Baseball has become a bullpen-centric game, but the transition is eliminating a historic element of the sport: the backend reliever.
This season we have seen teams’ approach to constructing their roster drastically change. They value power bats, players who can play all around the diamond — not to say it wasn’t valued the previous century, but players are making a career off playing multiple positions in 2019 — and, most recently, several teams have developed a reliance on their bullpens.
Bullpenning, or teams using their bullpen to extremes, has been a controversial and emotional topic for many baseball fans, and understandably so. Watching a starting pitcher dominate is a value that a statistic, nor an analytic can thoroughly decipher. The ability to plow through an order multiple times is special. With that said, we’re seeing relievers pitch multiple innings at a time more frequently, and it’s not due to starters struggling. The Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays embody this movement.
Last postseason, Brewers manager Craig Counsell let a starting pitcher go beyond the fifth inning in just three of their 10 games and used many relievers for multiple innings at a time. On the other hand, the Rays have just three true starting pitchers. Rays manager Kevin Cash goes with a bullpen day two every five games to keep opposing lineups off guard.
To be clear: Closers are still effective and used on a regular basis in Major League Baseball. But there is less tolerance for struggles, hefty paydays, and an inability to pitch beyond a particular inning with such relievers. Right-handed reliever Cody Allen is the perfect example of this mindset.
Two years ago, Allen was regarded as an elite closer. Then he struggled in his last season with the Cleveland Indians, signed a one-year, $8.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels in the offseason, and was recently released while owning a 6.26 ERA.
Craig Kimbrel, one of the best closers in baseball, didn’t sign with a club until June. Going into the offseason, the right-hander looked poised to cash in on a massive contract based on the pedigree he has getting the final three outs of a ballgame. But therein lies another development: Relievers are being treated like NFL players, when it concerns their contract situation.
The NFL is regarded as the “what have you done for me lately league,” as players’ contracts aren’t fully guaranteed. Every year there are a handful of players who get cut and fans scratch their heads. Sometimes these players are cut due to injury. Other times, it’s because the team has to allocate money to improve another aspect of their 53-man roster. It could also be because of one bad season; all it takes is the smallest of misfortunes, and you’re looking for a new job.
Kimbrel strung together another solid season in 2018. He continued to be one of the most shutdown relievers in the game, but in the postseason, he struggled mightily. Recording a 5.91 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in nine appearances, he put games in harm’s way, and there were times where he nearly extended series’ by continually being unable to get through an inning smoothly.
We could agree that Kimbrel’s postseason struggles don’t define his career, or the reliever we’re accustomed to seeing. But he’s 31, and why do you have to give someone nine figures to get three outs? It goes against a long-standing logic in the sport, but what sense does it make to fork over that money for someone to pitch 60 innings a season?
If we based salaries on this structure (roughly $16 million per 60 innings) that would mean Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, and other top-flight starting pitchers, who you would expect to throw 200 innings a season, are worth roughly $53 million a season. Does that seem fair?
What’s often forgotten, or not discussed, is that every pitcher in the big leagues was once a starting pitcher. Whether it be Little League, Varsity, College, or minor-league ball, the pitchers you see on your television used to take the hill with the intention of going deep into games. Then they inherit new coaching staffs, and teams decide whether they project them as a starter, or reliever. They become accustomed to new workloads and roles. And if you’re a reliever, you’re under scrutiny every time you take the hill because you have no margin for error.
What’s the difference between two relievers pitching two innings every other game and four relievers pitching an inning a piece every game? It’s the same workload, and if you go with the first scenario, you have more arms available the ensuing game.
There was also the trial and error of teams forking over monster contracts for premier relievers. The 2016 offseason was a prime example. Teams developed a habit for drowning relievers with a boatload of money in hopes of “catching up with the rest of the league.” The New York Yankees gave Aroldis Chapman a five-year, $86 million deal; the Los Angeles Dodgers gave Kenley Jansen a five-year, $80 million deal; the San Francisco Giants gave Mark Melancon a four-year, $62 million deal.
While he has been his stellar self the last two seasons, Chapman was revoked of his closing duties at one point in 2017 and the jury has always been out on whether he’s worth his hefty contract; Jansen has had Dodger fans holding their breath in recent memory; Melancon recorded a 4.50 ERA in the first season of his contract with the Giants.
Compare those contracts to the ones dished out this past offseason.
Kimbrel signed a three-year, $43 million deal with the Cubs; Zack Britton signed a three-year, $39 million deal with the Yankees; Jeurys Familia signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the New York Mets; Adam Ottavino signed a three-year, $27 million deal with the Yankees; Andrew Miller signed a two-year, $25 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals; Joe Kelly signed a three-year, $25 million deal with the Dodgers; David Robertson signed a two-year, $23 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies; Kelvin Herrera signed a two-year, $18 million deal with the Chicago White Sox; Joakim Soria signed a two-year, $15 million deal with the Oakland Athletics; Allen signed a one-year, $8.5 million deal with the Angels.
The years and money per year is down with every signing. Why? Teams value length and versatility over being one-dimensional. More often than not, relievers are being asked to either pitch multiple innings, or come in to jam a hitter. While some teams offered these relievers nice coin, they did so on short-term deals, meaning that if the pitcher disappoints, the team can part ways, or move on quickly.
Backend relievers have short leashes in games and on team’s payrolls. If they put two runners on base and labor through at-bats and their job is to get three outs, teams have no patience. It’s on to the next reliever, or they keep the one that was on the hill the inning prior to finish out the game.
Baseball has become a scientific experiment with the way people analyze games, but a lot of changes in the sport aren’t analytical; they’re managers finding different ways to utilize their players. It’s not as if teams found out that you’re allowed to use relievers for multiple innings at a time last week. Teams didn’t entertain the idea because they let their starting pitchers go deep into games even in bad outings. They also didn’t gasp for air when their starter reached 100 pitches.
There are still elite one-inning relievers such as Kimbrel, Chapman, Sean Doolittle, Blake Treinen, and others. But the niche isn’t as vital as it was 10 years ago. Out of the elite closers in baseball today, how many of them were held in such high esteem five years ago? What about setup relievers?
Change can result in the outcome you desire, but it can also have byproducts. The slow elimination of backend relievers is the side effect of baseball’s new pitching norm. But perhaps it’s exactly what baseball wants.