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The starter is dead. Let’s try to fix it.

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Colorado Rockies news and links for Wednesday, September 22nd, 2021

You know, I was looking at topics to write about, and the Rockies haven’t done a lot of things that merit their own thing this past week, so let’s do something different. Usually, these pieces are dedicated to player analysis, general Rox topics and other things of the sort, but I’m taking a break from that this Wednesday to talk about something I think about a lot: how in the world do we stop the endless stream of relievers we’re seeing?

Let’s kick things off with one particular graphic I made:

What you’re looking is a season-to-season look at the percentage of all MLB pitchers that accrued 5+ WAR (blue) and 8+ WAR (red). Two things: I used RA9-WAR, not Fangraphs’ FIP-based WAR, and I picked these two benchmarks because they’re considered to be points where a player had a truly great season. 5+ WAR means an upper level All-Star/low-ballot MVP type of season and 8+ WAR means an MVP caliber season. Now, regardless of how you feel about WAR and its shortcomings (fWAR for pitchers being particularly laughable in my humble opinion), we can definitely use it as an estimator for value.

Another name I could give that graphic would be “% of pitchers who are stars”. The importance of individual pitchers has been in a steady decrease since the very start, but it’s accelerating since the mid-2000s, and that’s a bad thing for the game. If you look at almost every piece of promotional material MLB puts out, every hype package for a Sunday Night Baseball game, anything that’s supposed to promote the game, you could count the amount of starting pitchers you see with the fingers of one hand.

I’ve written before about why the starting pitcher being the centerpiece of the game is a good thing, so I won’t dive deep into that again. This time, let’s think about how to fix it instead, because there are a couple of issues at hand here.

The easiest thing to think about is the size of the pitching staff. MLB rosters right now tend to have 14 pitchers in them: five starters and nine relievers. The five-man rotation has been a thing for a very long time, and I don’t see teams going to a four-man rotation anytime soon, so cutting the size of the staff down from 14 to 11/12 would be a way to force starters to pitch more, right? Someone has to cover those innings that are now vacant! Well, maybe, or maybe not. There’s a chance teams would just double down on relievers, but instead of one-inning guys, just piggyback multi-inning pitchers. We need more.

Another reason just shrinking the size of the staff wouldn’t work is the constant churn of relievers teams pull off, moving fresh arms up and down from Triple-A to always have multiple relievers available. A way to stop this? Put a minimum on how much time a player has to spend in the new level he reaches. Say, for example, that players who get called up must stay on their new roster for at least two or three weeks, and the same goes for guys who get sent down. That would slow the churn down somewhat.

So, as of now, we have 11 or 12-man pitching staffs, and the churn has been slowed down a bit. Yet another thing we need to stop? The max-effort mentality. Right now, because starters pitch so little, they go all-out in every pitch, don’t throw a lot of strikes, and throw a ton of breaking and offspeed stuff, which contributes to more strikeouts, longer plate appearances, and less innings pitched for them. Could starters afford to go max-effort all the time and get into a full count with every other batter if they were expected to pitch 6/7 innings instead of 5? I doubt it. You’d see more strikes, possibly a few more fastballs, and starters might even be healthier since they’re not going full effort on every pitch. Maybe even less velocity on average!

Where are we now?

  • 12-man pitching staff (five starters, seven relievers)
  • 20-day minimum stay for players who get called up or sent down a level to/from MLB
  • Slightly more strikes, less max-effort. Possibly a bit less velo
  • Starters likely pitching near 60% of all innings (or even more)

This all looks like we’ve made a pitcher’s job way more difficult, right? We need to balance the scale again so offense doesn’t explode. Contrary to what most people would say, 2021 hasn’t been a poor offensive season for post-integration standards, with teams averaging 4.53 runs per game, which is mainly a result of the still very high 1.23 HR per game teams are hitting (the league-average SLG% is .410).

If we make pitchers throw with less effort and throw more strikes and leave everything as it is, I’m fairly certain we’ll see higher averages AND record home run numbers, so we need to give the pitchers something, and that something is a deader ball. A deader ball would not only balance out the run-scoring, it would also likely make pitching to contact slightly more viable again, which means less strikeouts and possibly less walks.

So, there you have it. This is all theory, of course, but the measures I’d take to “fix” the death of the starter (and the massive damage it does to baseball) are:

  • 11/12-man pitching staff
  • 20-day minimum stay for players who get called up or sent down a level to/from MLB
  • Deader ball (like, significantly)

I don’t think you need to touch the shift, the mound, and you obviously don’t need no stinkin’ pitch clock. If guys are encouraged to pitch faster and umpires enforce the already existing pace of play rules, that solves it. I swear, anyone who is pro-pitch clock makes me very sad. If I want to watch a boring, timed sport, the NBA’s right there!

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What is suddenly right about these road Rockies? And what does it mean for 2022? | The Athletic ($)

As Charlie Blackmon wisely said, “you can’t just look at a home record and say, “Wow, all we’ve got to do is do that on the road’ and, presto, we’re a great team. It’s not that easy”.

Jeff Bridich’s penultimate trade may be a huge winner for years to come | Rox Pile

Robert Stephenson has actually looked pretty solid lately, and his season ERA is a very respectable 3.57. Could it be that Jeff Bridich left us with a solid reliever? Stephenson is still relatively young at 28, too.

On The Farm

It was almost a heroic performance from the Isotope bullpen, as the group held strong for a long time after Nº 14 PuRP Ryan Feltner got knocked out in the third inning (2.2 IP, 4 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 2 BB, 2 K, 2 HR), but Justin Lawrence ultimately blew a road save in the bottom of the ninth, allowing Sugar Land to walk it off on a two-run homer, and the one-run loss makes the 18 LOB and the 3-for-13 with RISP Albuquerque managed sting even more. The 52-68 ‘Topes dropped five of six against the Skeeters and will have a day off before going back to Albuquerque for their final homestand of the season.

A week after dominating through 7+ innings, Nº 13 PuRP Helcris Olivarez couldn’t get out of the first in the opener of the Championship Series between these two ballclubs. The lefty faced nine batters and they went: single, walk, single, homer, flyout, walk, triple, homer, homer. That’s eight earned runs in a third of an inning, which put the Indians behind for good, compounded by every one of the three hurlers who finished the game in relief allowing two runs or more. The Emeralds cracked 20 hits in total, with nine of them going for extra bases. A total annihilation from start the finish with the only bright spot being Nº 11 PuRP Brenton Doyle, who went 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles and drove in four runs. Spokane will have to lick its wounds and get ready for Game 2 tomorrow, badly needing a win to stay alive in the best-of-five set.

A low-scoring ballgame that ended up going to the San José Giants, who took the lead in the best-of-five Championship series against our Fresno Grizzlies. Both starters pitched into the seventh inning, with home starter Austin Kitchen dancing around a lot of baserunners to keep the Grizzlies in it (6.0 IP, 8 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 1 HR) before the lone homer of the game for either team knocked him out in the top of the seventh inning. He was bested by Giants starter Kyle Harrison (6.1 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, 0 HR), and the Giants’ bullpen took care of the rest. Nº 1 PuRP Zac Veen reached base three times in four PA’s, going 2-for-3 with a walk, but it wasn’t enough, as Fresno didn’t manage a single extra-base-hit the entire game. The Grizzlies will turn to righty Tony Locey (3-0, 3.34 ERA) in Game 2, hoping to draw even with San José before going on the road.

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