The Other, Other Extreme of 2017

CLEVELAND — If you’ve found your way to this article, it likely means that you’re an educated baseball fan and aware of how certain elements of the game have trended toward the extremes in recent years — in particular, as marked by the home-run and strikeout records of 2017. Much hand-wringing has occurred over the lack of balls in play this season.

But there’s another extreme that’s developed, as well, one that’s received a bit less attention perhaps: the share of innings absorbed by bullpens.

Bullpens have never accounted for as much work as they did in 2017. Relievers combined to throw 16,496.2 innings this year, bettering the previous mark of 15,893.0 set way back in… 2016. Relievers combined to throw over 1,000 innings more than just two years earlier in 2015 (15,184.1) and nearly 3,000 more than in the first year of the 30-team era in 1998 (13,968.2).

To look at it another way, bullpens accounted for a record 38.1% of innings this season — and that rate has continued to inch up in the modern era. In 1959, just 21.3% of innings were pitched in a relief capacity. In 1969, that figure increased to 26.4%, to 28.9% in 1979, and then 33.7% in 1999. It’s a trend myself and others have documented in recent years.

The workhorse starting pitcher is endangered. Only 15 starters reached the 200-inning threshold this season, matching last year’s mark, which is the lowest on record.

Heading into this postseason, there has been some interest in the idea of bullpen-ing in situations like the Wild Card games. Managers like Joe Girardi and Clint Hurdle have been reluctant to employ such tactics in unusual situations in recent years. Girardi will start his ace Luis Severino tonight in the winner-take-all game against the Twins.

Not that the Twins are the ideal test case for bullpen-ing a Wild Card game, but I asked Twins manager Paul Molitor for his thoughts on the subject last week in Cleveland.

“I hear [the] theories, people looking for ways to look outside the box,” Molitor said. “Some of it might depend a little bit on your personnel and how rested your starter might be. If you had to play these games out to the last day of the season and your option was your fifth starter or maybe have a bullpen day, and you had a really good bullpen, there are times where I could see that you have to give consideration to it.

“But if you have your [top] starter who is going to be on full rest… There’s a reason he is your first starter.”

Baseball doesn’t seem ready to bullpen, but baseball better get ready to bullpen.

We’re headed toward a future when there might be only a handful of starters who reach 200 innings, and a limited number to reach, say, 170. Forty-five major-league starters reached 170 innings this season, 35 reached 180. For sake of comparison, consider: in 1990, 69 pitchers reached 170 innings, 63 reached 180 innings, and 42 reached 200.

We’re inching toward a future where bullpen-ing is considered not just in unusual situations but when the traditional structure of a pitching staff has to be rethought.

Injury has played a role in this trend — so, too, has specialization — plus managers and decision-makers looking for platoon advantages and fresh arms. But the amateur feeder system is also responsible, one that continues to give the professional game flawed arms: pitchers who can light up radar guns and impress observers in showcase settings but lack the feel for the craft and depth of repertoire to attack lineups deeper into games.

Back in the spring of 2016, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington outlined a future that seems quite plausible to this author for the benefit of the piece linked above:

“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.”

I think it’s quite possible that the future of baseball could include two or three starting pitchers per staff — starters, that is, as we conceive of them in the traditional sense. In the back and middle of rotations, meanwhile, is where we’ll see tandem starters or bullpen-ing or, at the very least, an increase in importance of multi-inning relievers.

While the 25-man roster creates limitation on how specialized a bullpen could be today, we could see 13-member staffs become more common, and the lack of innings being thrown by starters might be reason to compel baseball to expand rosters to 26.

So while bullpen-ing became a subject for these unusual play-in Wild Card game scenarios and hasn’t been adopted by managers, it could become an everyday talking point — and sooner than we think.

As baseball has demonstrated the last few years, it can change quickly and dramatically in ways we never thought possible. The speed of change can surprise us.





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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mike sixel
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mike sixel

Other than fear, there really is no good reason not to try it. The Twins had no pitching a few years ago, and rather than try piggy backing and going with 1-3 “starters”, they tried to piece together a terrible starting staff. Some of those pitchers might have been effective in shorter outings. We know that multiple times thru the order hurts even great pitchers…..why do it with bad pitchers? Pretty sure more than a few people have posted how this could be done in the comments here for several years. But, we know that the team/FO that tries it, and fails, will get ROASTED and fired. It’s why NFL coaches don’t go for two more often, or why they punt on 4th and short inside the other team’s territory. Fear of doing something “not accepted” and losing your job.

LMOTFOTE
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LMOTFOTE

But they’ve been rebuilding so why should we expect they will have a solid 1-5 rotation? Sometimes you do just have to fill in the pieces while the roster is bring built up. No matter what, these recent Twins teams were going to be using some bad pitchers. Even for tomorrow’s game, I don’t think the Twins are setup too well for a bullpen game. Getting 5+ good innings from Ervin is their best bet (or putting a lot of runs on the board somehow).

Francoeurstein
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Francoeurstein

That reminds me of a Malcolm Gladwell podcast where he talks about Wilt Chamberlain and how he had his best free-throw % season while shooting underhanded, but reverted back to normal because he didn’t want to “shoot like a sissy” even though he was more successful doing so. It’s gonna take a manger or GM with a low-threshold personality to employ this strategy, but I think it could work if executed correctly.