The 2015 World Series perhaps provided baseball something they'll never see again as long as they'll live. No, not the New York Mets actually partaking in the Fall Classic, but a starting pitcher going the whole nine innings in a crucial postseason game.
Doing it in the Fall Classic is hard enough. After all, when Johnny Cueto pulled off the feat for the Kansas City Royals in Game 2 of what became a five-game set, it was only the fifth complete game in the new century. But as baseball's future becomes a more prevalent conversation on both the immediate and long-term stages, complete games have become an endangered species. This season saw 46 outings go the full distance, but that's a minuscule number when considering the 162 games each team plays. None have been thrown this season, and that trend will surely continue on Saturday night.
The sixth game of the American League Championship Series (8:08 p.m. ET, FS1) will be commenced by relievers, as the New York Yankees and Houston Astros will employ the "opener" method. First employed on a regular basis by the Tampa Bay Rays, the opener turns the pitchers into pieces, as different members of the bullpen try to complete a nine-inning puzzle. It's unusual, it's polarizing...
It's baseball's future that we should've seen coming.
One year prior to the Royals finishing the championship deal against the Mets, they were runners-up to the San Francisco Giants' even-year prowess. That series was dominated by the dominance of Madison Bumgarner. The Bay Area ace had one of the aforementioned nine-inning outings in Game 5, but his return two games later will perhaps be the game more commonly remembered, especially if modern trends carry on.
No one knew it at the time, but Game 7 was perhaps the first true instance of an opener deciding a major game. Tim Hudson and Jeremy Guthrie, unexpected starters for a Game 7 in 2014, went a combined five innings. The true headliner was Bumgarner, already on short rest, pitching a brilliant five innings in allowing a mere two baserunners.
In different ways, it was the beginning and end of an era. The Bumgarner brilliance, finishing at 68 pitches, was perhaps the final wanton ignorance of the famous pitch count stat perhaps made famous by Stephen Stragburg's innings-limit from his rookie year. It was a refreshing change of pace, a hearken-back to a simpler baseball time.
But Bumgarner's new precedent flipped everything upside down. Ironically, the metaphorical rise of the reliever was christened by the antics of a starter.
Since then, baseball has become a game dominated by the bullpen change. Manager cardio is at a higher rate than ever. Pitch box scores are longer than a CVS receipt. Moneyball has earned a sequel, but this one plays out in reality. Analytics dictate the man on the mound, with pitchers groomed for one inning, one batter, sometimes even one pitch.
This is where baseball was headed since that epic evening and it shows zero signs of relenting. Whether it's good for the game's future remains a polarizing topic. Some enjoy the excessive strategy, comparing the tailored matchups to the intricacies of a chess match. Others contend that it adds to baseball's supposed pace of play problem by bringing the game to a halt.
Like it or not, this is the future of the game. Much like the bullpens and lineups involved, fans are just along for the ride, unsure of what...or who...is coming next.