MLB Needs to Cap Pitching Staff Size, Bullpen Use To Reduce ‘Five-and-Dive,’ ‘One-and-Done’ Performa
BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
20 September 2021
ORLANDO, FL – On July 23, the St. Louis Cardinals were battling the Cincinnati Reds for second place in the National League Central Division.
Trailing 6-5 in the bottom of the ninth, and down to their last out, the Cardinals pinch-hit for reliever Giovanni Gallegos. Whom did St. Louis send to the plate? Fellow pitcher Adam Wainwright, whose batting average was an abysmal .031.
Wainwright struck out, and Cincinnati won.
You’re battling your division rival for second place, and your best option for a pinch-hitter with the game on the line is a pitcher who is 1-for-32 with a bat in his hands? St. Louis sent a pitcher to pinch-hit because he was the only option left – the club had run out of position players, in a nine-inning game. The Cardinals had 14 pitchers on their 26-man roster, leaving just three reserve position players, all of whom had been used (a fourth, catcher Yadier Molina, was out with a stiff neck). That left only a pitcher available to bat.
Welcome to Major League Baseball 2021, where teams are devoting one-half or more of their roster to one position, and are willing to play with a short bench in order to carry an extra, seldom-used reliever. Almost all MLB teams these days carry 13 pitchers, and a good number employ 14. That’s like an NBA team having seven centers on its 12-man squad.
Apparently, some teams value an extra pitcher sitting in the bullpen over an extra bat available off the bench, taking to heart that old saw about never having too much pitching. Well, it’s time for baseball to stop this bullpen madness, and say, ‘Yes, we’ve reached the point of too much.’
Beginning next spring, or whenever the 2022 season starts following the implementation of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement between owners and the players union, MLB should cap at 12 the number of pitchers a team can have on its roster, and limit to three the number of pitching changes a manager can make in a nine-inning game.
There would be exceptions, of course. Teams would be able to add a pitcher for doubleheader games, and if a pitcher is injured. Exceptions to the limit on pitching changes would be made for verifiable injuries, for extra innings, and for blowouts (when the opponent has a 10-run lead).
The 12-Man Pitching Staff
With the Designated Hitter widely expected to be adopted as part of the next CBA, a 26-man roster capped at a dozen pitchers might consist of 12 hurlers, 8 position players, 1 DH, 1 reserve catcher, 2 reserve infielders and 2 reserve outfielders. Assuming five starting pitchers, that’s seven relievers. (MLB should also consider allowing the starting catcher to re-enter a game after being substituted out – if the backup catcher suffers a legitimate, debilitating injury.)
Here’s what a 12-man pitching staff might look like:
1 Ace starter
4 Starters (Nos. 2-5 starters)
1 Long reliever/spot starter
3 Middle relievers
1 Left-handed setup man
1 Right-handed setup man
The current 13-man pitching staff that most teams employ means having just five reserve position players, including a backup catcher. Since most teams are reluctant to use their second catcher, for fear of the starting catcher getting injured later, it effectively reduces a team’s bench to only four players. Carrying 14 pitchers, obviously, shortens the bench by one additional player. Which can lead to tough situations like the one the Cardinals experienced this season.
Another option: reduce the roster size from 26 players to 25, which would limit the number of pitchers a team would carry. With 8 regular position players, 1 DH, 5 subs (2 infielders, 2 outfielders and 1 reserve catcher), that leaves room for 11 pitchers. Some teams still might prefer 12 pitchers, but that would leave them with just a four-man bench, including the backup catcher – and, that’s a big ask over an entire season.
Owners would like the payroll savings with a reduced roster, but the players union most assuredly would push back strongly against any reduction in roster spots. That’s a key question regarding any limit to the size of pitching staffs: would the players association agree to a move that basically pits the jobs of half of its membership (pitchers) against those of the other half (position players)?
