The Changing Game: Relief Pitching

Baseball is different from the days of Christy Matthewson and Walter Johnson

Professional baseball is a system.  Within the confines of the game changes apply pressure to one or multiple components.  The system reacts to the pressure with responses of its own.  This can all happen in a short period of time.  Typically, however, baseball is slow to respond to stimulus.  It is only when looking over the decades that the magnitude of the changes is really appreciated.  Today’s game is far different than it was fifty years ago.  It is placing stresses in places that will require a systemic response.

The “Deadball Era” game that Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson knew is far removed from today.  Mathewson’s last effective year was 1915.  His team hit 24 home runs; Johnson’s Senators hit 12…for the year.  There were three elements that combined to produce such dramatically low numbers; the low-compression ball, the size of the fields, and player size.  Christy’s starting lineup had a “Heart of the order” of Larry Doyle, Art Fletcher, and Hans Lobert.  The biggest man of the lot was Lobert at 5’10” and 170 lbs.  In Game 3 of the 2018 NLCS the Dodgers stranded 3 of their middle lineup players on the bases; Justin Turner, Manny Machado, and Yasiel Puig. Turner is the runt of the pack at 5’11 and 205 lbs.  Machado is 6’3”.  And, Puig is 6’4” and 240 lbs.  Mathewson never faced such a physically imposing lineup.

The same is not true for Walter Johnson, however.  In his last year the 1927 Yankees became the “Bronx Bombers” because they were a big and strong bunch that hit home runs in heretofore unimaginable numbers.  Their #3, 4, and 5 hitters were Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Bob Meusel.  All were 6’0 or more.  Meusel was the slightest build of the bunch at 6’3” and 190 lbs. Those three combined hit 115 home runs.  The short porch in Right Field at Yankee Stadium helped immensely.  The more important factor was the bigger and more physical lineup. It changed the direction of baseball.  But, it took time for those changes to fully manifest themselves throughout the entire system.

Fast-forward to today’s game.  When Walter Johnson threw his dazzling fastball it is estimated that it travelled in the 95-97 mph range.  We will never know precisely.  But, it was a revelation.  Ty Cobb called it, “…the most menacing thing I’d ever seen in my life.”  A modern staff will typically have five or more pitchers that can throw 97 or more.  The parks are smaller, the ball is lively, and the players are big and athletic.  Add in the effects of advanced metrics where the home run is the life’s blood of scoring, and you have the new game of so-called “Ultimate Results.”  A more descriptive name may be  “Strikeout, Walk, or Home Run.”

The effect on the use of Pitchers has been dramatic.  Fifty years ago was proclaimed, “The Year of the Pitcher.”  Batting statistics were so anemic that the game dropped the height of the mound from 15” to the current 10”.  The losing team in the World Series was the St. Louis Cardinals. Their starters averaged 22 outs per game leaving 5 for the bullpen.  Contrast that to the 2017 second-place team the Dodgers.  Their starters averaged 17 outs per game leaving 10 for the bullpen.  That’s a doubling of workload for the pen.  That doubling is for World Series teams.  The 2018 Nationals’ starters averaged just barely over 15 outs per game.  For a team with a dismal year the numbers are even more skewed.  The Orioles’ starters averaged 14 outs per game.  For them the bullpen load is nearly equal to that of the starting rotation.  The increased stress being placed on the bullpen manifests itself in several ways.

Not only are the number of outs required by the bullpen increasing, the number of outs produced per reliever appearance are dropping.  The average reliever appearance by one of the Cardinals in 1968 produced 5.0 outs.  Last year’s Dodgers produced 3.0 per appearance.  The relievers have to throw those 90+ mph bullets or they won’t be effective.  That limits the number of pitches available per appearance. If the total number of outs required is increasing and the number of outs per appearance is decreasing, then the total number of appearances must be climbing like a startled Mallard duck.  That’s exactly what is happening.  The total number of appearances per year is 2.5 times what they were 50 years ago. We have hit the point on the graph where Appearances equal Innings.  The appearance trend is stunning.  It shows no inclination to slow down. The rate of increase may actually be accelerating as managers such as Phillies skipper Gabe Kapler change pitchers more often.   The Phillies’ relievers made 605 appearances this year.   That is 80 more appearances than the Dodgers last year.  It is double that of the 1988 Oakland A’s.


Reliever Appearances are sky-rocketing

This is all taking place within the confines of a boundary.  There has been no permanent change to the active roster size of 25 since 1914.  Most teams carry 7 or 8 relievers during the season.  With all this increased demand the supply is insufficient.  The number of relievers seeing active duty has increased from 8 for the 1968 Cardinals to 17 for last year’s Dodgers.  The Nationals had 25 different pitchers make appearances from the bullpen.

The number of relievers in use has doubled in 50 years

Teams are sending relievers to the Disabled List, shuffling youngsters back and forth to the Minor Leagues, and trading relievers at a furious pace.   The churning is intense.  The Nationals made 70 transactions involving relievers during the course of the regular season.  As a result relievers demand more space on the 40-man rosters.   There are calls from some, including Jim Bowden, to increase the number of relievers to fourteen and expand the Active Roster to 31 players.  While that may help reduce the mayhem in General Manager Offices around the leagues it ignores larger issues.  The games take longer to play.  One contributor is the number of pitching changes occurring mid-inning.   Baseball attendance is down again this year by 4%.  This is not a simple cause-effect equation as many factors contribute.  In typical fashion, corporate baseball has been slow to respond in the face of a changing game and environment.  Now would be a good time to examine possible reaction strategies and act.

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