The Incredible Shrinking Postseason Starter

Don’t blame the Dodgers. Or don’t just blame the Dodgers. While the defending champions used Corey Knebel as an opener in back-to-back postseason games to finish the Division Series and begin the League Championship Series (albeit under very different circumstances), starting pitchers throughout this postseason are throwing fewer innings than ever. Thus far this October, starts of three innings or fewer outnumber those of six innings or more by 60%! More than one-third of all starting pitchers are getting the hook before they reach double digits in outs, and even the aces aren’t pitching deep into games as frequently.

Sunday night’s NLCS Game 2 between the Braves and Dodgers provided yet another example. Before Ian Anderson even recorded an out, he was down 2-0 thanks to a Mookie Betts single and a Corey Seager homer. He faced seven batters in the first inning, and while he had a 1-2-3 second, he put two men on in the third, after which manager Brian Snitker elected to pull him for a pinch-hitter.

Opposite number Max Scherzer, after being pushed back a day due to his Division Series Game 5-saving effort, held the Braves scoreless through three innings but walked Austin Riley and then gave up a titanic game-tying homer to Joc Pederson in the fourth; when the lineup turned over after he recorded his first out of the fifth, manager Dave Roberts pulled him in favor lefty Alex Vesia — the second time in three postseason starts that Scherzer has exited before completing five innings. For as much of an affront as this might have been to purists, the 37-year-old future Hall of Famer conceded afterwards, “My arm was dead. I could tell when I was warming up that it was still tired… I wasn’t going to be able to get truly deep into a game, and I wasn’t going to be able to get to that 95, 100-pitch count.”

It’s not just the teams that are on the short end of postseason series that are pulling their starters early. The Red Sox made it past the 100-win Rays in the Division Series despite getting three starts of fewer than three innings, two of them from staff ace Chris Sale (the Rays, for their part, got more than three innings out of their starter in just one out of the four games). The Dodgers won the NL Wild Card game and then eked out a five-game Division Series win despite only getting starts of six innings or longer in their two losses to the Giants. Here’s how the 10 postseason teams stack up:

Postseason Starts, Short and Long
Team 3 IP or Fewer 6 IP or More Status
Rays 3 0 Lost ALDS
Astros 3 1 In ALCS
Red Sox 3 0 In ALCS
Dodgers 2 2 In NLCS
White Sox 2 0 Lost ALDS
Giants 1 2 Lost NLDS
Yankees 1 0 Lost WC
Braves 1 3 In NLCS
Brewers 0 2 Lost NLDS
Cardinals 0 0 Lost WC
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Three of the four remaining teams have combined to get one start of six innings or longer in a victory thus far. That one belongs to Lance McCullers Jr., who tossed 6.2 shutout innings for the Astros against the White Sox in the Division Series opener. That McCullers was left off the ALCS roster due to forearm discomfort and might be done for the year might only be a coincidence, but with a career-high 162.1 innings under his belt, and a 107.1-inning increase from last year’s workload, it’s also possible that he went a bridge too far.

Starting pitchers working short in October isn’t exactly a new development, of course. I’ve been tracking the postseason usage patterns of starters in this space for the past few years, noting the extent to which they parallel what we’re seeing in the regular season. But what we’ve seen lately are things we haven’t seen before, namely the length of the average start dipping below five innings, and starters’ share of innings collectively dipping below 56% (i.e., five innings per nine).

Both of those eye-opening developments had something to do with the conditions under which teams played during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. The combination of larger rosters and a shortened second preseason (a.k.a. summer camp) meant pitchers and pitching changes galore; at the start of the season, teams were allowed to carry 30 players, and even in the postseason, they could carry 28. Concerns about ramping up pitcher workloads from last year’s 60-game seasons back to 162-game seasons led many teams to dial down pitch counts and innings totals this year, with some even deploying six-man rotations; the overall share of starts made on five or more days of rest jumped from 55.6% in 2019 to 63.8% in ’21.

