One of the most wonderful things about baseball is how — for a game that’s played at such a slow and relaxed pace — the sport does nothing but change. America’s pastime has seen a lot of shifts (get it?) throughout its history, with different levels of offense, two different dead ball eras, a stolen base craze, the steroid era, and the current three-true-outcome and bullpen-heavy experience. But a change that’s been steady and almost always in the same direction has been the decline of the starting pitcher.
It’s no secret that the starting pitcher is less important now than ever before. Gone are the days of aces pitching 240+ innings and consistently pitching into the eighth inning. Even the simple notion of getting seven strong innings from your best starter is now in peril. As bullpens become larger and teams seek efficiency, those batters the starter faced from the seventh inning onwards are now seeing a seemingly endless stream of generic hard-throwing relievers with control issues.
This is a trend that’s been getting more and more extreme in recent years, since 2017 in particular. Ben Lindbergh wrote a piece on The Ringer about in during the 2018 postseason and it’s only gone further since then. As evidence, here’s the percentage of the total innings in MLB tossed by starting pitchers since 2014. So far in 2021, it’s at 57.72%, but that’s still a very small sample size so I didn’t factor that in:
That’s pretty scary, isn’t it? Just seven years ago, a third of all innings were tossed by relief pitchers and now we’re firmly striding towards an even split between starters and relievers. Starting pitchers are becoming less and less efficient as the three true outcomes take over the game and with the strict pitch counts that are used by every team, 90-100 pitches now may only get you through six innings at best instead of seven or eight. And as I said before, this is happening primarily for one reason: efficiency. With their eight-or-nine-man bullpens, teams now have little reason to allow any starter that isn’t an ace to face the order a third time, even less so in postseason play. And why pay $10M for a solid back-end starter when you can cover those innings with a bunch of hard-throwing youngsters who’ll be making the league minimum salary or close to it?
If you ask fans, most people will tell you they dislike the “bullpenning” trend. The uptick in cumbersome pitching changes is a big part, but I suspect something else is behind the dislike many fans have for bullpenning, and that’s the lack of connection and investment bullpenning creates. Because at the heart of it, baseball games are built around the starting pitcher, around that duel between two individuals. No player impacts a game like the starting pitcher. And seeing the starter pitch deep into games triggers something that sits deep inside our brains: emotion.
Why? Well, you have time to get invested in the individual’s performance. It’s like watching a movie, and the starter is the main character. You get attached to how he’s pitching, to how he goes about getting guys out. His performance has a beginning and an end. Bullpenning removes that connection by making the guy on the mound not matter anywhere near as much because he changes so often that it’s impossible to feel that sense of attachment. There’s a reason everyone remembers no-hitters and no one cares about “combined” no-hitters. The crowd never wants to see the starter come out of the game when the manager makes his way to the mound late in a game. We just saw it with Kapler and Johnny Cueto at San Francisco earlier this season:
1) Kapler visits mound in 9th, presumably to take out Cueto— Sam Hustis (@SamHustis) April 10, 2021
2) Crowd boos
3) Kapler keeps Cueto in
4) Crowd goes wild
“I think I was right there with them. Had I been in their shoes I would have probably been reacting the same way.” pic.twitter.com/nUxqWEaii8
And this is the thing I love the most about Bud Black. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone when I say his management of position players sometimes drives me insane, but the way he handles his starters wins me over, because Bud Black loves his starters. He really does. You can tell in interviews and mound visits. And that faith he has in his good starters to pitch through trouble deep into games is one of my favorite things about him because it makes for engaging baseball to watch. Like the time last year when he allowed Germán Márquez to face Mookie Betts a fourth time in the seventh inning with the go-ahead run in scoring position. Like the time last year when he allowed Senzatela to go all the way against the A’s. Like that time in 2019 when he allowed Germán to face the Dodger order a fourth time with the go-ahead run on base in that stunning duel with Walker Buehler.
I really began to notice how much I appreciate Bud’s faith in his starters during last year’s postseason. Watching manager after manager head out to the mound to pull their starter in the fifth inning when they were pitching just fine, watching bullpen games, all of that was truly difficult to take in as a neutral fan who just wanted fun baseball. I was going mental during many Rays games when Kevin Cash pulled starters far too son for my liking. Dave Roberts, Brian Snitker, every single manager did it constantly. And I couldn’t help but think sometimes “Buddy is leaving that guy in”. Is that efficient and sound baseball? At times yes, at times no. But that’s not really the point of being a sports fan, is it?
So, as some questions arise regarding Bud Black’s job security, I wanted to explain the one thing I love the most about him being this team’s skipper. Even if it costs the team sometimes, there’s nothing more engaging than a starter pitching deep into a game, and I’d like to thank Bud Black for providing us with those thrills. Because at the end of the day, fun baseball is what we all want to see. And is there anything more fun than watching a starter getting outs in the 7th inning and onwards? I really don’t think so.