Baseball's owners and players have talked about expanding rosters to 26 men as part of the collective bargaining agreement negotiations. If they do so without limitations on pitcher usage, it will be the worst thing to happen to the sport since Astroturf and threaten to end the game’s period of record growth.
I’ve been telling you for years that relief pitching is an internal threat to baseball’s appeal. The growing inventory of pitchers with high velocity, coupled with the industry-wide acceptance of analytics, is making for a brutally efficient system of run prevention but a decidedly less attractive entertainment option. Movies and games include more camera cuts and faster paced action as our eyes and brains are re-trained (or in the case of the younger generation, trained in the first place) for more stimulation more often. Baseball is moving in the inverse direction: it is played over a longer period of time with less action. Pitching changes add dead time and depress offense.
Commissioner Rob Manfred wants to reverse this trend because he is concerned about the next generation of fans. The game already has us hooked, but when we fell in love with baseball it didn’t take 10 pitchers and three and a half hours to play a 4-2 game in a highly competitive entertainment world. Manfred is rightly concerned less about losing his core fans than he is about missing out on those who should be next. That’s why I have a hard time believing he will expand rosters—translation: hand managers yet another relief pitcher to wedge into games—without governors on the time-killer and rally-killer that is relief pitching.
The possibility of a 26th man emerged from baseball’s overdue need to curb the stupidity of roster expansion in September. But by capping September rosters—one suggestion is a 28-man active roster to be determined before every series—the players' association wants the compensation of adding the extra roster spot for the first five months of the season. Clubs like the idea, too, because it saves them from roster moves, such as having to send down or disable a pitcher when he’s been overworked and not available. But it’s a terrible idea for fans.
“We’re kind of building in for it now, as though it is something that is going to happen,” one veteran general manager said about the expanded roster. “I don’t understand it. We had a lot of conversations about this at the GM meetings. If you have 26, you can’t [allow teams to] go to 14 pitchers for a long period of time. If you have to go there for a day or two and then cure it, it makes sense. But if 14 pitchers is allowed to happen, American League teams will do it the whole year. The American League will be unwatchable. And everybody will go get another matchup guy. Another lefty specialist is coming in in the fifth or sixth inning.
“I don’t really understand why there’s not more of an outcry about it. Whenever people talk about restrictions on relief outings people act like, oh, you can never do that. O.K., but if you have a 14-man staff, is this going to feel like September the whole year?”
Manfred, on behalf of the owners and the fans, must insist on governors on pitching if rosters are expanded to 26. He must insist on allowing no more than 13 pitchers on an active roster at any time—an extra bench player could help combat all the matchup advantages deep bullpens exploit—and/or he must insist that relief pitchers face a minimum of two batters, one more than the current minimum. If such an agreement cannot be reached with the union, he must use his power to install them on a one-year experimental basis.
Asked if roster expansion needs a governor on pitching, the GM said, “No doubt. It seems like they want to address lack of offense and they want to address pace of game. And it seems if you go to 26 men with no restrictions you’ve just made both of those worse. Kills it. I think all those people are too smart to solve September at the expense of the rest of the season. It is counter to what they’re trying to do.”
What has happened to baseball? Smart, data-driven managers and generals managers have figured out that power arms used often but in short periods of exposure is a winning formula. The quaint notion baseball likes to perpetuate is that it’s been the same game for more than one hundred years. This is a lie. It changes all the time, and lately the biggest evolution is the usage of more and more pitchers. Here are the facts about where are and where we are headed:
• There were 186 nine-inning games last season that took at least three and a half hours, the second most all time and more than the 2007 and 2008 seasons put together.
• Teams used at least six pitchers to win a nine-inning game 228 times last year, the most ever. In 1986 it happened just seven times.
• Teams used at least five pitchers in a nine-inning game 1,428 times this year—not only an all-time record but also a 30% increase in 10 years, a 113% increase in 20 years and a 510% increase in 30 years.
• Teams used 742 pitchers this year, double the number that was needed in 1977 (371). That equates to an average of 24.8 pitchers per team. It was 16.0 in 1986. There is no slowing down this trend; it marked the sixth consecutive season teams set or matched the all-time record for most pitchers used.
With so many relief pitchers available, and with starting pitchers trained with a relievers’ mentality—forget about pacing yourself; throw as hard as you can for as long as you can—starting pitchers work less now than they ever have in baseball history. Here’s a quick look at the decline of starting pitching in 10-year increments, as measured by the average innings per start:
Another reason starters throw fewer innings is because the statistics tell managers that it’s prudent to get his starter out as a lineup turns over for a third time.
“The numbers are overwhelming,” said one AL manager. “The third time around is when you get your starting pitcher out of the game.”
Imagine you are a manager. It’s the sixth inning and your starting pitcher is starting to lose it. You have eight pitchers in your bullpen to cover the last four innings. What should you do? The answer becomes obvious when you know these numbers, which show the striking difference last season between when a hitter sees a starting pitcher for a third time in the game and when he sees a relief pitcher for the first time.
3rd Time vs. SP
1st Time VS. RP
That 79-point gap in OPS is the largest since 2007. The third-time-around theory has become the guiding principle of today’s baseball games. It’s not that starting pitchers today aren’t as “tough” as starters back in the 1970s or '80s; it’s that they have more premier arms behind them who are better options when they are fresh than when the starter is tiring.
The third-time concept is changing the game rapidly. In 2016 starters faced batters the third time around the lineup less often (on a per-game basis) than any time in baseball history. The number of times a starter faced the same hitter a third time dropped 10.3 percent just in the past two years.
And rarely does a starter get all the way through the lineup a third time. Starters faced 27 batters this year in 1,405 starts—the lowest in recorded history, even with virtually double the number of games today as there were through 1960. The number of such starts declined 16% just since last year, and 36% just since 2011.
Now you see how quickly and overwhelmingly relief pitching is taking over baseball. If you had a 26th roster spot with no restrictions, the trends toward more dead time and less offense will accelerate further. That’s why Manfred and players association chief Tony Clark are negotiating more than just the next CBA. They are talking about the next generation of fans.