From busts to best: The failed starters who became shutdown relievers
Van Lingle Mungo, who pitched from 1931 through 1945, was known for his powerful but sometimes disobedient fastball (one year he led the National League in strikeouts and walks) and his colorful contributions to a Brooklyn Dodgers team known as "The Daffiness Boys" (after a tough loss, he once sent a telegram to his wife in South Carolina, telling her to pack her bags for Brooklyn, because if his rightfielder who dropped a flyball could play for the Dodgers, surely she could). Mostly, he's remembered for his mellifluous name (which included his mother's family name in the middle). But the righthanded Mungo was not known for his hitting: Though he did hit a decent .223 for a pitcher, his career on-base percentage was .250.
Here's why Mungo is worth recalling this week: Specialized pitching has evolved so well that hard-throwing relievers who often neither start nor finish a game are turning all major league hitters into a bunch of Van Lingle Mungos.
There are 11 relievers this year who have thrown at least 60 innings and held opposing hitters to the Van Lingle Mungo Line: An OBP of .250 or less. Take a look at this list and you'll notice few of them had the pedigree to be considered stars:
|Dellin Betances, Yankees||26||Failed starter|
|Brad Boxberger, Rays||26||Traded twice|
|Zach Britton, Orioles||26||Failed starter|
|Wade Davis, Royals||29||Failed starter|
|Jean Machi, Giants||32||Fifth organization|
|Jake McGee, Rays||28||Failed starter|
|Mark Melancon, Pirates||29||Fourth organization|
|Pat Neshek, Cardinals||34||Non-roster invite|
|Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies||33||Highest-paid closer|
|Joe Smith, Angels||30||Third organization|
|Koji Uehara, Red Sox||39||Third organization|
And we're not done yet. With a few more innings, Fernando Abad, Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller and Huston Street could make it 15 relievers under the Mungo Line. Welcome to the Year of the Shutdown Reliever. (As sexy season narratives go, I wouldn't wait for the celebratory box set Blu-Ray edition). Power arms used often but in limited exposure each appearance are dominating hitters like never before. It's a very recent trend. Check it out with two quick looks at 60-inning relievers below the Mungo Line.
Seasons since 1901 with most relievers allowing OBP of .250 or under:
Number of relievers allowing OBP of .250 or under:
|Past 12 seasons (2003-14)||83|
|Previous 102 seasons (1901-2002)||66|
Betances has struck out 40 percent of the batters he has faced and will soon break Mariano Rivera's franchise record for strikeouts by a reliever (130 in 1996). Davis has allowed two extra-base hits all year and has not allowed a run in almost three months. He and Kelvin Herrera could make the Royals the first team in history with two relievers to allow no home runs over more than 60 innings. Boxberger is holding hitters to a .151 average. Betances, Davis and Boxberger have five saves between them.
What in the honey-sweet name of Van Lingle Mungo is going on?
"Velocity usually amps up when you go from starting to relieving," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "And when velocity amps up, you get a greater disparity between the fastball and the off-speed pitches. Look at Boxberger. He throws 96 and he's got that Bugs Bunny changeup [at 80-81 mph]. And you don't have to worry about setting guys up or having to face the same guys two or three times."
Boxberger was signed by the Reds as a starter out of USC in 2010 but was quickly converted to the bullpen. Betances was a starter with control problems for eight years in the minors before the Yankees converted him to a reliever last year. They took away his sinker, his changeup and his windup. They reduced him to a two-pitch pitcher (four-seam fastball and a breaking ball that defies definition — it's a hybrid between a curve and slider) who throws exclusively out of the stretch. The result is a strikeout machine that Girardi is so careful with he never warms Betances without getting him into the game.
Davis is another failed starter. He made 24 starts for Kansas City last year before moving to the bullpen in September. He went to spring training with a 4.26 career ERA to compete for a spot in the rotation again, but was moved to the 'pen when Luke Hochevar needed Tommy John surgery.
Davis instantly became a force with better stuff. His four-seam velocity jumped from 93 to 97 mph. His sinker jumped from 91 to 96. His cutter, which he picked up while junking the slider two years ago, jumped from 90 to 93. His ERA dropped to 0.71. His numbers are flat-out ridiculous. He has thrown 29 2/3 scoreless innings since June 25 while allowing two doubles and six walks, striking out 40.
"It's not just going to the bullpen that increased my velocity," Davis said. "A lot of it is mechanics. I sit over my back leg longer and drive more to the plate. That definitely has helped."
Davis at first was a somewhat reluctant reliever, expressing a preference for starting going back to his days in Tampa Bay. When I asked him which role he liked better, starting or relieving, Davis replied, "I like pitching in the big leagues. It doesn't matter. Really. I've done both."
