The Case for Demoting the Starting Pitcher
Baseball, the sport that embraced analytics first, needs to take a gamble.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you can’t sit through another terrible start.
To love baseball is to be disappointed half of the time. Almost every season follows the same arc of woe: the search for starting pitchers during the offseason, the underperformance of an ace flamethrower who’s making eight figures and, oh yeah, the injuries that ensue when 6-foot-tall monstrosities reach back for mid-to-high-90s power every five days.
The routine of a starting pitcher goes like this: Pitch five, six, seven innings. Rest four days. Weather criticisms that you are overpaid and underperforming, and/or overwork yourself until injury. Repeat. Meanwhile, scads of relief pitchers languish in the dugout — cheap, underused, unable to capture any of the glory. We’re throwing out an idea that could change everything for the better: Get rid of starting pitchers. Henceforth, all pitchers shall be equal.
What would this look like? Relievers might pitch three innings or so a game, making their way through the lineup once or twice. Then they’d sit down for a day before their next appearance. When you price it out, says Greg Rubin, who presented the idea at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, “it’s literally a fraction of the price” to pay just middle relievers.
There are added benefits, Rubin argues. By sharing the work over a larger pool of pitchers, the system would decrease the work and stress that any individual pitcher bears. The system would also keep the opposing team on its toes: Pitchers perform worse as batters get more comfortable. Fewer looks through a team’s lineup could help keep a team’s WHIP and, thus, ERA down.
Full disclosure: OZY sports reporter and former Division I baseball player Matt Foley said he is “so against” this proposal. Fine for Matt, because this will probably never happen. Surprisingly, perhaps, the sport that birthed Moneyball and sabermetrics isn’t known for experimentation and innovation. Managers do not have tenure, and fear would keep most skippers from radically reorganizing the team. Other entrenched interests are at play too. Star pitchers, accustomed to a market that shells out $20 million to $30 million for their services, would detest being labeled “middle reliever” — and working less.
Even so, necessity is sometimes the mother of experimentation. Look to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2015: With four starters injured, it threw the bullpen into shared work for one game. Steve Geltz got the “start,” pitching the first two innings and giving up a run. In the end, the Rays lost in extra innings, but the strategy allowed the small-market team to work through its starting rotation woes. And this year, the San Diego Padres might dabble in a halfway version of this; the team is considering replacing starting pitchers early in the game. “My perspective would be it’s a little bit more countercultural than anything else,” says manager Andy Green. “It hasn’t really been done before.”
Which is exactly why baseball should kill starting pitchers once and for all. Except Clayton Kershaw. He can still be a starter.