This is part four of a five-part series detailing the most under-covered stories of 2016.
#4: The Reliever Revolution
I’m double-dipping here in a way, because I have discussed specific relievers earlier in the series, and I also had a whole post about Zach Britton a month or so back. But the direction Major League Baseball is going in with regard to relievers will result in more big paydays for guys like Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and Mark Melancon, so this deserved its own section.
In case you haven’t been keeping up with offseason free-agent signings, the three relief pitchers I mentioned above all received monster contracts for relief pitchers (Chapman got 5/$86MM, Jansen got 5/$80MM and Melancon got 4/$62MM). And that’s because relievers are becoming more and more integral to the game.
The logic and motives behind the reliever revolution are deeply rooted in baseball history, so I’ll give a quick rundown of the nuts-and-bolts of the evolution of relief pitching. Bear in mind that this is an extremely rudimentary history. If you’re interested in learning more on the history of arm injuries, I strongly recommend picking up a copy of The Arm by Jeff Passan.
In the early ages of baseball as we know it (we’re talking from around 1900 to around 1930) starting pitchers used to pitch the entire game. I’m not exaggerating; according to Fangraphs, in 1901 relief pitchers pitched a total of 85 innings over the course of the entire season, and that’s not a per-team average, that’s every relief pitcher in the league combined. In each season from 1900-1920, relievers never accounted for more than 1813.2 innings pitched, or between 0.5 and 8.0% of all innings pitched over the course of the season.
Originally, relief pitchers were just failed starters and you’d be hard pressed to find many games pre-WWII where a team used more than two pitchers. In the 1950s and 1960s, relievers became more commonplace in the game, and in the 1970s virtually every team had a closer, or “fireman” as they were called in those times, in addition to a staff of other relievers. That staff of a few relievers has evolved into teams of around 7-8 relief pitchers in today’s game. Now, relief pitching is an art.
This is just a reference point, but during the 1920 season, there were 35 pitchers in all who threw 250 innings or more, and 10 of those pitchers threw over 300 innings. Since 2000, there have only been seven individuals who have thrown 250 innings or more in a single season (Curt Schilling and Roy Halladay both did it twice), and no individual has thrown 300 innings in a season since Steve Carlton in 1980. David Price led the big leagues in 2016 in innings pitched and he only got to 230. Needless to say, we’re seeing a trend here: more relievers, fewer starters.
The past 19 seasons comprise the top 20 seasons for relief pitcher use. That is to say that in the past 19 seasons (1997-2016), relievers have thrown the most innings ever. 2016 actually had the most innings thrown by relief pitchers overall: 15893.2 IP. The bump in innings thrown by relief pitchers can be partially attributed to the fact that more games are going on; there are 30 teams in the majors and each team plays 162 games as opposed to 1920 in which there were only 16 teams that played 154 games each. Still, we can compare the percentage of innings pitched. As I mentioned before, relievers from 1900-1920 threw anywhere between 0.5 and 8% of the total innings; in 2016 relievers threw about 33%, or one-third, of all innings pitched.
This is purely anecdotal, but we can see the increase in reliever usage by just looking at the postseason. Aroldis Chapman threw 5.1 innings in three days in the World Series, and that includes the infamous home-run he gave up to tie the game in game 7. He was clearly overworked, but Maddon kept going to him because he trusted Chapman the most out of any of his pitchers, which goes to show how crucial relief pitchers have become in the modern day. I could go on about how Joe Maddon misused Chapman, and how everyone will remember Maddon as the “genius” manager, not the one who nearly cost the Cubs the world series, but that’s a blog post for a separate day Andrew Miller is another great example of this: he struck out 40 guys in 27.2 innings in the playoffs, furthering the notion that relief pitching has become a more integral part of the game.
It’s become common practice for starters to be removed from the game around 100 pitches, sometimes even earlier than that. The Tampa Bay Rays have started utilizing relief pitching in an extremely unique way, and one that has been sabermetrically proven to be very advantageous. Rays’ manager Kevin Cash has been yanking his starters after only two times through the batting order, which can sometimes result in extremely short starts even by today’s standards. The stats back his decisions up, though: a pitcher’s OPS-against jumps nearly 70 points between the first and third time he faces a lineup. Cash constantly defends his decision to pull starters after only two trips through the lineup, saying the following: “It worked out in our favor quite a bit. When it didn’t work out, we had to answer some questions.”
Naturally, there are going to be baseball traditionalists out there who think Cash is off his rocker for employing his strategy, but as long as it’s working, there’s no reason to criticize. Keep in mind that the Rays don’t exactly have a ton of talent on their roster, so their W-L record probably doesn’t correlate to the success they are having with their methods. However, what the Rays are doing is just the tip of the iceberg with regards to reliever strategy.
