If good starting pitching is your jam, there’s a whole lot of it left. Only four teams now remain in the playoffs, but they’re possibly or probably the two best teams from each league, which would mean they’re the most talented. And there’s plenty of talent to find spread across the rotations. The Red Sox rotation begins with Chris Sale, and no matter what you think of David Price in the postseason, his overall body of work is that of an ace. The Astros rotation is excellent front to back, and it’s headed by Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. The Dodgers still have Clayton Kershaw, who’s still great, and Walker Buehler has been a dynamic rookie. Hyun-Jin Ryu wound up with a sub-2 ERA. And there’s still more talent where all that came from. The role of the starting pitcher remains alive and (mostly) well. Every team wants to have at least one ace, and more if they can get it.
But of the remaining teams, the Brewers stand out. The Brewers have assembled a strong and deep bullpen, and they’re not afraid to use it. Their rotation is easily the weakest of the four, yet they know it, and they’ll work to keep it from getting overexposed. The Brewers won’t be relying that heavily on their starters. And even the other teams are likely to go to the bullpen sooner than they would’ve a decade ago. The role of the starter is shrinking. People got mad at Aaron Boone for not quickly pulling his starters in the third and fourth innings. The A’s bullpenned their wild-card game. The Brewers already bullpenned a game of their own.
This is the season that provided us with the opener. This is the season that introduced the bulk guy. This is the season with teams not hesitating to go all-bullpen in the playoffs. We’re all by now aware of the trends within the game. My question to you is: is this good?
The other day, Ben Lindbergh and I were talking about this on Effectively Wild. And, conveniently for these purposes, Ben just put up a whole feature at The Ringer on Thursday morning. If you haven’t read it already, you should. Much of the information, you might already know. Each season now brings us more pitchers than ever. Starters are throwing fewer innings than ever. Starters are finishing games less often than ever. Complete games are such an extreme rarity that they’re nearly extinct. It’s hardly even controversial anymore to pull a guy in the process of a no-hitter if his pitch count’s too high. For the most part, starters still start. It’s after that that we’re seeing a decline. And then there’s the additional concept of the opener, and the bullpen game. You can see why starters might feel under attack. The evidence is compelling.
You’ve heard about these trends. You’ve thought about these trends. But have you considered whether you support these trends? Not that you really have that much power to stop them. But, ultimately, baseball is entertainment. As a consequence of the decline of the starter, do you find the game more or less entertaining?
The way Ben lays it out, which I agree with, the starter has long served as the protagonist. Or maybe I should say, the starters have served as the protagonists. Historically, games have revolved around them, revolved around how dominant they look, or how tired they might be getting. There was value in chasing a starter early, because if you worked him enough, or hit him enough, you could then feast on the soft underbelly of the bullpen. There was strategy around the starter, and there was a story around the starter. On any given day, the starters were likely to be the most important participants in a game. So often, as the starter went, so went the team.
With the role of the starter diminishing, the significance of the starter is diminishing. Games are now more likely to be decided after the starters are gone, and the soft bullpen underbellies are fewer and further between, with power arms with good sliders popping up everywhere. We hardly even need to think about starter fatigue these days, because by the time a guy is wearing down, there’ll be two strikeout relievers already warm. Starters can increasingly just go air it out. Then they’re replaced by relievers who go air it out. Many of the relievers are effectively anonymous, a good number constantly shuttling between Triple-A and the majors. We might, as fans, feel less connected to the relievers. But it’s all in the name of winning, right?
That’s why we’re seeing so much of what we’re seeing. The A’s bullpenned against the Yankees because they thought it would give them the best chance to win. The Rays embraced the opener because they thought it would give them the best chance to win. Managers are staying away from using starters for a third time through the order because they think it will give them the best chance to win. Across so many different subjects, fans seem to prioritize winning over everything else. Do you find that this is one of those cases, or do you miss the way that things were? Is pitcher-usage optimization working for or against the entertainment value of the product?
There is no right or wrong answer. Your opinion is your own, and your opinion is valid. I’m only publishing this because, for as much as we’ve already read about the decline of the starter, I’ve never seen anything to indicate how people feel about it. I’ve mostly only seen graphs. Anecdotally, on Twitter, I’ve seen people complain that they miss having workhorses. I’ve seen people complain about the bullpen revolving door. But I’ve also had a good number of Rays fans suggest that they found this season especially exciting, in large part because of the usage of the pitching staff. In 2018, perhaps the starting pitcher is something of an outdated construct. I have no idea where public sentiment lies, hence the poll at the bottom of this post. This is only one small and selective audience, but it’s better than nothing. Collectively, you all consume an awful lot of baseball.
The starting pitcher isn’t dead, and, by definition, every game for the rest of time will have two pitchers who start it. But the old, familiar model is gradually eroding. This has been going on for a very long time, and I’m not sure what would cause the trend to stop. Starters are working less than they ever have. The stories of the games are changing as a result. The way we watch games is changing as a result. You’re a baseball fan, presumably. Baseball is presenting itself differently. Does that make you happy, sad, or somewhere in between? Thank you all in advance for your votes.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.