The Starting Pitcher, Slowly Going the Way of the Buffalo
If you’ve been a baseball fan longer than 10 years, you’ve seen a major evolution in the way teams handle starting pitchers. The starter used to be the star – innings eaters who sold tickets and won games. And they really won them, going deep into games, week after week, year after year. But now that’s all changed. The complete game is nearly extinct. In 1980, 20.3% of starters finished the game they started. This season, that number is down to 0.6%, with just 30 out of 4,470 starts resulting in a complete game. In 2022, MLB starters average 5.15 innings per start. As Passan notes, in 2022, “only one pitcher, Miami’s Sandy Alcantara, posts more than seven innings a start. Just 20 pitchers are above six. Alcantara and Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes are the lone two who log at least 100 pitches per game. Alcantara is at 101, Burnes at 100.”
In this article, Jeff Passan asks why, and focuses on Toronto’s Alek Manoah (big fan of this guy), a dying breed. Manoah hasn’t pitched a complete game this year. He’s young and big and an innings eater, but he’s still wrestling with his team over load management. Here’s Passan:
“The story of the disappearing starter is one in which analytics beat aesthetics. A confluence of factors — small-market teams clawing for survival among their moneyed brethren, the broken youth baseball apparatus, the industry’s general ignorance about arm health — served as accelerants, but at the heart were numbers too compelling for teams to deny.”
Passan is referring here to the “times-through-the-order-penalty” – the more times a batter sees a pitcher, the better he performs. The theory was popularized in a November 5, 2013 article on Baseball Prospectus by Michael Lichtman, who noted that “over the previous 40 years, hitters gained an average of 27 on-base-plus-slugging points between their first and second plate appearances against a starter and 24 more between the second and third.”
This knowledge has changed the game. As Passan noted:
“Soon after Lichtman’s piece, innings-per-start numbers tumbled, from 5.97 in 2014 to 5.81 to 5.65 to 5.51 to 5.36 to 5.18 in the last season before the COVID-19 pandemic. The figures ran inverse to average fastball velocity, which had continued its steady climb from under 89 mph at the turn of the 21st century to 93 mph by 2019. Teams were pivoting away from pitchers who could pitch deep into games and focusing on other skills: velocity, strength and pitch design. Ultimately, that philosophy birthed a cottage industry that inside pitch labs created a new strain of swing-and-miss pitches.”
And, some argue, the effects are not good for fans. Here’s former Red Sox and Cubs president Theo Epstein:
“It’s math. It’s real. If you’re looking to just optimize for one game, of course you’d rather have a fresh reliever than a starter third time through. But when every team takes that approach there’s a real cost to the industry. We lose the identity of the starting pitcher as a prominent character in the drama day in and day out.”
Epstein notes, though, that despite fewer innings and fewer pitches we are not seeing fewer pitcher injuries. Why? Here’s Passan:
“Fewer innings leads inevitably to more max-effort pitches, which arm experts agree create more injuries. Teams remain at the mercy of a self-created beast; max effort is more effective, and the system — from youth baseball onward — prioritizes little else. No one seems inclined to interrupt the faulty feedback loop. The average minor league start this season lasts 4.23 innings. Only six of the 120 teams in the minor leagues use their starters for more than five innings per start. One team, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Single-A affiliate Rancho Cucamonga, leaves its starters in for an average of 2.9 innings. A minor league pitcher reaching 100 pitches is blue lobster rare.”
Epstein sees dire consequences for baseball if the trend continues and suggests limiting pitchers on a roster to 11 and force a team to lose its DH when it pulls its starting pitcher. It’s not a bad idea. -TOB
Source: “‘It’s a Dying Breed. And It Sucks’: The Decline of the Starting Pitcher — and What It Means for Baseball’s Future,” Jeff Passan, ESPN (07/06/2022)
PAL: For “the nerds” to be ignored for so long, to this: one article from Baseball Prospectus, and the starting pitcher is on the outs. This story made me wonder if we’re in the un-fun phase of baseball’s evolution, and yet I had a very unsettled reaction when I heard about the shift rules going into play next year, thereby limiting or diverting a trend.
Also, as a Twins fan I am contractually mandated to bring up Jack Morris’ 10-inning, 1-0 shutout in a game 7 of the friggin’ World Series. You want drama, Theo? That was dramatic. Where does that performance land on a list of things we will never, ever, ever see again?
What is Judge Chasing?
Aaron Judge tied Babe Ruth when he hit his 60th home run the other night. It is not a record-breaking home run; hell, he hasn’t even broken the team record (yet), but 60 still matters, somehow, and that’s what Barry Petchesky lays out with such sharp writing.