Still, these limits are needed. Caps on the size of pitching staffs and the number of pitching changes per game would accomplish a number of things: force starters to learn how to pitch deeper into games; require a manager to better manage his bullpen instead of just running out one reliever after another; develop relievers capable of pitching more than one inning a game; potentially speed up games and improve pace of play due to fewer pitching changes and mound visits; enable teams to have an additional reserve position player, thus strengthening the bench; and allow batters to see more pitches from the same pitcher, hopefully increasing the hitters’ chances of reaching base.
Limit 3 Pitching Changes Per Game
Meanwhile, with just three pitching changes allowed in a nine-inning game, managers would face a different set of decisions: How long do I leave in my starting pitcher, knowing I can only make three moves? How far do I go with a reliever, especially one that’s struggling? If needed, can his replacement pitch multiple inning? This rule would put an end to managers trotting out five or six relievers for one inning apiece every game.
So, why does the league need to limit the size of pitching staffs, and regulate bullpen use? Because bullpens are taking over the games. A quick hook of starting pitchers long has been a feature of the post-season -- where mistakes are magnified and can end a season -- with relievers frequently pitching more innings that the starters, but it’s beginning to creep into the regular season, too. Through the end of August the average outing for a starting pitcher this season is five and one-third innings, the lowest ever and just one out more than the minimum needed for a starter to receive credit for a victory.
Over the last five seasons, the percentage of regular-season innings handled by the bullpens has grown every year. In 2016, relievers covered 36.7 percent of the innings. Three years later, it had increased to 42 percent; and it rose again last year to 44.5 percent. This season it’s on pace to creep closer to 50 percent.
Over the long haul, that has consequences, because a steady diet of four- and five-inning outings by starting pitchers will wear down a bullpen. That would cost a team not only games, but also careers as relievers become worn out.
It’s interesting that while baseball laments how the nightly parade of high-octane, one-inning relievers is making it harder for batters to get hits, sapping offenses, and making the game less appealing to watch, teams continue to employ that very tactic.
Case in point: On Sept. 14, the New York Mets and Cardinals played an 11-inning game. Each team used eight pitchers. The two respective starters were the only ones to pitch at least two innings. The Cardinals’ starter lasted just four innings, while the Mets used seven relievers to cover the final five frames.
Teams argue that this season they are just trying to protect their pitchers from arm, shoulder, and elbow injuries due to the increase in innings to be filled as the league ramps up from a 60-game truncated season in 2020 to the usual 162 games. As of Aug. 30, the Mets had used 40 pitchers this season. Five other teams had employed 37 or more. The league average was 31.
But, it goes beyond one season’s dramatic spike in number of innings to be pitched. Take a look at how two pitching staffs, the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, have expanded over time. As of Aug. 30 the Yankees had used 28 pitchers this season. When they won the World Series in 1961, they used 16 pitchers total all year. In 2009, another World Championship team, the Yankees used 24 pitchers. Meanwhile, as of Aug. 30 this year, the Dodgers had used 38 pitchers. In their championship seasons in 1963, 1981, and 1998, the club employed 14, 13, and 19 pitchers, respectfully. In 2011, a non-championship season, the team used 21 pitchers total.
In each of those seasons mentioned above teams played 162 games, except for the strike-shortened 1981 campaign. Granted, those are only two teams, but they’re representative of the league in general. The increase in number of pitchers cannot be attributed entirely to transitioning from a pandemic-truncated season.
Baseball has to get back to starting pitchers learning how to work deeper into games and out of jams, more relievers being able to throw more than one inning a game,
and managers becoming more adept at managing the workload of starters and the bullpen, rather than the paint-by-numbers moves that many managers employ now.
If the expectations for more and more starters these days is “five–and-dive” or “five-and-fly” (as five-inning starts are called sometimes), then for relievers it is “one-and-done.”
For instance, of MLB’s top 10 closers in saves as of Aug. 30, only three averaged more than one Innings Pitched (IP) per game, while five averaged less than one per outing. Compare that to the top 10 all-time leaders in saves. Of that group, only the San Diego Padres’ Trevor Hoffman averaged just an inning per game throughout his career (the Houston Astros’ Billy Wagner and Yankees’ Mariano Rivera averaged 1.02 and 1.06 innings per game, respectively). All the others clocked in at more than three outs an appearance, led by Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, and Goose Gossage at 1.61, 1.58 and 1.57 IP per game, respectfully.