If you’re interested in this kind of stuff, again, I strongly recommend picking up a copy of The Arm, but here are other things that MLB teams should be doing with their pitchers that they aren’t doing:
- The 3-3-3 method: the team has three units of three pitchers who each pitch three innings every time out, and the units rotate every third game. This would theoretically allow the pitchers to stay fresh while also limiting the number of times they face the opposing lineup. Obviously this would never happen in real life, at least not any time soon. It’s a fantastic thing to theorize about, but too outlandish to be implemented, plus pitchers have complained about not having well-defined roles (starter, closer, set-up guy, etc.) If you want to read more about 3-3-3, click here.
- Getting rid of defined roles. Simply put, your best reliever should be called upon in the highest-leverage situations in the game. Take the Dodgers for example: if a game is tied 2-2 in the bottom of the 7th inning and the Cubs are in the field with the bases loaded in and nobody out, which reliever do you want pitching in that situation? I would 100% want Kenley Jansen in the game, because he is the Dodgers’ best reliever by far, but since he is the “closer” and can only be called upon in artificially manufactured situations (the save is an extremely contrived stat, but that’s also a blog post for a different day) he won’t get in the game the Dodgers will probably put someone else in. But if the Dodgers are losing 5-2 in the 9th, Jansen’s not going to pitch. If he’s the best relief pitcher, what’s the point of keeping him in the bullpen (looking at you, Buck Showalter.
I’m sure the direction we’re heading doesn’t make baseball traditionalists happy. To them, I say: bring on the fireballing relievers.
#3: Rookies are taking over
No, we’re not going to have a league full of only rookies any time soon. With that said, it’s becoming more and more imperative that teams find prospects that will come up and play at a high level once they enter the league. That may seem like common sense, but that’s only because it’s the system we’ve seen in recent years. It’s time for another brief baseball history lesson. If you want to read more, check out The Game by Jon Pessah and Players by Matt Futterman.
When baseball started, players would originally stay with one team for their entire career unless the team decided to trade them. In the 1960s, players came to the realization that the owners were virtually dominating the sport and players were not being compensated fairly, a practice that had been going on for decades. An example of management shafting the players from a salary perspective is the case of Ralph Kiner. Kiner led the league in home runs for seven consecutive years, including his rookie season in 1946. In spite of this, after his seventh straight season leading the league in homers, 1952, Branch Rickey, the GM of the Pirates, cut his salary to $75,000 from $90,000. In today’s money, that’s a cut of about $530,000 to $480,000. It’s not a significant sum of money compared to what players are making today, but it was what the players were stuck with. Obviously they wanted to make more money, so in 1966 the players formed a union.
In 1974, Catfish Hunter became the first free agent ever, and the modern era of free agency began. Since then, player contracts have skyrocketed, but not without a fight from the owners. From 1985-1987, the owners colluded in order to keep the price of free agent contracts down, and that ended with the owners having to pay the players millions of dollars as a result of a loss in court.
Once free agency started becoming a more viable option for players, the best strategy for owners was to purchase their way to victory, hence the Yankees winning so frequently. George Steinbrenner was notorious for buying all the best available players, and had to face little-to-no penalty because of the lack of a salary cap or luxury tax. There still is no hard salary cap, but the penalty for exceeding the luxury tax threshold has gotten exponentially more severe than it was in the late 20th century. This has resulted in a shift in baseball from an emphasis on purchasing the best players to an emphasis on growing the best players.
2015 was a particularly good year for rookie hitters in terms of WAR; all the rookies in the majors combined for their highest WAR ever. The past 11 seasons (dating back to 2005) are all in the top 14 seasons in terms of offensive WAR for hitters. This can partially be attributed to the emergence of very good rookies like Corey Seager, Aledmys Diaz, Trevor Story, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and others, but keep in mind that WAR is a counting stat, so the more rookies that are playing, the higher the WAR for all rookies will generally be.
For pitchers it’s a bit of a different story, and it’s certainly more difficult to differentiate by looking at WAR because WAR for pitchers won’t tell us as good of a story as innings pitched. Looking at innings pitched, though, we can see that the usage of rookies has drastically increased; of the last seven seasons, six of them are in the top 15 for innings pitched by rookies, and of the past 17 seasons, 12 of them are in the top 15 for innings pitched.
It seems that recent collective bargaining agreements have placed a greater emphasis on developing, not buying, the best players. I don’t really have an issue with this, and I think it’s a lot easier to like players that are home grown and stay with their original team for their entire career (David Wright, Justin Verlander, and Joey Votto, for example) and watching the meteoric rise of rookies like Story, Seager, and Gary Sanchez creates a great story. And the fans of baseball love stories.
(Image credit: Getty Images via CBS New York)