of jams. Who gets tired, who finds that extra gear. My favorite games, invariably, are ones where the starters go pretty deep and, at the end of the game you can frame your particular story about the game as “Smith beat Jones” or “Johnson was good but Williams was better” or something like that. It’s just what I like and how I’ve always processed the game.

While increased bullpen use over the years has forced me to rein in my expectations about such things — I now get super jazzed if a starter comes out for the seventh inning instead of coming out for the ninth — the choice to view games through such a prism still, generally, holds up. Bullpenning, however, breaks that prism. Breaks it pretty definitively.

To be clear, I’m not saying it’s bad or it’s illegitimate or anything like that. I’ve taken a lot of heat from Rays fans lately because of some stuff I wrote about them back in the offseason, so I want to be clear when I write this that (a) the bullpenning stuff was not and is not a part of my criticism of the Rays front office; and (b) a baseball team has no other obligation as important as winning baseball games, so how they do it is, with few exceptions, less important than that they do it. Teams gotta win games. The Rays have found that this works for them. There wasn’t a damn person on that Rays roster last night who was going to come out and throw a three-hit shutout, so if Kevin Cash could get seven guys to Voltron-up and do it, more power to him. None of this should be construed as a criticism of the Rays.

I’m merely saying that I, as a guy who has processed baseball a certain way for 40 years, have to figure out how to process this kind of thing. Not as an analyst — that’s easy, it’s still just baseball — but as a consumer of a sport that, when I’m not required to analyze it, I take in like art or a novel or a performance of some kind, importing my own aesthetic preferences into it and extracting benefits from it that are more emotional than they are quantifiable. When it comes to that level of experiencing baseball, I don’t know how to contextualize a bullpen win like this one. I don’t know what to think of it as an aesthetic thing and, as such, it leaves me something less than satisfied.

I’m not going to be an old fart about this, railing against anything that is new or different. I am not going to make bold, negative and opinionated assertions about it, which is what most people tend to do when presented with aesthetic experiences that are not in keeping with their preferences and habits. I won’t throw fruit or fume or riot like the crowd in Paris did when Stravinsky and Nijinsky debuted The Rite of Spring. I won’t shake my head in disgust and lecture about what real music is like my parents did the first time they heard Run-DMC coming out of my bedroom. I won’t have a 45-year-long temper tantrum the way some anti-designated hitter people do. I don’t know if bullpenning is the start of something big or a weird ideological cul-de-sac that we’ll all forget about in a few years, but I do know that people often scoff and judge when new things appear and, as such, more and more people will scoff and judge bullpenning the more common it becomes. We shouldn’t do that with art and we shouldn’t do it with baseball as long as the new things that appear accomplish the goal the innovators set out to accomplish.

But, just like I never would’ve expected fans of traditional ballet to love modern dance or my dad to get into Wu-Tang or something, I do not have to force myself to enjoy bullpenning or pretend that I like it when I really don’t. Indeed, I sort of doubt I will ever come around to it. I’ll still appreciate a team that can spin a three-hit shutout with seven pitchers and understand that that’s good, but seeing six or seven pitchers in a nine inning game still makes it feel like a spring training game to me. I’ll analyze it fairly and properly and give all the credit that is due — and all of the criticism it is due as well — but I doubt I’ll ever love it or enjoy it on the level I enjoy a starting pitcher who guts out seven or eight innings, allowing two or three runs and stands in line for the win.

If you like it, that’s wonderful. You should like what you like. But it’s just not for me.

Follow @craigcalcaterra