Pitching Labels Are Increasingly Irrelevant

David Robertson has flourished in a multi-inning role this postseason. (Photo: Keith Allison)

Current Cy Young-candidate Chris Sale and former Cy Young-winner Justin Verlander faced off last Monday in Game 4 of the ALDS on a dreary afternoon in Boston. It’s the kind of matchup that grabs our collective attention. It’s how they were matched up, however — each pitcher entering the game out of his respective team’s bullpen — that merits further consideration. For Sale, it marked his first relief appearance since 2012. For Verlander, it was the first time he’d pitched out of the bullpen as a major leaguer.

During LDS play, David Price, Jose Quintana, and Max Scherzer were among the other starting pitchers employed as relievers.

A year after Buck Showaler failed to use Zach Britton in an elimination game and the Indians creatively employed Andrew Miller in the late summer and October to nearly advance to a World Series title, it seems managers (and, by extension, the clubs they represent) are attempting to replicate the latter approach, thinking unconventionally, moving away from tradition to best leverage pitching talent.

We did, of course, witness relievers like Miller, Aroldis Chapman, and Kenley Jansen getting employed in unconventional, sabermetrically sound ways last October. We’ve also seen some aggressive usage patterns from Joe Girardi — who essentially bullpenned the Wild Card game — early this postseason.

Girardi didn’t hesitate to go to his bullpen at the first sign of trouble during New York’s Game 5 in Cleveland, summoning David Robertson and Chapman for multiple innings of work.

The result of it all is that roles are blurring.

At Yahoo, Jeff Passan wrote last week about the trend in pitcher usage towards less defined roles. He quoted the man who convinced Rich Hill to lean on his curveball as his primary pitch, a voice willing to test tradition.

“I almost wonder if we’re getting to a point,” Red Sox VP of pitching development Brian Bannister said, “where roles aren’t defined. I’m not a starter. I’m not a reliever. In the postseason, I get outs.”

There were some interesting opinions circulating the Twittersphere last week regarding whether this pitcher usage is applicable to regular-season play.



The postseason game is very different, of course. There are more off days, there are greater stakes, there are fewer games with which to be concerned, and sometimes there is the prospect of no tomorrow. We should expect the game to be warped here. We should anticipate October to be a time for experiments. There’s often a greater need to try new strategies and depart from accepted practices.

While we should expect the postseason game to be different, the interesting question is whether teams and managers willing to test limits in the postseason will be willing to employ ideas like these in the regular season. Or whether they will soon be forced to move further away from traditional labels in the regular season.

This author wrote last week that bullpenning of some sort represents the future of the game, whether managers and players like it or not. Starters accounted for the lowest percentage of innings in the history of the sport this season. There were only 15 starters to reach the 200-inning threshold in each of the last two seasons, an all-time low. Moreover, only 35 major-league starters reached 180 innings. Just 45 threw 170 innings.

In 1990, 42 pitchers reached 200 innings, 69 threw at least 180 innings, and 83 reached 170 — and that was with four fewer franchises.

Because of the types of athletes being developed, because of the stress on arms in the modern game and the specialization of the sport, the labels and roles assigned to pitchers are becoming less defined.

Said Pirates general manager Neal Huntington to this author and then newspaperman back in spring of 2016:

“Could there be something five, seven, 10 years from now, where instead of five starters trying to go seven innings, you have two trying to get to the seventh inning and (three) trying to get through five?

“That’s where that guy who has two pitches, that’s always been a gun guy (fits). … He can’t give you 100 good pitches, but he can give you 50.”

There’s still room for an ace to pitch deep into games. There’s still a place for an outing like Verlander’s on Saturday night. It’s a classic look that won’t go out of style easily. But there are fewer and fewer workhorse aces like Verlander. There are more and more pitchers being developed to fit less defined roles — pitchers who, when not compelled to face a lineup two or three times, can be very effective. Even Clayton Kershaw was not permitted to see the Cubs for a third time on Saturday night.

The 162-game season presents a different challenge than the postseason — namely, that workloads must be managed. But I do wonder if most pitchers are eventually going to be interchangeable in roles and labels.

With the advent of the 10-day DL and increasing tendency of clubs to use the last bullpen spot as a revolving door to bring up fresh arms, it’s possible that the 200-inning arm will soon become extinct and that the majority of staffs will be occupied by 100- to 150-inning pitchers. The game is already moving there.

Perhaps we’re moving toward a future where there are a few aces but generally no relievers, no starters. Just pitchers.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Joe Joemember
6 years ago

It would not surprise me if some team started using tandem starters with the 4th/5th starters very soon. Teams need about 10 starters. The 6th through 10 reserve starters would need to have options so they could be bouncing back and forth from AAA to majors such that there are still enough roster spots for relievers that stay up in the majors.

6 years ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

In various ways, this is the question that keeps popping up all the time. How do you roster enough pitchers to use them in increased roles while limiting the numbers of innings that the traditional rotation pitchers have thrown in the past. I doubt if more than a few teams could find even a couple of decent starters who have options left. If starters are now only going to give a team 700 innings a year, then relievers will have to throw those innings. There are not many who can pitch 70 games and 100 innings out of the pen and then you are down to the 20th guy on the depth chart. Expanding the rosters would only exacerbate the time and pace of game problem and I already find 13 man staffs appalling.