What if a Team Bullpens an Entire Season?

We saw the Yankees basically bullpen the AL wild-card game. Sure, it was on accident, but their bullpen pitched 8.2 innings. And they did it well. This made me think about whether a team could put together a pitching staff that is almost completely used for bullpenning for the entire season.

To see if this would be possible, we will look at the Yankees since they are the team most closely equipped for it already. In the wild-card game, they essentially used four relief pitchers (let’s not count the one out Luis Severino had). Chad Green, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, and Aroldis Chapman combined for 8.2 innings and one earned run. Clearly, if a team could do this all the time, they would. In that game they did not use other relievers Dellin Betances and Adam Warren, as well as regular starting pitchers Jordan Montgomery and Jaime Garcia, who would have been available that night.

Since we now know what happened in that bullpen game, can we find out if it is possible to do it over a full season? First off, and MLB roster is comprised of 25 men for any given game and an additional 15 that can be called up if needed. An AL team can get by with 12 position players: one for every starting position (including DH) plus a fourth outfielder, utility infielder, and backup catcher. ┬áLet’s say a team’s backups can field multiple positions, like many can. We can get rid of the everyday DH and use one of the backups or starters in that role for a needed day off. That leaves us with 11 position players and room for 14 pitchers.

Many of the Yankees’ own relievers can go multiple innings. Among those pitchers are Chad Green, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Warren, and occasionally Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances. Each are effective in their own right. The problem we have to face is the amount of rest needed for these pitchers. The four from the wild-card game each pitched with two days of rest, so we’ll set that as a bench mark. I also don’t want to assume a team needs five pitchers each game like they did in the wild card.

I don’t want to completely get rid of the starting pitcher. It would be dumb to just throw away what Luis Severino and other starters bring to that team. Instead, I want to put a hard limit on how much they pitch each game and how often they pitch. Theoretically, a team could go with a three-game cycle of pitchers. Games are played almost every day during the season, so the two days of rest benchmark will be used here. If we are using four pitchers per game every three games, we need 12 pitchers.

Game 1 Game 2 Game 3
L. Severino M. Tanaka S. Gray
C. Green A. Warren D. Robertson
T. Kahnle D. Betances C. Shreve
A. Chapman J. Holder G. Gallegos

I didn’t make this with any set reason, just the best options the Yankees would have in my view. There are many other options available for them and some may be even better. But, if this is the set of pitchers being used, that leaves two extra spots for our 14 available pitchers. Those two extra spots can be utilized for guys needed for extra innings that can pitch multiple innings, or a guy needed for an inning or two in case one of the above gets into trouble.

If a team were to go by this set of pitchers, the regular starting pitchers would be throwing 162 innings over a season. That would be seen as pretty normal for a starting pitcher over the course of a season and in some cases much less. Severino pitched 193 innings himself. The relievers, however, would see a pretty big bump in action. They would pitch 108 innings in a season, more than any of the pitchers above did last year. However, some of those pitchers were starters to begin their careers. Green, Warren, Betances, and Holder have each pitched more than 108 innings in a season. Now, that could be a reason for their increased effectiveness as relievers, but they would still only be pitching two innings in a game, not five or six.

It is possible to ask these relievers to stretch their arms out to be able to throw that many innings in a season. Relievers do transition to starting and this wouldn’t be quite the workload necessary. If a pitcher needs a break during a cycle through this set of pitchers, that could be what the additional two pitchers on the roster are for, or some of the 40-man pitchers could be called up to give a guy a break. They could also call up an actual starter from the minors to take over for four or five innings after the three-inning “starter” in this example. My point here is that if the relievers get tired over the course of a season, there are ways to give them breaks. Plus, the Yankees have so many resources and available pitchers that they have that capability to give breaks.

