Game Changers: No more 'starter' or 'reliever' labels
Starting pitchers gave up 66 more points of OPS 3rd time through order in 2015
Pitching has become increasingly dominant over the past decade, and we could spend thousands of words explaining all the various reasons why that has been the case. Here's the scary part for hitters: It could, and perhaps should, be more difficult to hit. The starting rotation of the future may not look at all like it does today -- and we're already seeing some teams beginning to catch on.
When you think of a pitching staff, you think of starters and relievers. Five starters each pitch once every five days and are expected to get through six, seven or eight innings, depending on skill. Seven (or eight) relievers, all with very specialized roles -- closer, lefty-killer, setup man, etc. -- are available to back them up multiple times per week. That's the way it's been for most of the past 30 years, since Tony La Russa began to modernize the way bullpens were used back in the 1980s with Oakland.
But as La Russa proved when every other team began to copy his style, just because something has long been done one way doesn't mean there's not a better way to do it. In this case, there's ample evidence that many teams are using their starters too much.
We admit that sounds crazy, at least based on the narrative that pervades the game that starting pitchers are enslaved by pitch counts and are already as lightly used as they've ever been. But that's not as true as you might think. No, starters aren't completing as many games -- the 104 complete games this past season were the fewest in history -- but they aren't throwing fewer innings, at least not recently.
As you can see from the following chart, while starters are throwing fewer innings than they did 30 seasons ago, the decline has flattened out in recent years, hovering between 65-67 percent for the past two decades. This year's total of 65 percent is exactly what it was in 2008. It's only one percent fewer than it was way back in 1995.
Hang on to that takeaway -- starters aren't really throwing fewer innings -- and keep it in mind when you take a look at this chart showing how starters lost effectiveness each time through the order in 2015:
SP first time through order: .705 OPS
SP second time through order: .731 OPS
SP third time through order: .771 OPS
RP first time through order: .699 OPS
The trend is unmistakable. While this is showing 2015 only, know that this pattern has held true for decades. Between increasing fatigue, hitters gaining familiarity and worsening platoon advantage due to pinch-hitters later in games, most pitchers just aren't as effective the further they go. When that fresh reliever comes in, often selected specifically to attack a hitter's perceived weakness, they're the most successful.
So, rather than looking at the first pitcher as "the starter, who has to get me through seven innings," teams ought to simply think about 27 outs and how best to get them. If that means the best scenario is that the first pitcher gets just 10 outs, the next comes in for three, and then a third gets eight outs to get through the first seven innings, then so be it. If that reminds you of the way things work in the postseason, it should -- if it's good enough for the most important games of the year, then clearly there's something to it.
You're now thinking "but there are more days off in October, therefore more rest days and less worry about burning through the bullpen," and you're right. But done properly, that's not as much a concern as you'd think. Take the Rays, for example, who had the American League's best rotation ERA (3.63) despite having traded David Price and Jeremy Hellickson in 2014 and losing Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly for much or all of 2015.
It's not a coincidence that Tampa Bay's outstanding rotation run prevention came with the AL's shortest outings. There were 33 times when a Rays starter didn't throw more than 80 pitches. And while that's usually associated with struggles -- the two National League teams who had that happen more were Colorado and Philadelphia, each dealing with massive rotation problems -- here it was a strategy. Only 51 times was a Tampa Bay starter allowed to go past 100 pitches, the second-lowest total in the AL, and 21 of those were from Chris Archer, who developed into a full-fledged ace this year.
Though the Rays relied heavily on the bullpen -- 531 relief appearances, most in the league -- they didn't overwork any one particular reliever thanks to a large number of young pitchers with options who could easily be shuttled back and forth from Triple-A. The most-used Tampa Bay reliever, Steve Geltz, finished tied only for 31st in games, with 70. While 12 Rays pitchers appeared in at least 10 games in relief, 13 teams had as many or more.
That leaves us with a situation where maybe the ideal scenario is one (or two, if you can get them) traditional stud starter who goes as far as he can, like Archer. Then include three or four "short starters" who go 15-18 batters (not outs, a big difference), and back that up with an ever-rotating army of fresh arms who get two to five outs -- fewer starters and relievers, more pitchers.
Unless you have one of baseball's truly elite aces, you almost certainly don't want your starter facing more than 15-18 batters. It's the wave of the future, coming soon to a ballpark near you.