As baseball’s postseason gets ready to crash-land its nail-biting, drama-soaked, all-or-nothing awesomeness onto your television screen beginning Tuesday night, we can’t help but think about how the game has changed over the last few years.
The newfound parity, the rise of defensive shifts, the decline of the power hitter who also hits .340.
But there’s one trend that’s been taking shape over the past few years that begs an evolutionary, potentially game-changing question:
Will the starting pitcher soon go the way of the honey bee? (Or the lowland gorilla, the humpback whale, the green sea turtle, the tiger, and if politicians continue to deny climate change, humans)?
The age of relief pitcher specialization has been minimalizing the impact of starting pitching for decades now–most annoyingly thanks to Tony LaRussa, who would use as many relievers as he possibly could to get through the late innings, matching up lefties and righties and walking out to the mound like one of those Fitbit-wearing maniacs trying to get their steps in.
Last year, the Kansas City Royals won the World Series despite having a starting rotation in which one pitcher (Edinson Volquez) threw over 200 innings and just one pitcher (again, Edinson Volquez) had a sub-4.00 ERA.
Sure, Kansas City’s offense was a big part of its success, thanks in large part to a bunch of gritty, never-say-die contact hitters who had a knack for coming through in the clutch and keeping rallies going.
But the Royals’ bullpen–led by Wade Davis (67 IP, 0.94 ERA), Kelvin Herrera (69.2 IP, 2.71 ERA), Ryan Madson (63.1 IP, 2.13 ERA), and Franklin Morales (62.1 IP, 3.18 ERA), was the key to its championship run.
KC’s pen would shut opposing hitters down from the 6th or 7th inning on, putting less physical and mental stress on its starters and keeping hitters guessing by giving them a different, hard-throwing pitcher to look at each at-bat.
This strategy isn’t new to baseball, but the extent of its use has a chance to be.
What if the Royals’ bullpen strategy is just the beginning of a trend that changes the way teams approach pitching?
Instead of asking your starter to throw four or five innings, what if teams limited them to just two or three?
If that sounds crazy, just think about the Royals’ World Series opponent last season.
The New York Mets reached baseball’s biggest stage thanks mostly to a stable of young, hard-throwing pitchers with outstanding stuff. In a different era, the Mets would appear to be on the verge of a dynasty, with four guys—Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz—that possess No. 1 starter-type stuff and another guy–26-year-old Zack Wheeler—who’s battled injuries but has similar expectations.
They were going to be the Atlanta Braves of the 2010’s.
But this year, three of the four—Harvey, deGrom, and Matz—have broken down, sidelined for the season with all-too-common injuries. Wheeler also missed his second straight season after suffering a setback following Tommy John surgery.
That kind of misfortune would seem downright tragic if it hadn’t become commonplace in recent years. Think about all of the big-name, hard-throwing pitchers who have suffered serious injuries:
Harvey. Matz. deGrom. Wheeler. Stephen Strasburg. Matt Moore. Adam Wainright. The list goes on and on-–and those are just the guys who have had Tommy John surgery.
There are many reasons why major injury has almost become a rite of passage for young pitchers in the last decade or so. Guys are throwing harder than ever before. In some cases, they’re pitching way more than ever before. In some cases, they’re babied from the time they are babies. There are also theories about everything from high-stress innings to changes in the mound.
The one thing that seems to be clear is that this trend isn’t going away.
And some teams have already adapted to that.
The Baltimore Orioles, who won 89 games and earned themsleves a spot in the A.L. Wildcard game on Tuesday night against Toronto, followed in Kansas City’s footsteps this season by leaning on its lights-out bullpen instead of mediocre starters.
Their starting staff, led by Kevin Gausman (179.2 IP, 3.61 ERA) and Chris Tillman (172 IP, 3.77 ERA) was average at best, and even included three guys who had ERA’s well over 5.00.
But thanks to closer Zach Britton, who had an historic season (67 IP, 0.54 ERA) and is in the thick of the Cy Young discussion, and guys like Brad Bach and Vance Worley (a converted starter), they’ve stayed in contention. Only three other American League teams used their bullpen more than the O’s this season, yet the group finished with the third-best bullpen ERA in the game (3.40), behind only the L.A. Dodgers and Washington.
Of course, there are outliers, like the Chicago Cubs, who saw four starters throw close to 200 innings. They, of course, won an MLB-best 103 games.
But like everything else in life, return on investment could be the key to determining whether or not an emphasis on bullpens continue.
Owners don’t want to shell out $200 million contracts to starters, only to see them throw six innings and leave every three months with career-jeopardizing injuries.
A deep, hard-throwing ‘pen (maybe filled with former starters who have great stuff but got hurt too often) could be the key not only to winning games, but to saving money—something almost every owner in baseball no doubt wants to do.
Sure, you’d likely need expanded rosters and a higher luxury tax to make the three-inning starter realistic, but those two things are something players’ union would also no doubt be in favor of.
In baseball, just like in nature, you either adapt, or you die.
Just ask the lowland gorilla.
And if current trends continue, we could be seeing a whole lot of pitching changes in the future.
Tell your kid to grab his glove.