By: Matt Watkins
Baseball in 2020—A Battle of the Bullpens?
So we’re finally going to have baseball in 2020. Not in the way we hoped it would happen and the optics of having to force a season because billionaires couldn’t agree on how much money to give millionaires is bad, but there will be baseball this year.
But with just 60 games, MLB managers are going to have to live a life that has befallen skippers of teams in independent professional baseball for years – perform or move on. Now, it can be said that mentality has always been the case, but not to the extreme that it will be needed this year.
Four-time all-star catcher, Terry Kennedy was famously quoted as saying “most slumps are like the common cold. They last two weeks no matter what you do.” In the course of a 162-game season, a two week slump runs you probably 12-13 games, roughly 7-8 percent of your season. In a 60-game schedule, however, that same two-week slump is 20-22 percent of your season. In short there is no margin for error. Perform, or next man up.
We have a tendency to focus on what happens at the ends of games and ends of seasons as being more important than what happens at the beginning. Think about it: how many times have you seen your team get behind 5-0 in the second inning and you find yourself saying “it’s still early, we have seven innings to come back.” The same mentality goes for slow starts to years. An 8-19 record in April isn’t good, but it doesn’t leave most fans in a panic since there are still five months to play, even if the reality is maybe your team is two games out with four to play because you went 8-19 in April instead of 11-16.
But if we look at it from the perspective that what happens later matters more, we can equate everything this season to a game from the sixth inning onward that is played in August and September. With that in mind, the teams that have the strongest bullpens seem to be in the best shape to manage a drastically shortened season, especially when there will not be expanded playoffs. Five blown saves in162 games you can overcome. Five in 60? Good luck. So what teams are in the best position to make a run because of their relief corps? I’m so glad you asked!
Baseball in 2020 Asks a Simple Question: Who Has the Best Bullpen in Baseball
Tampa Bay Rays – Since their breakthrough in 2008, the Rays have always been that quirky team that’s been the outlier. Good, but not quite good enough. This year, though, good enough might just be good enough. TB led all MLB bullpens in WAR last season. With a closer like Nick Anderson (37.9 percent strikeout rate with only two walks in 21.1 innings) and guys to set him up like Diego Castillo, Jose Alvarado, and Colin Poche, five to six innings from a starter might be all you need. Don’t be surprised if the Rays also use their short-inning guys in unconventional ways (more on that at the end). Recommendation: Buy now on Tampa Bay.
San Diego Padres – Ok, follow me on this one a minute. Remember last season when Kirby Yates was the hottest name on the trade market for relief pitchers? Everyone assumed that he was gone, especially given general manager A.J. Preller’s predilection for making deals. But the Padres wanted a king’s ransom for a closer who still had a full year of team control (won’t be a free agent until after 2020), and who had, in in 2018 and 2019, posted 13.9 K/9IP, 53 saves, and a sub-2.00 ERA.
No one bit and Yates remains a Padre. So with the ninth inning set, and set up specialists in Emilio Pagan, Drew Pomeranz and Craig Stammen, if the Padres have a lead after five, it could be lights out. Recommendation: Hold for two weeks, but if it’s looking good, cautiously buy.
Milwaukee Brewers – The biggest hindrance to the Brew Crew the last couple years has been a slow season start, which, as we’ve documented, could be devastating. If the offense can play well out of the gate, and get to the pen, though, they could be a very scary team. If there is any concern, it’s the setup men. Brent Suter, David Phelps, and Corey Knebel are all solid, but not spectacular. Of course, you don’t need to be awesome when Josh Hader is the guy who closes it out and is capable of going more than just the ninth. Recommendation: Soft buy.
New York Yankees – I’m sure a lot of people are surprised it took me this long to get to the Yankees who should have a pretty good chance to run through mostly everyone. Aroldis Chapman closes. Zach Britton, Adam Ottavino, and Tommy Kahnle set it up. On paper, it’s pretty much a lock. The only concern I have is age. Kahnle is the youngest guy in the group at 30 and the quartet has combined to make 466 appearances in the last two seasons, 148 of them coming from the oldest pitcher in the group in 34-year old Ottavino.
Where the Yankees bullpen strength may actually lie is in the starting rotation. While the other three teams we listed will need to use pretty much all four of their primary short-inning pitchers nightly, having traditional innings eaters in Gerrit Cole, Masahiro Tanaka, and J.A. Happ in the rotation will allow Aaron Boone to better stretch his bullpen innings for maximum effectiveness and dominance. Recommendation: Buy now.
The Openers May Help You Close with Some Money in Your Pocket
So one last note; In such a shortened season, there will be a premium placed on maximizing every advantage, placing an emphasis on creativity. Enter the opener. In a normal, 162-game season, a deficiency in the starting rotation could shine through. But in a year where you don’t have to worry about saving an arm, where everyone can go full tilt from game one, think about the possibilities of Tampa Bay using Alvarado to go two innings to begin every other game. Then you get four innings from a traditional starter, and if you’re ahead, Castillo, Poche, Anderson to finish it.
Warren Spahn once said “hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” Under that setup, a batter will face a pitcher, at a maximum, twice in a game, meaning there are minimal at-bats in which to make adjustments. For a team like the Rays, which will play half of its 60 games against the lineups of the Yankees, Red Sox, Braves, and Nationals, that could be a huge advantage. For that matter, any of the teams listed could do it with four solid relievers. The Rays are just the most likely to be the ones most willing to try it and/or be successful with it.