ves·tige: A bodily part or organ that is small and degenerate or imperfectly developed in comparison to one more fully developed in an earlier stage of the individual, in a past generation, or in closely related forms
A good case can be made that the starting pitcher position, as it is currently employed by MLB teams, is a vestigial remnant of days now gone. The goal of a starting pitcher going back to the early recorded history baseball was and is to go as deep as possible into a game, only giving way to relievers when he is no longer able to effectively retire batters. Then that pitcher would be given 3 and now 4 or 5 days off to recover and prepare for their next start. While at there was a point in time when this undoubtedly made perfect sense, the evolution of the game has rendered it, at best, of questionable use going forward. There are lots of ways to demonstrate the general degradation of the usefulness of the traditional “starting pitcher” but we’ll focus on a couple of basic measures, that apply both to MLB as a whole and the Brewers specifically.
Perhaps the easiest way to see how starting pitchers are less useful than they used to be is simply looking at how much they pitch. In 1972, the average start lasted 6.7 innings. 40 years later in 2012, despite the fact that nearly every team in the league had switched from a 4 to a 5 man rotation and thus was asking their starters to go less often, that number had dropped to 5.9 innings per start. For a number of reasons, starters just aren’t able to go as deep into games as they used to on a regular basis. This has caused some to pine for the “good old days” of tough pitchers who bulldogged through 9 innings on a regular basis. Those days just aren’t coming back, though, and yet the game clings to the same basic model it used then.
There are, in theory, 150 starting pitching slots in MLB each year. The goal of each team is to fill their 5 slots with starters who routinely are able to pitch deep into games while limiting runs allowed, giving their offense and bullpen every chance to win as many games as possible. The problem is that finding starters who can actually do this is, to say the least, difficult. For some time now, 200 innings has been a sort of bench mark for a true “inning eating” starter. In 2012, there were 31 pitchers who threw 200 innings or more, or about 1 per team. If we lower the bar to 180 innings, the number goes up to 61 or about 2 per team. If we go down to the 150th starter in terms of innings pitched, we find Liam Hendricks of the Twins, who threw 85 1/3 innings last year. Hardly the sort of inning eater teams are looking for. Clearly, there just aren’t close to enough of these types of guys to go around.
What’s more, that pitching setup isn’t even working that well. The wonderful MLB Network show Clubhouse Confidential pointed out last Tuesday that most starters lose effectiveness as the game goes on and hitters see them multiple times. In 2012, the first time that all MLB batters saw a starting pitcher, they averaged a line of .250/.310/.399. The second time through, though, those numbers jumped to .263/.323/.422. By the third time it ballooned all the way to .272/.330/.444. It drops off after that, which makes sense, because the only way a starter gets to see batters a 4th time in general is if they’re carving apart the lineup.
The above trend is distinctly (and perhaps alarmingly) present in quite a few of the Brewers’ current starters. Both Mike Fiers and Marco Estrada see a better than 200 point jump in OPS from the first to the third time through the order. Chris Narveson is very nearly 200 points. Neither Wily Peralta nor Mark Rogers have pitched enough innings to say how pronounced these trends might be for them, though there is some suggestion in Peralta’s numbers that a strong trend in this direction might emerge. Tyler Thornburg’s well documented struggles maintaining his velocity deep into games at least suggest he could see similar problems, which has led many scouts and analysts to conclude he’s best off in relief. The only clear counter example on the staff is that of Yovani Gallardo, who is 2012 saw a nearly 150 point drop in OPS against from the first to the third time through the order, before the number spiked back up 4+ times through.
This trend of starters losing effectiveness has long been present in the game, but at least in the days of a 4 man rotation and starters eating a lot more innings generally, it served the greater purpose of conserving roster sports. There was a time when teams carried 10 pitchers and managed to cover all the innings with just those guys. With the proliferation of 12 and 13 man pitching staffs, it’s pretty clearly no longer serving that purpose. If teams are going to need to carry so many pitchers to get through a season effectively, isn’t it high time that we asked if there isn’t a better way to distribute those innings? Is there a practical way for a team to take this tendency of lost effectiveness and work around it? Would it be possible to ask pitchers like these to throw a bit less, but just a bit more often? Could such a thing help a team like these Brewers to improve their overall run prevention substantially enough to make it worth the effort? What would such a thing even look like? We’ll attempt to answer these questions and more in part two, which will run tomorrow.