Why you should care

Because the World Series as we know it is changing — at least the pitching part.

Chicks dig the longball,” as a very dated 1998 Nike commercial put it, but it’s starting pitching that has traditionally won the World Series. Since the award was first given in 1955, nearly half of the World Series MVP trophies have gone to starting pitchers like Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax and Curt Schilling, as they led their teams to championships. Plenty of clubs have tried to follow that formula, with the Dodgers, Tigers and Nationals building powerhouse starting pitching rotations for a run at this year’s title.

Which is what makes tonight’s World Series opener between the San Francisco Giants and Cinderella-story Kansas City Royals so puzzling. Far from star starters, it’s the relievers — the pitchers who come in toward the end of the game — who’ve led their teams to the World Series, revealing a risky but rewarding economic strategy for building a championship-caliber team.

a pitcher for a professional baseball team stands on the mound with his manager and teammates

Kelvin Herrera of the Kansas City Royals gets a pat on the chest from manager Ned Yost.

The irony of the bullpen’s new prominence is that 2014 was the year of the starting pitcher. The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw just turned in one of the greatest regular seasons in modern pitching history. Stars like the Mariners’ “King” Felix Hernandez, David Price and Max Scherzer of the Tigers and Oakland’s Jon Lester weren’t far behind, and one statistic even puts little-known Cleveland Indians’ starter Corey Kluber ahead of the entire pack. Starters and relievers combined gave up just 3.74 earned runs for every 9 innings pitched — the lowest such mark in the last 20 years, and a full run lower than the 1999 and 2000 seasons.

Pitchers have played a huge role in the dramatic decrease in offense, throwing faster to boost strikeouts nearly 20% over the last 10 years.

Pitchers’ newfound dominance has a few causes. Baseball’s steroids testing policy has thinned out the Herculean sluggers of a decade ago, defense is more emphasized now that teams are better at quantifying the causes and effects of good fielding, and the introduction of Pitchf/x (a fancy video system that tracks every pitch’s movement, velocity and location) has resulted in a significantly larger strike zone. But pitchers themselves have played a huge role in the dramatic decrease in offense, throwing faster than ever before to help boost strikeouts nearly 20 percent over the last 10 years, while cutting the number of home runs by 15 percent and walks by 18 percent.

Pitching, as everyone knows, is all the more important in the playoffs. The old-timers will tell you that’s because “the game slows down” in the playoffs, and the real stars rise. The baseball stat-geek community argues vehemently against such tropes, of course. They give their own reason for why pitching rules the postseason: usage rates.

During the regular season, teams use a five-man rotation of starters. In the playoffs, teams use only a three- or four-man rotation, and starters routinely go from throwing 10 to 15 percent of their teams’ regular season innings to 20 to 25 percent of playoff innings. The jump is even more pronounced for relievers, who can double and even triple their usage rates, and thus their economic value to their team. Just ask Yankees fans who watched closer Mariano Rivera pitch his way to five titles and a 1999 World Series MVP Award.

Relievers tend not to be as good as starters and are less predictable year to year, and that extra usage never kicks in if you miss the playoffs.

In the 2014 playoffs, Giants starter Madison Bumgarner has been almost unhittable, but the rest of the starting rotation has as many famous pitchers on the bench due to injury and ineffectiveness as on the mound. Meanwhile, the Royal’s pitching staff is led by James Shields, a man whose ”Big Game James” nickname has always been uttered with tongue inserted slightly into cheek. It’s the relievers for the Giants and Royals who have propelled them into the Series. Giants relievers have thrown a combined 26 2/3 playoff innings and given up just one earned run, upping their usage rate from 20 to 27 percent. Four Royals relievers have thrown more than 30 total innings and given up only two earned runs, seeing their usage rate more than double from 17 to 36 percent.

This 2014 playoffs performance would seem like a confirmation of some baseball writers’ offseason contention that relief pitching is the new inefficiency in the baseball market: Because they pitch in the most important innings at the end of games, and because their usage rate goes up so much in the playoffs, quality relievers might actually be underpaid compared to other positions.

But there’s a reason for the old axiom “don’t spend money on relief pitching.” Relievers tend not to be as good as starters and are less predictable from year to year, and that extra usage never kicks in if your team misses the playoffs. The Oakland A’s spent good money to build the league’s fourth best bullpen in the 2014 regular season, only to see it repeatedly blow the lead in their single-elimination playoff loss to the Royals. The Tigers picked up Joakim Soria, the consensus best reliever available at the trade deadline this year, and watched him give up five earned runs in a single inning of playoff pitching.

Lights-out relief pitching has been a boon to the Royals and Giants in the playoffs so far, but caveat emptor for any team trying to replicate their success by signing high-priced relievers this offseason.

– Jeff Lacouture contributed reporting.

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