What teams have done is to develop ultimate small-sample pitchers with premium stuff. The difficulty comes when these super setup men are asked to do it again. There have been 38 setup men (less than 10 saves) who kept hitters under the Mungo Line for 60 innings. Only four of them ever posted a second such season: Rafael Betancourt and Dick Hall with three, and Arthur Rhodes and Tyler Clippard with two.
Of course, the super setup man is mostly a modern convenience. Back in Mungo's day, the idea of taking a power arm and using it in the seventh or eighth inning would have sounded like the waste of a good arm. In fact, Mungo might have benefited from such an idea. He led the league in strikeout rate three times and walks three times while averaging 263 innings per year between ages 21-25. Translation: He threw a ton of pitches. He essentially was done as a healthy, effective pitcher at 27. He could have been the Dellin Betances of his day. Instead, his career, but not his name, became largely forgettable.
Baseball's model for change: Football?
As offense continues to decline in baseball, with no rules changes or "points of emphasis" to curb the trend, football keeps changing the rules to facilitate points and the promotion of star quarterbacks. The NFL is becoming the CFL, only with an extra down to pick up 10 yards.
On the first Sunday of this NFL season, eight teams threw the ball more than 40 times, twice as much as ion the first Sunday just five years ago.
There were 12 more pass attempts per game in Week 1 this year (74.2) than just 10 years ago (62.3), a 19-percent increase. The ball constantly is in the air. Running backs have been made fungible. The game is very different from five or 10 years ago. Check out this comparison of play selection from the first Sundays of games from this year, five years ago and 10 years ago. (The percentage of pass play selections includes sacks.)
|year||plays per team||run percentage||pass percentage|
The NFL has changed so much that the all-time top-five quarterbacks as ranked by completions per game are all active, as are nine of the top 11. Among the all-time quarterbacks entrusted with throwing the ball the most (attempts per game), Sam Bradford ranks third (35.9) while Joe Montana ranks 54th (28.1).
The point is nobody cares how much the game has changed. Historical achievement in the NFL means almost nothing. The NFL constantly tweaks its rules to market its quarterbacks and to feed the amazing growth of fantasy leagues. Imagine a fantasy league when Bart Starr was quarterbacking the Packers. Starr threw the ball just 16.1 times per game; Lions QB Matthew Stafford throws it more than that in one half.
It is much harder in baseball to sell fundamental changes to how the game is played. The context of historical achievement is vital to the game. And that's why commissioner-elect Rob Manfred has a much tougher assignment than NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in "modernizing" his sport. It's not just a lack of offense that needs attention: Baseball has more dead time between moments of action than ever before. Manfred has to find ways to excise chunks of that dead time, but he can't be as cavalier as Goodell. The surgical trick for Manfred is to respect tradition without being stymied by it.
News And Notes
• Derek Jeter has played 2,887 games, including 158 in the postseason. Only one of those games has been meaningless: On Sept. 26, 2008, he took the field for the only time when his team was mathematically eliminated from contention. That game was played at Fenway Park, which means in his 20 years with the Yankees, Jeter has never played a meaningless game at home. On the other end of the spectrum is Alex Gordon of the Royals. Gordon, 30, has never played a postseason game. He has played 94 meaningless games. With the Yankees lagging behind three teams for the second wild card and the Royals in first place in the AL Central, Jeter and Gordon may be trading places.
• Atlantic League update (and memo to MLB): Remember when the independent league implemented pace-of-game rules to cut out dead time in games? It's working. Since the rules went into effect Aug. 1, the league has cut nine minutes from the average time of game (from 3:02 to 2:53). The percentage of three-hour games has been reduced from 42 to 26 percent.
• One of the strongest indicators of success continues to be a healthy and stable starting staff. Seven teams have burned through a dozen or more starting pitchers this season, and all of them are in danger of missing the postseason (Rockies, Rangers, Marlins, Cubs, Twins, Yankees, Padres). Ten teams have used eight or fewer starters: All either in first place (Nationals, Orioles, Royals, Angels) or in contention (Giants, Brewers, Braves, Blue Jays, Pirates, Indians).
• For those wondering about the mystery of how the Yankees could be on the outside of the playoff picture, a few hints in addition to the injuries to their starting pitchers: They are the oldest team in baseball this year and in franchise history (average age: 32.8), they have the lowest percentage of extra bases taken (33 percent), they rank next to last in the league batting against relievers (.229), they've scored the fewest runs in baseball in innings 7-9 (135), they have the fewest hits by players 25-and-under (27), they have scored the fewest runs per game at home of any Yankees team in the DH era (3.6), and their RBI leader (Jacoby Ellsbury, 66) is unlikely to reach 80 for the first time since 1990 (Jesse Barfield, 78).