Could a “bullpen game” save the starting rotation?

Reliever Mark Lowe has never pitched more than 80 innings in a season in the major leagues.

Reliever Mark Lowe has never pitched more than 80 innings in a season in the major leagues.

Alarm bells are starting to go off. The Detroit Tigers starting rotation is in a state of flux as we approach Opening Day. While it appears now that Anibal Sanchez will be recovered from his injury in time for the games that count, Daniel Norris has suffered a lower-back injury, leaving the Tigers without a fifth starter for at least awhile. The schedule will permit the team to get by for the first couple weeks, but the rumors that Detroit was considering thirty-seven-year-old free agent Kyle Lohse, who had a terrible 2015, illustrates the management is getting desperate.

But because the Tigers have depth on their roster,  they have other options too. Shane Greene is one of them, though the Tigers have been thinking he’d be better off in the bullpen. Buck Farmer, Matt Boyd, or Michael Fullmer might step up, but all would be better off with more seasoning in the minors than being rushed into the breach.

But perhaps this crisis is an opportunity for the Tigers to be innovative.

Recently, a few organizations have started experimenting with a whole new approach to pitching in their farm systems. Some sabermetricians, including the MLB Network’s often annoying but usually thought-provoking Brian Kenny, have been touting this new idea of a “bullpen game.” With more and more relief pitchers being added to the roster each season, it makes sense to ask: Do you really need a starting pitcher in every game?

We’ve already gone a long ways toward getting rid of the concept of a traditional starting pitcher. A few decades ago, starters were still expected to pitch complete games on a fairly regular basis. Now, they’re applauded if they get into the sixth inning. A full third of their workload has been chopped off.

With seven or sometimes even eight relief pitchers available in the bullpen, a team could easily use its pen to get through an entire game. Relievers’ workloads are ridiculously light as it is. Surely some are capable of pitching more than an inning on occasion.

In a “bullpen game,” two or three relievers could pitch two or more innings and you could get into the sixth inning without using a starter at all. This approach has two obvious advantages. First, no pitcher would have to go more than once through the batting order (each time through the order, a pitcher’s effectiveness diminishes). Second, no opposing manager could load his lineup with lefties against right-handers or righties against southpaws—opposing managers could better match up with same-handed batters throughout the game.

The Tigers have the personnel to do this: Alex Wilson started a game last season in just this sort of pinch; Justin Wilson and others have handled multiple-inning assignments; veterans like Mark Lowe could surely get five or six outs at a time; and Farmer has all the earmarks of a swing man.

In a bullpen game, you could use the starting pitcher who is scheduled to throw his between-innings session that day to get a few outs. Especially early in the season, with a lighter schedule and more weather-related cancellations, Detroit could get by without a fifth starter for a couple months with this approach. In fact, they may find the “bullpen game” works so well that they might prefer to stick with it.

At the very least, it makes more sense than a washed-up starter like Kyle Lohse.