“We were workhorses,” Gossage pointed out in a 2019 interview with NJ Advance Media.. “Starters still prided themselves in finishing what they started and when they got in trouble, that’s when we came into the game.”
Gossage, in fact, pitched more than one inning in 193 of his 310 saves in a 22-year career from 1972-1994.
I’m not suggesting that baseball go back to the days of starters throwing 150-175 pitches an outing, or relievers throwing 200 innings a season (as the Dodgers’ Mike Marshall did in 1974), but baseball needs to change the nightly “five-and-dive”, and the Parade of the Flame-Throwing Relievers, who pitch their inning and then take a seat in the dugout.
Here’s what Gossage said about starting pitchers’ abbreviated workloads these days: “A hundred pitch counts are killing these kids. It’s killing their endurance. Five innings and these guys are looking over their shoulder. The first thing they ask when they come in the dugout is, ‘How many pitches do I have?’ If we’d asked that back in the day…they’d say, ‘Son, get your ass out there and when you get tired we’ll come and get you.”
“We don’t train starting pitchers anymore,” Hall of Famer John Smoltz told Peter Gammons of The Athletic. “We train for power, for velocity, but not pitching. I was allowed to pitch, allowed to get my brains beaten in, overcome adversity and keep going, make adjustments, change.”
Smoltz went 2-7 in his first year in the majors, and wound up with 213 career wins and 154 saves, primarily with the Atlanta Braves.
“When young pitchers struggle, give them time to develop other pitches or figure out what they want to do before they become one-inning pitchers and are expected to throw every pitch with maximum effort, which so often leads to injuries,” Smoltz added. “Let them learn touch and feel.”
Starters Still a Main Draw
Historically, starters have carried the burden of working a large majority of the innings and the responsibility for shepherding a lead late into the game. For many years they were, for the most part, the faces of their team’s pitching staff, and occasionally the entire team.
Think Early Wynn and Bob Lemon of the 1950s Cleveland Indians, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax of the 1960s Dodgers, Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich with the Detroit Tigers in the late 1960s, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine of the Braves in the 1990s, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in the early 2000s, David Cone and Dwight Gooden of the Mets in the late 1980s, and, of course, Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain (“Spahn and Sain, and pray for rain”) for the Boston Braves in 1948.
Years ago, fans looked forward to watching Koufax vs. Juan Marichal, Pedro Martinez going against Roger Clemens, Bob Gibson dueling Ferguson Jenkins, Tom Seaver opposite Steve Carlton, or Maddux facing Roy Halladay – often with little, or no, help from the bullpen.
While roles have changed – starters exiting sooner and the bullpen shepherding the lead late in the game -- for all the talk about baseball needing more offense to help boost attendance, fans still want to see a matchup of marquee starters. They enjoy watching, say, the Dodgers’ Max Scherzer battle Mets’ Jacob deGrom, or Philadelphia Phillies’ Zack Wheeler against Chicago Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks, or Yankees’ Gerrit Cole vs. White Sox’s Carlos Rondon for seven innings or more
When fans attend games, one of their first questions generally is, “Who’s pitching today?” When was the last time you heard those fans say, “I wonder who’s in the bullpen today?”
The top starting pitchers still command attention, and removing them from a game after only five innings simply because they might be going through the opponent’s batting order the dreaded third time is doing a disservice to the fans.
“I think the fans want to see starting pitching,” Scherzer told The Athletic in a 2019 interview. “They want to see two starters go at it for 100-plus pitches, six-seven innings, and really are entertained by how each pitcher goes about their business. At the end of the day, fans drive this business.’’
They do. And, they certainly deserve better than having to watch a pitcher hitting .031 at the plate in the ninth inning with the game on the line.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.