Death of the Long Man

Over the last 40 seasons, there have been 752 player seasons where a reliever pitched at least eighty innings out of the bullpen and averaged at least 1 1/3 innings pitched per appearances. Last year was the first and only season of the last 40 where not a single player met that criteria. Increased reliever specialization and larger bullpens have minimized the long reliever, and those who have been given the long reliever role tend to be the low man in the bullpen hierarchy. That was not always the case, and the decreased offensive environment could be a good opportunity to reintroduce the good long reliever to baseball.

In the not too distant past, long relievers were a regular fixture on teams. Relievers making regular appearances longer than two innings has always been a rarity, but some teams had relievers truly earning the the title of long relievers. From 1975-2014, just 110 relievers pitched at least 80 innings and averaged more than two innings per appearance, but those seasons have all but disappeared in the last two decades.

relievers_averaging_two_innings_per_appearance_since_1975 (1)
Strike seasons of 1981 and 1994 are omitted

Only knuckle-baller Steve Sparks and Minnesota Twins pitcher Anthony Swarzak have had reliever seasons totaling more than 80 innings averaging at least two innings per appearance in the last two decades. Expecting relievers to average more than two innings per start when it was never really prevalent is unrealistic. However, setting the target a little lower brings forward a role that was common in prior years. Here are the players per year with at least 80 innings and an average of 1 1/3 innings pitched per appearance.

relievers_averaging_1_13_innings_pitched_per_appearance (1)

Teams regularly used at least one reliever who would appear consistently and go at least an inning. The numbers dropped to roughly half the teams during the 90s, and dropped even lower over the past decade. Last season, no reliever averaged more than 1 1/3 innings and pitched at least 80 innings. The swingman role, where a pitcher might move back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation is another effective strategy to get better pitchers more innings, but it is not common either. Over the last five years, just 22 players have made at least 40 appearances,more than five starts, and totaled more than 80 innings pitched. The swingman is barely alive, and the effective long reliever appears to be dead.

The long man at one point time was a solid player, around league average, but the quality of players used in that role has declined over time. As the number of long relievers has declined, so has their effectiveness. The chart below shows the average number of innings by long relievers (relievers averaging more than 1 1/3 IP), the average WAR, and the average number of innings per win.

1975-1984 0.96 100 104
1985-1994 0.93 96 103
1995-2004 0.73 92 126
2005-2014 0.59 86 146

Up through the strike, the pitchers utilized in a long reliever role were roughly average, but in the last 20 years their performance has declined. Pitchers are rarely asked to get important outs and pitch more than one inning, decreasing their high leverage situations and their importance to the team. Using a good pitcher, perhaps someone who just missed out on the rotation, should provide the manager with more opportunities to give a long reliever important outs.

An alternative to taking a player nearly starter-worthy and putting him in the bullpen is the six-man rotation. While it does have its proponents, there are several problems with its implementation. First, it removes established veterans from their routine and potentially gives them fewer starts. Even if only used for lesser starters, it still asks pitchers to make outings at least as long they are currently making, potentially leaving the bullpen short a man and exposing them to hitters more than two times per game.

Piggybacking a starter could work, allowing all players to work on normal rest, and have one pseudo-starter relieve one of the starters for multiple innings. Unfortunately, that plan still leaves the bullpen short a player for most games. Getting a multi-inning performance twice a week eases some of the pressure on the rest of the bullpen. Given an average of three innings per night for the bullpen and 6.2 games per week over the 26-week season, the bullpen needs to cover around 19 innings per week. Giving one good reliever even 3 1/3 innings per week in two of those games ends up with one of a team’s better relievers pitching 90 innings a season in higher leverage situations than the modern long man. The remaining six members of the pen need to average roughly 66 innings per season, making five one-inning appearances every two weeks.

Using a potential starter as long reliever also serves to keep that reliever more stretched out in case the need for a starter should arise without having to sacrifice his innings to the minor leagues. For organizations worried about increasing innings loads for young pitchers, using a pitcher as a long reliever ensures that the innings jump moving from reliever to starter is lessened. As starters feel the drop in effectiveness as they face the third time through the order penalty, a good long reliever can provide important, valuable innings bridging the gap to the late innings. Not every organization is equipped to use a reliever in this way. Looking at the FanGraphs Depth Charts for pitchers who might not win a starting spot out of Spring Training, but have good projections as starters reveals potential long reliever candidates. The list is not exhaustive and some players could still be starters come April, but here a few candidates for long reliever roles.

Tanner Roark 6.5 1.9 0.9 0.295 73.1 % 3.47 3.67
Marco Gonzales 7.8 3.0 0.9 0.298 74.0 % 3.62 3.84
Adam Warren 8.1 3.1 0.9 0.298 73.3 % 3.67 3.79
David Phelps 7.7 3.4 0.8 0.304 72.0 % 3.82 3.83
Yusmeiro Petit 8.6 2.0 0.9 0.300 73.9 % 3.32 3.30
Chase Anderson 8.0 2.8 1.1 0.304 72.8 % 3.92 3.95

Roark is getting pushed out of the rotation through not fault of his own. After signing Max Scherzer, the Washington Nationals have a starting five that is tough to crack. Roark could find a home as a set-up man, but his lack of strikeout stuff would be unusual for that role. Using him more innings at a time would keep him ready to start and get him more innings for the Nationals. Marco Gonzales could also find himself outside of the rotation for the St. Louis Caridnals. If Jaime Garcia manages to stay healthy for another few weeks and wins a rotation spot, the Cardinals might have two candidates in Gonzales and Carlos Martinez. With a rotation full of age and injury question marks, a multiple-inning reliever could be very useful for the team. Gonzales pitched out of the bullpen in the playoffs last season and getting him multiple innings at a time at the big league level could help one of the Cardinals’ top prospects develop while still contributing to the major league team.

Petit pitched well as a swingman last season, and Phelps could further feel the squeeze when Jose Fernandez returns making both players good candidates to pitch in long relief. The good long reliever has virtually disappeared from the majors, replaced by the mop-up man at the end of the bullpen. Using potential starters as long relievers helps the MLB team and spurs development for young players. The long reliever might be gone, but hopefully it has not been forgotten.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Buctober 2015
Buctober 2015

Pirates are dealing with this issue now with Locke and Worley Fightng for the last rotation spot and both of them out of options