Whether he realizes it or not – and how could he not if he’s been checking the box scores every day – the Commissioner of Baseball, Rob Manfred, has a new crisis on his hands: The analytical geeks have made a travesty of the game.
This is not about the new metrics which the average fan has no idea what they mean or how they’re calculated. Nor is it about the obsession with exit velocity, upper cut swings and the inexorably dramatic rise in strikeouts which nobody seems to mind. Rather, it is about the emasculation of starting pitching which has led to the proliferation of relief pitchers on every team, further compounded by baseball’s continued idiotic inaction regarding the expanded rosters in September.
It all began with the implementation of pitch counts, with 100 being somehow determined as the magic number for getting a starting pitcher out of there. No matter that Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan, Jim Palmer, Jim Kaat, Steve Carlton, et al., routinely threw 140-150 pitches in a game and also routinely finished what they started. They are dinosaurs. Today’s starting pitchers, from the moment they sign their first pro contracts, are trained to think of complete games as being seven innings or 100 pitches, whichever comes first. But in the last couple of years it has gotten worse with the new analytical dictum of not allowing starting pitchers to face the batting order a third time around. It’s a proven fact, pitchers lose their effectiveness the third time around the order, but Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa says there’s more to that than just fatigue and familiarity.
“The good starting pitchers have at least three pitches,” La Russa said. “If they’ve got only two, then the third time around they’re going to be vulnerable. What we maybe need to do is a better job of making sure our starting pitchers have more than two pitches — and that starts in the player development area. Instead of using multiple relievers in games it’s still better to develop a starter with multiple pitches to get you into the latter part of the game.”
“Tony’s absolutely right,” said longtime major league GM with the Rangers and Brewers, Doug Melvin. “We have only ourselves to blame for what’s happened to starting pitchers. They don’t teach them a third pitch in the minor leagues and they rush them to the big leagues because they have ‘big’ arms.”
Apparently the vast majority of starting pitchers today must not have a third ‘out’ pitch, or else why are they not being trusted to pitch beyond 5-6 innings? From 1950-1998, starting pitchers averaged from 6.66 to 6.06 innings per start. Then in 2008, it dropped to 5.81 innings per start and this year it’s 5.48 and dropping even faster. The decline of innings by starting pitchers has, in turn, led to a greater reliance on relievers who, in many cases, are accounting for more than a third of teams’ rosters – at least from April-August. Since the expansion of the rosters on Sept. 1, some teams are carrying as many as 16 relievers in their bullpen.
“It’s gotten completely out of control,” a major league exec who asked for anonymity complained. “You look down in the bullpen and guys are tripping over each other with no place to even sit down. We have got to get this September call-ups issue resolved. This is insane.”
How insane? On Sept. 9, the White Sox and Angels combined to use 10 pitchers in a 1-0 game. Five days later, the Rays and A’s used 14 pitchers in a 2-1 game. In that one, Rays manager Kevin Cash ran through eight pitchers in the constant search for the one guy who didn’t have it before finally succeeding with his ninth pitcher of the night, raw rookie Jaime Schultz, who gave up the ninth-inning, game-winning homer to Khris Davis. But last Sunday was the all-time topper when the Marlins and Phillies combined for 15 pitchers, none of whom ever came to the plate. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that was the first time in modern (post 1900) history no pitcher had a plate appearance in a nine-inning, non-DH game.
“That’s as much a result of the unlimited September roster expansions,” said Melvin. “I’ve been trying to get that resolved since 2007. It shouldn’t be that hard. You’re playing by completely different rules in September. It goes right to the integrity of the game.”
Yes, Mr. Manfred, you have a crisis on your hands. These games are becoming a joke. This is like Little League. Worse, they’re becoming a too-long joke. This season, the average September game time is three hours, four minutes and 23 seconds as opposed to three hours, one second in games from April-August. Again, according to Elias Sports Bureau research, the average number of pitchers per game (both teams) remained fairly static at 4.9 from the 1950’s-through the late ‘80s when it jumped to 5.5, partly as a result of La Russa introducing his late-inning matchup set-up relievers to his closer concept with the Oakland A’s which everyone began copying. By 1998, it had jumped to 6.9 and this year it was up to 7.8 before the rosters expanded. Since then, it’s leaped to 8.6 pitchers per game.
Bad enough the action on the field has become increasingly stifled by the obsession for home runs, accompanied by all the strikeouts, on top of that, fans are now being routinely treated to 10 or more pitching changes per game.
