If you’ve watched a baseball game this season, there’s a good chance you heard a “back in the old days…” type remark from an announcer. We all know how frequent this type of statement can be, and that most of the time the observations are baseless and meaningless. One observation that falls under the old-school is the frequent complaint: “starters just don’t seem to be throwing as deep into games this season.” You may be compelled to write this statement off as well, as it seems like people have been complaining about falsely shortened starts for years, but this comment actually holds some water
It’s common knowledge that pitchers aren’t throwing as deep into games as they did in the 60’s, 70’s, and even 80’s. Teams are prioritizing arm health, times-through-the-order tactics, and shorter bursts of high octane performance over long outings. To combat the shorter starts, rosters are built with stronger and deeper bullpens than ever before, making the decrease in start-length a rather seamless transition. The league-wide shift to this kind of pitching isn’t exactly new information, but the effect may be greater this season. So far in 2016, starters are having shorter outings than ever before.
Yes, that old-school announcer was right when he thought starters weren’t throwing as deep into ball games, as this season’s innings per start mark of 5.6 is the lowest ever. Still, we’re only one month into the season—arms are still warming up, rotations aren’t fully settled, and managers may have a quicker hook—so some might think that starts lengthen as the season goes now. But, data shows this doesn’t consistently occur and even if it did, this April’s 5.6 innings mark is the lowest of any April in baseball since 1960.
As you can see, there isn’t exactly a drastic drop in outing length this season compared to others, though that doesn’t render this information worthless. It’s an interesting indicator of the state of pitching right now. This season has the third best K/BB mark since 1960 but a fairly middling ERA, which may be a result of an increase in home runs in recent years. It’s not groundbreaking news, but pitchers do seem to be trading innings for strikeouts—though their ERA’s aren’t necessarily improving.
Strikeouts and base runners aren’t the only factor in how deep a pitcher goes. Managers have the final say in when a pitcher leaves the ball game, so they have a large role in the decrease in outing length. One reason that may be driving managers to pull pitchers could be the improvement of bullpens, which are deeper and harder than ever to hit. Bullpens in 2016 have a solid 3.77 ERA, along with what would be record-breaking K/9 and WHIP. Managers have an increased trust in their bullpen, which has allowed for an increased reliance on relievers as well. Furthermore, strategies to decrease a starting pitcher’s exposure to lineups have led to consistently shorting outings from some pitchers. It’s not one factor that has made starters throw less innings than ever—it’s actually quite a few. While it’s not wrong to say that pitchers are trying to protect their arms from the dreaded Tommy John Surgery (among other possible maladies), it isn’t the only reason why innings per start have gradually trended down for years now.