Why you should care
Suddenly, triple-digit-tossing bullpens aren’t getting it done. Will “finesse” soon be back in style?
Just over three years ago, Newsweek ran a story titled “Baseball’s Unhealthy Obsession With Starting Pitchers Is Killing the Game.” At the time, the thought process was clear: Four of the top five highest-paid baseball players in 2016 were pitchers. Starting pitchers appear once every five games, at most, when they’re healthy. If that starter fails to outperform his contract, teams are essentially left paying more for a depreciating talent who works less. It should come as no surprise that plenty of front offices were eager to change this dynamic.
Nowadays, the dominant baseball philosophy contends that a high bullpen usage rate will, in the long run, lead to more success than relying on starters to pitch deep into games. Rather than running a tired starting pitcher out to face a lineup for the third time around, the stat nerds running organizations prefer bullpens full of power arms.
In many ways, that emphasis makes sense: More pitchers means increased pitch diversity and uncertainty for batters. And uncomfortable hitters usually mean more outs. Plus, with bullpens full of relief pitchers who can pump triple-digit fastballs and above-average secondary pitches, stringing hits together is a tall task for a team. So it would follow that relievers are a hot commodity while big-name starters see their value taking a hit.
Or so we thought.
With more than one-half of the Major League Baseball season in the rearview, there’s growing evidence that baseball’s move away from starting pitchers may be premature:
For the first time since 1969, relievers have a higher ERA (4.49) than starters (4.48), while bullpens are being used a record 3.66 innings per game.
As more and more relievers — who were relied upon to throw fewer innings in years past — throw more innings, many bullpens are being exposed in their own way. If starters begin to struggle after facing a lineup multiple times, relievers live and die by the opposite problem. “Most relievers have one great pitch, maybe two,” says MLB Network host Brian Kenny, noting that batters need fewer at-bats to figure a reliever out. “Batters are seeing these relievers more than ever before. When every reliever in baseball throws 100 [miles per hour], hitters are able to adjust.”
As Kenny notes, baseball’s swell of power pitching has been, in some ways, offset by an equally dramatic increase in slugging. Hitters are on pace to shatter the record for total home runs in a season, with capable power hitters at every position. Faced with a league full of sluggers, it stands to reason that bullpen ERAs will continue to rise. Likewise, relievers who throw 100 mph are now the norm — and more hitters than ever before are turning that speed into record-setting home run exit velocity. The pitchers know it too. Which is exactly why, in the hardest-throwing era of baseball, we’re seeing more off-speed pitches than ever before.
So should we expect starters, with their more diverse offerings of various pitches, to take back some real estate? Are seven-man bullpens about to shrink back to four or five? “I don’t think you’ll see an immediate overcorrection,” says New York Yankees middle reliever Adam Ottavino. “One half-season doesn’t make a trend. Hitters are so good now and have so much information today that it’s really hard to be a dominant starting pitcher. There’s still a lot of value in mixing up looks.”
Yet there are always a few front offices that try to win by playing contrarian. “I’m sure some front offices will go all in on starters,” says Ottavino. Take, for instance, the defending World Series champions, the Boston Red Sox. Following seven seasons with the Colorado Rockies, Ottavino entered last offseason as one of the top free-agent relievers. He expected to hear from Boston, but that call never came. Ultimately, the Red Sox spent a total of just $6.3 million on seven relievers this season.
There’s no debate that starters remain incredibly important. And, let’s be clear, most aces are still making bank. Six of the top 10 highest salaries this season are for starting pitchers. Yet teams are rethinking the contract length — read: security — that they offer highly paid, supposedly diminishing starters. This year, free-agent pitcher Dallas Keuchel, the 2015 American League Cy Young Award winner, was forced to hold out until June for what he hoped would be the ideal contract. Ultimately, Keuchel signed with the Braves for one year at $13 million. The deal was $2 million less than his old team, the Houston Astros, offered last March, and now he’ll enter free agency again this winter. Meanwhile, Cleveland ace Trevor Bauer plans to sign only high-priced one-year contracts — accepting more risk in return for higher potential wages while other pitchers watch the market driven down by the emphasis on relievers. Should the bullpen takeover continue, other aces may follow suit.
Ultimately, the next three months should determine whether modern bullpens are truly faltering, or if their current state is merely a blip. Even then, most teams won’t change course without more evidence. But should a team that has totally abandoned the idea of paying for All-Star relievers — say, the Red Sox — make another playoff push, expect a host of teams to bring a polished, old-school approach to pitching back to the game.
It’s a copycat league, and we’re just watching it.