Here’s a look at how regular season starting pitcher usage has evolved over the past seven regular seasons:

Starting Pitcher Regular Season Performance 2015-21
Season IP/GS Change Starter IP% K% BB% HR/9 ERA ERA- FIP FIP-
2015 5.81 -2.60% 65.0% 19.5% 7.10% 1.06 4.10 103 4.03 102
2016 5.65 -2.80% 63.3% 20.2% 7.70% 1.24 4.34 104 4.30 103
2017 5.51 -2.40% 61.9% 20.6% 8.10% 1.34 4.49 103 4.48 103
2018 5.36 -2.80% 59.9% 21.6% 8.00% 1.21 4.19 101 4.21 101
2019 5.18 -3.40% 57.9% 22.3% 7.70% 1.44 4.54 101 4.51 100
2020 4.78 -7.70% 55.5% 22.9% 8.30% 1.3 4.46 100 4.46 100
2021 5.02 5.10% 57.3% 22.6% 7.80% 1.33 4.34 102 4.30 101

Strictly speaking, the sub-five-inning average proved to be transient, but starters still worked less than ever over the course of a full season. Keep in mind that rosters were still just 25 players in 2019; that extra pitcher this year — or pitchers, since the churning of optionable relievers at the bottom of the bullpen food chain has become more pervasive — has made a difference in cutting into starter workloads.

Against that backdrop, the length of the average start in October 2021 hasn’t just dipped below five innings, it’s plummeting towards four:

Regular vs. Postseason Start Length 2015-21
Year Reg IP/GS Post IP/GS Dif
2015 5.81 5.51 -5.2%
2016 5.65 5.11 -9.6%
2017 5.51 4.73 -14.1%
2018 5.36 4.68 -12.7%
2019 5.18 5.14 -0.9%
2020 4.78 4.40 -8.0%
2021 5.02 4.07 -19.1%

Starters have averaged fewer than five innings in three Octobers out of the past four; the 2019 postseason, with the likes of Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, and Scherzer leading the way, was the exception. This year, the gap between regular season innings and postseason innings is the largest it’s been during this stretch (it might be the largest ever, but I didn’t check).

What’s more, this is the second postseason in a row where relievers have thrown the majority of innings:

Regular vs. Postseason Starter Innings Share 2015-21
Year Reg Starter IP% Post Starter IP% Dif
2015 65.0% 60.5% -4.5%
2016 63.3% 56.8% -6.5%
2017 61.9% 53.5% -8.5%
2018 59.9% 50.3% -9.6%
2019 57.9% 57.7% -0.2%
2020 55.5% 49.9% -5.6%
2021 57.3% 46.0% -11.3%

As to the actual performances of this year’s postseason starters, as a group they’re not as terrible as the low innings totals suggest:

Postseason Starting Pitcher Performance 2015-21
Season GS IP IP/GS Pit/GS BF/GS 6+ IP% 3- IP% ERA FIP R/GS
2015 72 396.7 5.51 88.4 22.8 50.0% 12.5% 4.33 4.17 2.85
2016 70 357.7 5.11 82.6 21.1 34.3% 10.0% 3.88 3.86 2.29
2017 76 359.7 4.73 79.6 19.9 32.9% 19.7% 4.08 4.32 2.33
2018 66 309.0 4.68 75.2 19.5 28.8% 22.7% 3.90 3.96 2.08
2019 74 380.0 5.14 84.9 21.4 44.6% 13.5% 3.36 3.91 2.09
2020 106 466.3 4.40 75.6 18.8 26.4% 23.6% 4.25 4.55 2.20
2021 46 187.0 4.07 68.7 17.2 21.7% 34.8% 4.19 3.40 1.91
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
2021 through games of October 2017 (two games of ALCS and NLCS). 6+ IP% = percentage of starts lasting six or more innings. 3- IP% = percentage of starts lasting three or fewer innings.

