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The evolution of bullpens and relief pitching is vastly changing baseball

An old writer laments the direction we're going, even though it's the right way.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The other day, I snapped at another writer on Twitter. For our purposes here, it doesn't really matter why. I may have been right; I may have been wrong. Again, it doesn't matter. What does matter is that it was rooted in me getting older and not being willing to put up with what I saw as this young person's nonsense.

I've been feeling my age more and more lately, in particular as I look at the money being passed out in baseball and who that money is given to, and how the game itself is changing. A couple of years ago, we would have laughed at the Houston Astros for giving Tony Sipp a three year deal, let alone a three year deal for $18 million. For Tony Sipp? Good lord. And then there's the price they paid for Ken Giles. Four genuine prospects, including Vincent Velasquez and a former #1 overall pick? But this is the going rate for building a bullpen. We're not making fun of the Astros, because the Astros are a smart franchise who just leapt into the postseason and we recognize the moves they're making to be and remain competitive.

Relievers are being recognized as more valuable than a stat like WAR can estimate as they shorten games, allowing starting pitchers to leave earlier before they get into trouble. As we've learned, the penalty for keeping pitchers in the game to face a lineup a third time is very steep indeed, and anything teams can do to avoid it for their non-elite starters is going to vastly increase their odds of winning. Building a dominant bullpen, then, is almost an essential part of building a winning team. Even though the increased use of relief pitchers is part of a continuum that reaches all the way back to the 1950s, and maybe further, this extreme is all fairly new to me, and to us as a community.

And it's here that I feel old and out of step with the game I love. Because, while I recognize how damn effective this new strategy is, I also hate it. I hate it primarily from an aesthetic perspective. I like starting pitchers. I admire guys who go deep into ballgames. I miss complete games and shutouts. I'm dismissive of a starter, like Mike Pelfrey, who can only go five innings. I am baffled at the limitations teams accept on their benches to employ so many extra relievers. It goes back to days spent staring at the backs of baseball cards, and playing Strat-o-Matic Baseball, and getting to enjoy honest to God pitchers' duels. It's like they've built a brand new superhighway straight to Grandma's house for the holidays; and I'm stuck wishing we could just go the vastly longer, but infinitely more scenic route. I used to be excited by innovation within the game. I usually still am. In this case, I dread it.

What the new math in baseball is saying is that there's a place for Mike Pelfreys. It's telling us that five, or hell even four, innings is enough. The bullpen is there to carry you the rest of the way, so put your faith in six, or seven, or (God!) eight relievers. That's not a moral judgment, just an acknowledgment of the new reality. Worse, all of our indications are that the math is right. So I'm fighting a battle I've already lost. This is the future, behold its works and despair! It's enough to make a blogger want to go the full Murray Chass.