It is impossible to have success in baseball without great pitching. Look at how the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals reached the World Series this year. Great pitching from both teams includes Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Gerritt Cole, and Stephen Strasburg, all aces on their respective pitching staffs. While aces of each pitching staff are vital to their team’s success, the backbone is their bullpen. Moreover, it is how each bullpen is used by their respective managers. Bullpens are now more vital than ever in today’s game, and it is largely due in part to one manager in particular.
2018 was a great year to be a Brewers fan. An incredible run after the All-Star break catapulted them to playoff contention. It was at the beginning of those playoffs that manager Craig Counsell started to change how baseball was to be played. Teams must widdle their roster down from 40 players during the regular season to 25 before the first pitch of the postseason. Traditionally, managers would keep nine pitchers (3-4 starters and 5-6 relief pitchers). Craig Counsell decided, seeing that his bullpen was the best part of his team, to keep eleven pitchers. Still, he only kept three true starters. This may not seem like a big change, but this setup allowed Counsell to change how he was going to manage games.
There is a saying in baseball, “Every team wins 54 games, every team loses 54 games, it’s what you do with the other 54 that counts”. In the playoffs, every game matters. Nobody looks at how you win, only that you did. With this in mind, Craig Counsell changed the game of baseball, maybe not for the better, but for always. The Brewers beat the Chicago Cubs in the one-game playoff for the NL Central Division title and cruised past the Colorado Rockies in the National League Division Series. Next up was the National League’s best, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Loaded with great hitting and great pitching, the Dodgers were clear favorites on paper. But the game is not played on paper, and Counsell took what weapons he had and attempted to use them to their fullest. Wade Miley, a left-handed pitcher started for the Brewers in Game 5. In turn, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts comprised his lineup of mostly right-handed hitters. Wade Miley pitched to leadoff hitter Cody Bellinger (the one left-handed hitter in that lineup), walked him, then proceeded to be pulled by Counsell. Now the Dodgers had set their lineup to face a left-handed pitcher for 5 plus innings, instead they were forced to face right-handed pitching for possibly the remainder of the game. While this gamble and trickery by Counsell did not pay off, it did open the door to a different way for baseball to be played, and more importantly, managed.
Flash forward to the 2019 ALCS between the New York Yankees and Houston Astros. Game 2 of the series stayed 2-2 until the 11th inning when the Astros managed to win. A 2-2 game suggests the starting pitchers had done a great job, and gone deep into the ballgame. Instead, the Yankees used nine pitchers over those 11 innings. Only three pitchers pitched more than a single inning. Yankees manager Aaron Boone played the numbers with each pitcher depending on the batter they were facing. Managing the game in a way that has become the norm, especially for playoff baseball. And this is in large part due to the way Craig Counsell micromanaged the Brewers 2018 NLDS.
I may have a sentiment towards “old school” baseball, when teams still bunted, when hit and run was such an effective weapon, and when starting pitchers were only pulled if they were having a terrible game. Pitching has always been one of the most integral parts of baseball, but with how Craig Counsell and the 2018 Brewers played out their playoff run, the use of pitching has become so different, and so effective in managers eyes, that the game of baseball will never be the same again.