“It is interrupting the flow of the game,” admitted La Russa, “and this is coming from a guy who made a reputation for late-inning matchups with his bullpen.”
But there’s a difference. Set-up relievers have become part of the game – an important part of the game as evidenced by how much more they’re being paid. However, for the most part it’s been one man, one inning, for the seventh, eighth and ninth, with an occasional lefty specialist sandwiched in to face a particularly dangerous lefty hitter. Now, in many cases, particularly with the Tampa Bay Rays who, this year, introduced their “Opener” concept, they’re matching up from the fourth inning on.
It is probably also worth noting that in 1993 La Russa very briefly introduced a variation of the “Opener” concept by separating his 13-man Oakland A’s pitching staff into three three-man platoons with the idea that none of his “starters” would go beyond 50 pitches. The reason, La Russa said, “was that our starting pitchers hadn’t been pitching that well and in particular weren’t being aggressive enough. We just felt that, in limiting them this way, they would pitch with maximum effort.” The pitchers, however, hated it and the experiment lasted about a week with the A’s going 1-5.
In a conversation I had with Hall of Fame general manager Pat Gillick at the winter meetings in Orlando last December, he warned that the emasculation of starting pitchers was going to get worse. “We train these guys to pitch 5-6 innings and think their day is done,” Gillick said. “But soon you’re going to be seeing teams using multiple pitchers to get through the game with starters going only three innings because there’s not enough good starting pitchers to go around. They’re already talking about this.”
He was right. They were – and now it’s here. In mid-August, the Rays set a major league record – 16 – for the most consecutive games without a starting pitcher lasting more than five innings.
This is why I prefer to call the Rays’ “Opener” idea the “Bum of the Inning Club” because none of the pitchers they are using in it are good enough to be regular quality starters. The principal beneficiary of the “openers” has been lefthander Ryan Yarbrough who, at 14-5, has established a Rays’ record for wins by a rookie.
But of Yarbrough’s 14 wins, seven were achieved by pitching four innings or less and he has actually been credited with only six games started. In 1966, Dodgers reliever Phil Regan was immortalized with the nickname “Vulture” after compiling a 14-1 record, all in relief. Suffice to say, Yarbrough can justifiably be considered the modern day “Vulture.”
“He seems to be excelling in this role where he is following someone,” said Cash.
The Rays’ “Opener” concept – in which a relief pitcher, a lot of times closer Sergio Romo, is named to start the game, usually pitching only the first inning, and is then followed by the “real” starter, who is given a fairly short leash to get the game past the fifth inning after which, using matchups, 3-4 more relievers, finish it out – was introduced on May 19, primarily out of necessity because of injuries that felled four of their opening season starting pitchers, Chris Archer, Blake Snell, Nathan Eovaldi and Jake Faria. Much to the delight of the analytics people, the Rays have had success with it – as of Thursday they were 29-20 in “Opener” games and since May 19 Rays pitchers’ ERA of 3.26 ranks second in the majors and first in the American League. So it is therefore not surprising other teams have begun adopting “openers,” the first being the A’s, whose rotation, plagued by multiple injuries, has been in constant turmoil with 14 different pitchers having started games for them this season.
Unfortunately for the A’s, their version has so far been a failed experiment. On Sept. 15, they came up on the short end of the first-ever “dual Openers” game against the Rays when Jeurys Familia, their seventh pitcher, gave up a game-winning homer to previously slump-ridden Jake Bauers in the eighth inning. Then on Tuesday, they used eight pitchers in losing 9-7 to the Angels.
“(The Rays) are having success with it now, but you just don’t know what’s going to happen down the road,” said Melvin. “You can’t develop starting pitchers using 1-2 innings at a time. I remember it was only a few years ago our analytics people were telling us ‘don’t waste money on relief pitchers, they’re only good for a year’. Now they’re saying just the opposite.
“I sometimes wonder if a lot of this has to do with money. I have to think it’s going to hurt starting pitchers in arbitration. Some of their biggest arguing points were innings and wins. I looked it up the other day. In 2011 there were 40 pitchers with 200 or more innings. This year it looks like there will be only 11.”
If, as Melvin suggests, money really is a factor here then Manfred and the MLB owners probably don’t care if starting pitchers are losing their value. But he absolutely should care about the proliferation of pitching changes that are dragging down the games. A good start will be to finally resolve this September roster expansion issue so every team is playing on an even field, with a designated number of players deemed eligible for each game, preferably no more than 28.