Earlier in the week, Rob Manfred laid out some ideas that the sport could consider to both increase run scoring and improve the pace of play. While those seem like competing priorities, there is some evidence that both can be obtained simultaneously, though it seems unlikely that either restricting the shift or implementing a pitch clock would move the game in both directions. Instead, if MLB wants to make changes that serve both interests, they should probably pick a different approach.
If there’s been one significant change to the game over the last 30 years that has both extended the amount of standing-around-doing-nothing time during games and tipped the balance in favor of run prevention, it has been the expansion of the modern-day bullpen. Jonah Keri and Neil Paine covered this well in a piece at FiveThirtyEight last August, and because I like the graph they used in their piece, I’m going to steal it and embed it below.
This graph tells the story that you probably already knew; we’re seeing twice as many relievers used per game now as we were 40 years ago. Bullpen management has become a race to see who can swap out the most pitchers in the time it takes to record nine outs, which has both prolonged the time it takes to play the final three innings and put hitters at a larger disadvantage in high leverage situations. As teams have become more aware of the times through the order penalty, the multi-inning reliever has mostly gone away, replaced by an army of platoon specialists who do one particular thing very well.
And as Jonah and Neil showed in another very pretty chart that I’m about to steal, bullpen specialization has worked pretty well. The chart below shows how effective relievers have become since their job was sliced into smaller portions and they were asked to face fewer batters per appearance.
So, we now have more relievers pitching more effectively than ever. If we could reduce the number of relievers used per game, we could theoretically shorten the game and increase offense at the same time. So, what kind of change could be implemented to reduce the number of relievers being deployed each game? My crazy suggestion: each team can only use four pitchers in the first nine innings of a game.
With just three pitching changes allowed in games that don’t go to extra innings, managers would have to be far more judicious in when they attempted to attempted to exploit a platoon advantage. Specialists would still have a spot in the game, but their impact in early the innings would be greatly reduced, as a manager would be unlikely to burn one of his pitching changes in the 6th or 7th inning without knowing that the non-specialists behind him would be able to get the rest of the necessary outs.
This limit on pitching changes would make starting pitchers who can work deep into the game far more valuable, as a team who gets seven or even eight innings from their starting pitcher would immediately have a competitive advantage in their bullpen usage. The times through the order penalty currently makes it somewhat unwise to let your starter work too deep into a close game but this would re-incentivize a skill that starters already place a significant value on.
And it may very well cause starting pitchers (and teams building their rotations) to alter their early-game pitching strategies. With only three relievers available, getting as many outs from your starter as possible becomes highly advantageous, which means that running up a high pitch count by attempting to strike everyone out early in the game comes with a higher cost. The pitch-to-contact strike-throwers who can record 21 to 24 outs on a reasonable pitch count see an immediate spike in value, while the guys who nibble on the corners and can only get 15-18 outs with four walks and eight strikeouts see their value drop.
The increased value of pitch efficiency would create a natural disincentive for pitchers to go for a high walk/high strikeout approach, allowing the game to move back towards more balls in play. Offense would almost certainly increase, as hitters would get to face starting pitchers a third or fourth time through the order more often and would get the platoon advantage more often than they do now. Fewer pitching changes should help reduce the amount of stand-around-and-wait time, and there would be a new level of strategy involved with bullpen management.
Do you deploy your bullpen aces — each of whom are probably groomed for two inning stints, or at least trained to have the ability to get six outs on a regular basis if needed — immediately after your starting pitcher departs, allowing you to get to the ninth inning with multiple pitching changes left so you can take advantage of a platoon advantage in the 9th inning, knowing you still have an extra bullpen arm to swap out your specialist before he has to face too many opposite handed hitters? Or do you stick with the idea of a traditional closer, and simply have more versatile setup men who can pitch more like relievers used to?
Or, maybe you even go to a tandem-starter system, using two pitchers to each go four innings, leaving you with two options to protect a ninth-inning lead? A risk-seeker could even push towards a system of three pitchers planning to pitch three innings each, but with only one extra arm available, you’d be playing with fire if any of those three didn’t have their best stuff or weren’t at 100% on any given day. But if you know you’re only using four pitchers per day and you run a 12 man pitching staff, you could potentially have three sets of four pitchers who work in teams and each pitch every fourth day. You’d probably need a couple of position players who could throw non-embarrassing innings in any game that goes to extras, though.
More likely, teams would start pushing their starters a little bit longer, trying to get back to the days when their first pitcher averaged 21 outs, rather than the 17-18 we’re at today, leaving the manager with three relievers for the final two innings. Pitchers like Clayton Kershaw or Felix Hernandez, who regularly work into the eighth inning, would become even more valuable, giving their teams significant advantages due to their dominance and durability. The Francisco Lirianos of the world would be more likely to get transitioned to multi-inning relief roles, with starting pitchers trending towards the Tim Hudson type instead.
Fewer pitching changes, more runs scored, and probably fewer strikeouts. At least in theory, this could check a lot of boxes for things that could make baseball more enjoyable for the casual fan.
Of course, this isn’t the only way to get at these same ideas. After I started working on the concept for this post, Ken Rosenthal wrote a piece in a similar vein, and his suggestion is the one I’ve heard proposed the most: force pitchers to face more than one batter. Rather than having a limit on pitchers, that kind of proposal would eliminate the specialist position entirely, and would get at the same concept of fewer pitching changes and more advantageous match-ups for hitters.
Quick aside: One of the clear problems with suggestions like pitcher limits or batter minimums is that pitchers get hurt and need to be removed from games for health reasons. There would have to be some kind of allowance for a team to remove a pitcher for a health exception and not have it count against their pitching change limit, but perhaps you require any pitcher removed using that exception to be placed on some version of a disabled list, whether it’s the full 15 day or some shorter list created for this purpose. These kinds of hurdles could be accounted for in the rule changes.
I think a pitcher limit has a few more strategic advantages, as it would incentivize changes in starting pitcher usage that minimum batters faced for relievers would not. While the batter minimum would likely limit the utility of specialists, I’m not so sure we want to completely eliminate unique pitchers from the game; I like watching side-arm specialists, personally. Giving the manager more flexibility to use these types of guys, as long as his other pitchers have created a situation where he can do so, makes the game perhaps a little more interesting.
Alternately, if a per-game limit proved to be too drastic of a change, a per-series limit could be an interesting option. If we said that a team could use 12 pitchers in a three game series, we’d perhaps get many of the same benefits of reduced reliever usage while maintaining more flexibility for the manager to remove a pitcher who is struggling or need to have his workload more closely managed. With a per-series limit, perhaps you’d ensure that your young hurler with command problems pitched the day after your #1 starter, giving you more flexibility to use five or six relievers behind your developing arm because you think you can get away with using just two or three on the day your ace goes.
These would not be minor changes to the game, certainly, but we’ve actually seen this version of baseball before. In 1975, for instance, 96% of nine inning games were pitched with four pitchers are fewer, as it was exceedingly rare for a team to need five arms to get through a regulation game. The game has evolved because there are incentives to using more pitchers to reduce run scoring, but baseball does work with three or four guys handling a nine inning workload between them.
So perhaps its time to consider that maybe that kind of game is more enjoyable than allowing teams to march towards the day when nine pitchers go one inning apiece. If we know baseball teams can get through nine innings with only four pitchers, maybe it’s time to consider making them do so once again.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.