So this is what it’s come to.
The Red Sox spent much of the spring and first half of the season proudly defying the creeping bullpennism of the era. They invested $90 million in their rotation with an expectation of leaning on their starters for 18 outs — or more — on many nights and their relievers for just nine.
Wednesday marked a landmark of just how spectacularly that plan has flopped. Two days after being told to go home after their seasons with Triple A Pawtucket, four pitchers — lefthander Bobby Poyner and righthanders Colten Brewer, Trevor Kelley, and Mike Shawaryn — were told to turn around and head to Fenway Park.
That about-face came on the heels of a four-game stretch in which Red Sox starters had contributed just 10 innings (not including the one-inning outing by reliever-turned-opener Josh Taylor on Saturday) and the bullpen had been pushed for 32. Against that backdrop, Alex Cora found that the 13 relievers on his 17-man pitching staff were inadequate — a conclusion that became apparent in a 6-5 loss on Tuesday, as the Red Sox manager fretted about the extreme workloads being conferred upon his relievers.
And so, the call to arms was made, and the Red Sox packed their bullpen with 17 relievers on a 21-man pitching staff. A bit of context on the current bullpen crowd: As recently as 1993, the Red Sox used just 16 pitchers all season. The 1994 season (the 94th of the team’s existence) marked the first time the team used more than 21 pitchers in a single season.
Now, there are pitchers coming out of every pore of the clubhouse, dugout, and bullpen. And perhaps most disquietingly, they are about to start coming out of every inning, with the Red Sox already committed to one bullpen day in every turn of the rotation, Rick Porcello’s place in the rotation getting a “for now” disclaimer from Cora that underscores the notion that a quick hook will be used freely, and two pitchers — Nate Eovaldi and David Price — still rebuilding pitch counts.
Against that backdrop, not only does Cora have 17 relievers, but he plans to use them — early and often. In 2020, MLB will alter the rules governing September roster expansion, requiring teams to go from 26 players from the start of the season through the end of August to 28 in September.
But in this last gasp of the 40-man September roster, the Red Sox will join the increasing number of teams committed to slogging through an endless succession of pitching changes in the season’s final month.
There will be nights when the result is painful. Already, the average MLB time of game this year is the longest in history (3 hours, 9 minutes entering Wednesday). The Red Sox have had, far and away, the longest average games in baseball this year at 3 hours and 24 minutes. To no one’s delight, those numbers are about to go up.
“We’re going Winter Ball style. That’s how we’re going to do it. The games, instead of four hours, they’re going to be five hours,” Cora said, half-joking, prior to his team’s 6-2 win over the Twins. “Keep the fans away from the . . . ”
Cora trailed off, recognizing the potential third rail of admitting that viewers might find some nights unwatchable. But people who are in the game and love it also acknowledge the uncomfortable reality that baseball is sometimes putting its worst product forward precisely when the games are at their most critical.
For teams and managers, it would be negligence not to take advantage of the current roster expansion rules both to try to maximize the potential number of wins and minimize the likelihood of injury.
In recent days, even with the first wave of call-ups on Sunday in Anaheim, Cora worried that he was redlining pitchers. Taylor is tied for the major league lead with 37 appearances since his call-up on June 14; Matt Barnes pitched in all three games in Anaheim and warmed up on Tuesday; Brandon Workman pitched in three of the last four games and warmed up in the only one he did not pitch. The Red Sox had all three getting in work on Tuesday in a game they trailed for all nine innings.
From the other dugout, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli — who was a coach with Tampa Bay in 2018, when the Rays became a trailblazer with their usage of “the opener” — gets what the Red Sox are doing and why. He likewise empathizes with those who worry about the pace of the game, but the primary responsibility of teams lies elsewhere.
“On our end, we have to do what we think is best in order to win a game today and prepare for the near future,” said Baldelli. “There’s every reason in the world to take advantage of the rules the way they’re written and to go about business this way. Are there short moments when you’re out there during the game and the flow of the game might not feel like it’s there? Sure. I don’t think we should look away from that. It might be one of the reasons that the rules are changing going forward, because there are people who believe that and believe there needs to be more fluidity in what’s happening.”
“But for now,” he added, “we have to operate like this. If you’re competing and not doing something along these lines, we think we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t operate like this.”
Necessity has pushed the Red Sox to the point where they are taking the same approach, with the potential for some painful games to follow. On Wednesday, thanks to a seven-inning outing from starter Eduardo Rodriguez, the Red Sox needed “just” four relievers for the final two innings, employing Ryan Brasier before turning to mainstays Taylor, Darwinzon Hernandez, and Workman. But there are some days coming when the amazingly crowded bullpen will be thinned or even emptied in potentially historic fashion.
The record for most pitchers used in a game is 13 by the Rockies in 2015; the 2017 Red Sox once deployed 12, tied for an AL record. Certainly, there are now enough arms in the Boston bullpen to challenge that benchmark, for better or more likely worse.
“Obviously it’s not perfect,” said Cora, “but our starters are not giving us enough. We need matchups. We need arms . . . We’re trying to look for outs.”
For that hunt, the team has cast a remarkably wide net — an unforeseen and unwanted last gasp for the ridiculousness of the 40-man roster.