The game’s greatest treasure is its history, and it rarely feels more vital than when that history comes alive again. A slugger putting up an absurd number 95 entire years ago doesn’t feel so distant when a slugger wearing the same uniform chases it down now. The present informs the past, makes it real in a way newsreels and ledgers can’t quite.
And later, he addresses the fact that, as incredible as Judge’s season has been (a 60+ homer triple crown season is bonkers), he’s not breaking the home run record (14 homers in 12 games isn’t happening). So why are we treating this like a chase?
But I have a theory about 61, and it’s that a home run chase is so much fun that there’s a collective if unspoken agreement to accept that Judge is currently engaged in one. It requires a little targeted forgetfulness, and the making of strange bedfellows with those freaks still hung up on the steroid thing, but it’s worth it. 1998 was a special thing. I genuinely pity people not old enough to remember it.
We can’t relive the supernova summer of 1998, but with every Judge highlight, every live look-in for his at-bats, every astonishing statistic, we can enjoy something of its reflected warmth. A home run chase is a good time, and it reminds one of previous home run chases, and of a slightly more naive era of fandom (or maybe just of my own life) when it was easy and good to feel things so strongly. So if Judge is not going to chase down Barry Bonds—if a chase for the true home run record is simply not in the cards until and unless the game fundamentally changes—where’s the harm in acting like or believing that 61 is still a mark worth chasing? I promise you it’s more fun to be here counting dingers than to be too savvy to.
Also, not a bad year for Judge to do this. Remember, he said no to the 7 years, $213MM extension that the Yankees offered at Spring Training. Come the offseason, he’ll fetch a hell of a lot more as a free agent. I know the Twins won’t pay the kind of money he’ll get, so I hope the Giants go all-in for Judge.
Petchesky has his heater going on this one. – PAL
Source: “The Chase Is The Thing,” Barry Petchesky, Defector (09/21/22)
TOB: This is interesting and similar to a thought I had this week. I saw a Tweet wondering if Bonds would have hit 73 in 2011 if not for 9/11 – and it’s a fascinating question on two levels.
First, Bonds hit 61, 62, and 63 in the same night! On 9/9/2001! He does that on a Sunday, has Monday off, and then on Tuesday two airplanes hit the World Trade Center. And then Bonds, like the rest of the league, got a week off, during which he no doubt rested and recuperated.
Second, after he hit 63, the nation and world’s attention was elsewhere, obviously, and so maybe there was less pressure. There was certainly less coverage in 2001 and than McGwire and Sosa got in 1998. I had always attributed that to Home Run Chase Fatigue™ and the fact that the media did not like Bonds as much as they liked McGwire and Sosa (at the time). would have been under more pressure in 2001 if not for 9/11. But in response to that tweet about Bonds and 9/11, I added another thought that touches on what Barry says here.
I wondered if, once Bonds passed 60, the pressure was off. Heck, he hit two more that same day! But 61 had been the magic number for 40 years, and 61 for decades before that. 70 was the number for just three. I think for so many people 60/61 is still a magic number – it still means something to baseball fans, no matter their opinion of Bonds or 73 or the steroid era. 62 is gonna be cool, and I am rooting hard for Aaron Judge.
In fact, like Barry Bonds himself, I’m rooting for him to a baker’s dozen more and get to 73, or higher (despite Phil’s rational thought that it isn’t happening) and then sign this offseason with his childhood team, the San Francisco Giants. That way, as a Bonds fan, I can enjoy the memories of 73 in peace, without someone whining about the Cream or the Clear or BALCO. Go Judge!
1975 San Francisco: SFPD vs a Gay Bar Softball Game
This is a cool, photo-forward story by the SF Chronicle on a softball series, played in the 1970s, between the SFPD and a softball team from the Pendulum, a Castro District gay bar. If this lede doesn’t compel you to click the link and read this story, I don’t know what will.
Because I am in. And I’m not the only one. The game was attended by George Moscone, Willie Brown, and Dianne Feinstein. Check out this crowd, part of 5,000 fans (a number larger than the reported attendance at more than a few Giants games that year):
The article tells as great story, and has some great action shots, too. Like this one. NO, JOE. That ball is too damn high!
Check out the story for how the game ended, and the sad reason the series ended just a few years later. They should really bring this back. -TOB
Source: “A 1970s Rivalry Between a Gay Bar and and the SFPD Reached Epic Heights (Then Crashed),” Peter Hartlaub, SF Chronicle (09/02/2022)
PAL: This story catches such a fascinating moment in time. There’s so much hope and community in these photos. That it goes away so soon after, and the reason why, is heartbreaking.
Video(s) of the Week
Look, I’ve been busy. I got a lot of videos saved up. So buckle up:
PAL: LET ME GET IN HERE! Give me every GD angle of this turd hitting the rope and whining.
Tweet(s) of the Week
Song of the Week
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