The 2021 World Series and the rise of relief work; a fluke, or a trend?

Profile Picture: Robert Criscola

November 1st, 2021

When the World Series resumes at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday, the Atlanta Braves will send Max Fried to the mound to face Luis Garcia of the Houston Astros. It wasn’t all that long ago that one could assure themselves that each starter would last six or seven innings, but that hasn’t been the case in this World Series, nor the 2021 playoffs in general.

Let’s investigate the sudden spike in bullpen usage in the 2021 MLB postseason, and attempt to determine if this will be the norm from now on, or if it’s simply an oddity.

For openers…

Many will point to the Tampa Bay Rays – who popularized the term “opener” when they began employing a reliever-heavy strategy a few years ago – as the culprit for increased bullpen usage. It’s hard to argue with success; per the Tampa Bay Times, the Rays are 79-51 (.608) in games where they employed an “opener,” and 240-162 (.597) in all other games since that watershed moment in May of 2018.

The Rays made the World Series in 2020, using the “opener” strategy with Ryan Yarbrough in a Game 4 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. But, notably, the Dodgers “out-opened” the Rays by sending Tony Gonsolin out to start Games 2 and 6, and he lasted a grand total of three innings.

Game 4 of the 2021 World Series featured openers on both teams, as Dylan Lee made his first ever major league start for the Braves against Zack Greinke and the Astros. Lee recorded only one out while Greinke – a starter of some renown who isn’t currently “stretched out” due to an injury suffered late in the year – worked four frames. In Game 5, Braves manager Brian Snitker once again employed the “opener” strategy, sending Tucker Davidson – with zero MLB wins to his credit – to the mound for two innings before diving into the bullpen again.

In fairness to Atlanta, this wasn’t the original plan before the World Series began. Game 1 starter Charlie Morton was supposed to work Game 5, but a leg injury suffered on a comebacker ended his Fall Classic early.

Don Larsen’s immortality appears safe

The “opener” isn’t something a manager can do every game, but he certainly can dive into his bullpen early and often, and neither Snitker nor Astros skipper Dusty Baker have been afraid to pull the plug early on their regular starters.

No starter on either side has gone longer than five frames in the 2021 World Series. That includes Braves hurler Ian Anderson, who pitched five no-hit innings before getting handshakes in the dugout. It was reminiscent of Rays manager Kevin Cash’s infamous decision to pull Blake Snell in Game 6 of the 2020 World Series in the midst of the gem for Nick Anderson, who promptly surrendered the lead in an eventual series-ending loss.

Based on this data compiled by Fangraphs showing just how dramatically starter usage has fallen off in the postseason since 2015, Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series is beginning to feel less and less approachable.

The truth, hurts

So what conclusions can we draw from this current World Series, and the one that preceded it? It seems safe to say that starters facing the opposing order for a third time will become a rare occurrence in postseason baseball from now on. Going to the bullpen to give hitters a different look – even if they’ve seen that reliever multiple times in the series already – seems to be what managers are most comfortable with these days.

But this doesn’t mean that we’ll never see a complete game in the World Series again. The 2020 and 2021 seasons were outliers for a number of reasons, but one of the bigger trends that was picked up on was the sheer volume of pitcher injuries. Per The Athletic, MLB teams used the non-COVID-19 IL for pitchers 534 times in 2021, up 44% from both 2019 (370) and 2018 (367). That’s about 18 pitchers that were placed on the IL per team.

Injuries probably occurred more frequently due to the nature of the 60-game season of 2020, as pitchers saw dramatically reduced workloads, followed by a ramping up in usage in 2021. They also had a lot to do with shaping the pitching plans of this World Series.

It will be interesting to see what 2022 has in store, assuming a potential work stoppage doesn’t alter the MLB calendar. Fans can probably expect a slight uptick in starter usage next year, and a decrease in pitcher injuries, but it appears that “bullpen ball” is here to stay, especially late in the postseason.