If the Yankees wanted to, they could keep Severino, Tanaka, Gray, Green, Warren, Robertson, Kahnle, Betances, and Chapman all on the roster for the whole season. That makes up 3/4 of the necessary pitchers. Shreve, Holder, and Gallegos could each be cycled up and down from AAA with other pitchers like Ben Heller, Domingo German, etc. in order to give breaks to the core nine pitchers. Another solution is to go out and get more relievers who can pitch multiple innings on a regular basis. They certainly have the prospects to do that. Pitchers like Brad Hand, Yusmeiro Petit, and Mike Minor each pitched over 77 innings and were very effective doing so.

Clearly there is much more that would be needed to make this a reality, and I don’t have the resources to know if it is even possible. Maybe these guys simply couldn’t pitch that many innings over a full season or they would lose too much velocity of break on their pitches from fatigue. But I saw David Robertson pitch 3.1 masterful innings in the wild-card game and pitch another 1.2 innings three days later. Obviously that is only two outings, but he was nevertheless effective in doing it, and I believe if any team could make this happen, it would be the Yankees.

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USD undergraduate student. Student of the game.

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Sorry, no. I’ve seen this topic bandied about so much in the last couple years. It is simply unsustainable. You can’t look at a 1-game playoff and “project” that over an entire season. Even your “pretty normal” workload for the starters of 162 innings would break down any pitcher having to pitch every 3rd day. It just simply isn’t enough time to allow the body to rest and recover. And stretching out a reliever…it isn’t exactly that simple because you’d be asking them to stretch out to pitch more innings on basically the same or less rest. Right now, relievers can go 1-2-even 3 days in a row for short bursts, but they will then get 3-4 days off. Having a pre-set regular schedule to pitch 2 innings every 3rd day would be hell on any of these guys arms. For example, as a Rockies fan, I am well aware of Tommy Kahnle…he was a pretty hyped prospect here and totally face-planted as a starter. His time as a starter, and limited time in long-relief, he was asked to go multiple innings on a regular basis and it was not a good situation for him. He has clearly found something being able to exert himself 100% for shorter bursts in a late-inning relief role, but to ask him to consistently do the same thing for a long stretch over the course of 162 games is just not going to work, period.

Look, I get it. You can put the numbers together all you want and say it is possible. But, there is a reason exactly ZERO out of 30 teams have every tried anything even resembling this. It is only appropriate when you are in a do-or-die elimination game and there is no room to consider the after-effects of pushing your pitchers to the absolute limit of their physical ability.


Actually some teams have tried tandems in the minors. But then again it was nothing on the line and they could give away some innings. I agree that we likely would have seen it if it was effective.

BP use will continue to go up but very gradual it will probably take 2 decades until we see several teams going 50% bullpen (still 4.5 starter innings)


Where do you find the bullpen innings? A season has roughly 1450 innings (depending on extra inning games). Last year the leader in BP innings were the Marlins with 612 or roughly 41% of their innings. Most teams were around 35% bullpen innings or so. Even the yankees only had 538 BP innings.

Bullpen usage is best for preventing runs but it isn’t ideal to save pitchers arms. The additional pitches a starter throws are less stressful then the fewer rest days. Of course I can’t prove that statement but if it wasn’t true we would see 150 Ip relievers.

Now you can do minor league shuttleing but most trams don’t have enough good arms for that and the ones they have they don’t want to burn options.

To make that clear to fill all innings just with BP pitchers you would need 21 pitchers with 70 ip. That is almost impossible especially if you consider that even with shuttling you can’t have 20 pitchers at the same time so that many of those 20 would need to pitch their 70 innings in like 3-4 months.

Unless they find a usage/rest pattern that allows pitchers to throw 120+ innings in relief/tandem starting I don’t see the traditional starting pattern getting extinct. You simply need a angle pitcher per day to average at least 5 or so to get by with your relievers. Now those 5 innings don’t have to be at the start but you do need them.

Now the tandem or early bullpen thing is interesting but the problem is always how do you get 7-8 pitchers pitching more often than every 5th day to throw 120 innings or so. Maybe it is possible with mixing shorter and longer outings with shorter and longer rest but we have not seen it yet.

Also last year both chapman and miller were really gassed after the post season. Thus I assume that is not something they can do the whole season.

Dee P. Gordon