It should go down as one of the most prophetic quotes in baseball history. In the midst of a painfully slow-moving free-agent market last offseason, Mike Rizzo made two quick signings.
First, he snatched the premier arm on the market, signing lefty Patrick Corbin to a six-year deal worth $140 million. Twenty days later, Rizzo, in an under-the-radar move, signed underrated veteran Anibal Sanchez to a two-year deal worth $19 million.
And then he made this declaration: “Starting pitching is king.”
On Wednesday, Rizzo’s Nationals did indeed become the kings of baseball, earning the franchise’s first World Series crown by beating the heavily favored Houston Astros in Game 7 at Minute Maid Park.
The Nationals were not all about pitching. In Juan Soto, they have a superstar who will still be in his early 30s when Bryce Harper’s contract expires with the Phillies after the 2031 season, and in Anthony Rendon they have another superstar who is about to hit the free-agent market. And, boy oh boy, did they have some special chemistry in their first season without Harper.
But Rizzo was right. Starting pitching was king. Adding Corbin and Sanchez to Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg made the Nationals such a powerful force that they were able to overcome the fact that no team in the National League had a worse bullpen ERA than Washington’s 5.68. And in the postseason, manager Dave Martinez aided his bullpen by using one of his starters in six of Washington’s 12 victories. The Nats starters posted a 2.99 ERA in the postseason.
“There’s different ways to do this," Rizzo said. "We’ve seen the ‘bullpenning’ and that type of thing in playoff baseball and that’s fine. But for the marathon that is the season you better have some starters that you can run out there and give you a chance to win each and every day, and that’s what we’ve always tried to do here.”
The Phillies, of course, fell far short in the starting pitching department, which is one of the main reasons why Joe Girardi is now the manager instead of Gabe Kapler. There’s no denying Girardi knows what it takes to win a championship. He has three World Series rings from his playing days with the New York Yankees and another he earned as their manager when his team beat the Phillies in 2009.
Girardi, however, was part of title teams that relied heavily on bullpens to get the job done. In fact, the Yankees started a bit of a baseball revolution when they won in 1996 behind the relief arms of Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland, a dynamic duo who spelled doom for any opponent trailing after seven innings.
In the three seasons the Yankees won the World Series with Girardi as a player, the New York bullpen ranked first in the American League twice (1998 and 1999) and second in 1996.
During Girardi’s decade as the Yankees’ manager, there was not a single season New York’s starters had a better earned run average than the team’s relievers. The Yankees’ relievers also had an ERA below 4.00 every season that Girardi managed them.
Yes, of course, it helped that Rivera, baseball’s first unanimous Hall of Fame selection, was always at the back end of the bullpen. During Girardi’s four championship seasons with the Yankees, Rivera allowed two earned runs in 56 postseason innings for a 0.32 ERA. Watch that for 14 years and you’d think the success of a bullpen was vital, too.
And it was obvious at his introductory news conference that Girardi thinks exactly that way. The first observation he talked about when referencing the 2019 Phillies was the bullpen.
“One of the things is the bullpen needs to stay healthy,” Girardi said. “So when I broadcast a game – and I did maybe three or four Phillies games – I watch every reliever to study the reliever. So when Seranthony Dominguez comes in and Adam Morgan comes in, I know what they have. I know how they like to pitch. I know if he’s a four-pitch guy, a two-pitch guy, and what he does for swing-and-miss pitches.
“Every time I did a Phillies game – I did one in May, June, and August – there was a whole different cast of characters. It’s really hard to survive when your bullpen doesn’t stay healthy. Obviously, addressing that is really important.”
Girardi’s 2009 Yankees won essentially with a four-man rotation. CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett, and Joba Chamberlain all made at least 30 starts, but nobody else made as many as 10. That was enough because of the way that team scored and the duo of Phil Hughes and David Robertson created a bridge to Rivera’s “Sandman” entrance.
It will be interesting to see what kind of influence Girardi has on the Phillies’ offseason expedition to improve the roster.
The starting-pitching prize is Gerrit Cole and, unlike Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, he will be pursued by the Yankees and Red Sox. If Strasburg opts out of his contract with Washington, he will also be a hot commodity.
After that, you have a terrific second tier of Madison Bumgarner, Dallas Keuchel, Jake Odorizzi, Zach Wheeler, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Cole Hamels. The Phillies need one of the above and could probably use two, but maybe with Girardi on board they will focus more on the bullpen.
With Robertson out at least until August, the Phillies need to address their bullpen problems. Free agent Aroldis Chapman, who pitched for Girardi with the Yankees, would look great at the back end of the bullpen with Hector Neris and he will be the grand prize among bullpen arms.
Other free-agent relief arms in demand will be San Francisco veteran Will Smith, the Yankees’ Dellin Betances, and Houston veteran Will Harris.
Right now, though, the Washington Nationals are the baseball king because their starting pitchers gave them a crown.