By ERA, the postseason starters don’t look great, though their ERA is 0.15 lower than in the regular season; last year it was 0.21 lower, but in 2019 it was 1.08 lower. But where starters have generally outperformed their peripherals in recent years, that hasn’t been the case thus far.

As noted near the beginning of this piece, more than a third of all postseason starts are ending after three innings or fewer; that’s up 47% relative to last year, which set a record for such things, and 53% over 2018, if you prefer an apples-to-apples comparison regarding playoff formats and full seasons. Meanwhile, where half of all postseason starts lasted six or more innings as recently as 2015, and spiked above 44% in ’19, they’re less than half as frequent this year:

Back to the table above, it’s worth calling attention to two columns. First, note that the average number of batters faced has fallen towards and now below 18. Managers are making the call to the bullpen right around the time their starters turn over the lineup, giving them fewer chances to get knocked around while going trough the order a third time. This number has been trending downward during the regular season as well, with the average starter facing 22.7 batters in 2018, 22.1 in ’19, 20.4 last year, and 21.3 this year. During the regular season, starters may still face the meat of the order a third time with some regularity, but fewer and fewer are getting that chance in October, even with fifth starters left off the rosters or consigned to bullpen duty.

Second, note the R/GS column, the average number of runs surrendered per start. We don’t often see run prevention expressed this way; it’s almost universally prorated per nine innings. But what we’re seeing here is that increasingly, managers are preemptively pulling their starters before the opposition can put up big innings; once you’ve given up that second run, there’s a good chance your night is almost done.

As to why all of this is happening, it’s probably a combination of factors. With so many pitchers having increased their year-over-year workloads by over 100 innings — Scherzer by 112, Max Fried by 109.2, Julio Urías by 130.2, Charlie Morton by 147.2, and Walker Buehler by 170, and that’s just in the NLCS — we’re probably seeing teams exercise more caution than they would outside the shadow of the pandemic, particularly given the increased injury rates we saw this year. As The Athletic’s Jayson Stark recently wrote while citing data from Baseball Prospectus‘ Derek Rhoads, “Teams had to use the non-COVID-19 IL for pitchers an incredible 534 times this season. That’s up an astonishing 44 percent from both 2019 (370) and 2018 (367). The math works out to about 18 pitchers heading for the IL per team!”

Beyond the injury factor, the structure of the postseason, with its extra off days, allows for heavier reliance upon bullpens, particularly early in the playoffs, before teams have reached the portion of seven-game series where they play three in a row. That point begins this week, so we may see these downward usage trends abate a bit. With larger bullpens than existed two years ago being applied to the more familiar postseason format (as opposed to last year’s extra round), managers can be more liberal with their bullpen usage.

Like so much else in today’s game, this trend offends purists, and probably isn’t great for captivating casual fans who tune in at this time of year to see star pitchers doing what they do best rather than the endless parade of relievers. Still, this isn’t 1968 or 2001, and particularly with the pandemic-shortened season looming in the background, we’re unlikely to see a drastic change as the remainder of this postseason plays out.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

I try to be open minded about the progression of the game, but this is something that’s always gonna bother me. Let ‘em rip!

2 years ago
Reply to  Francoeurstein

Makes for a less entertaining product.

Much like the situation the NBA faced some years back when the Pistons were winning championships playing physical defense and winning low scoring games.

2 years ago

haha. Maybe then it’s not a coincidence that I both really enjoy baseball today AND absolutely loved the 2004 Pistons when I was a teenager and still cared about the NBA. Ben Wallace was my favorite player back then. So much energy and hustle!

I’m just a weirdo

2 years ago
Reply to  Sæder

I think he means the late 80s Pistons?

2 years ago

agreed soddingjunkmail. completely get the analytics behind it, but it’s just not as fun to watch. wonder what (if anything) mlb will do about it. can’t outlaw hand-checks in baseball…