We hear a lot about length of game and payrolls. It’s gotten to the point that players like John Lackey in August are publicly stating baseball’s getting “soft”. I can’t argue with that. It is. And part of the issue is the widespread use of the bullpen. Thirty years ago, starters were throwing 120 or more pitches during a game. The logic was simple: They are the starter, so the onus to win or lose is on them. This logic, this mentality, gave us great hurlers like Nolan Ryan and Jack Morris, guys who often went beyond 120 pitches and lead Major League Baseball in pitches, complete games and a slew of other records. They were hard and gritty. These records aren’t possible in the same way as they were decades ago. Pay versus playing time has gotten out of control too. So Lackey is right. The game is getting “soft”.
We now get to see the arbitrary pitch count grow. It’s almost a uniform action among managers that once the starter hits the magical 100 pitches, he’s gone. Every network showing MLB games has a pitch count somewhere. Every stadium advertises the pitch count. It’s become a staple for predicting when a pitching change will occur. We’d see a softening of the game on pitchers. Baseball has created an arbitrary number, the century mark, as the delineating point between continuing to pitch and stopping.
I still recall Jim Leyland and Brad Ausmus taking out starters who were into the 8th inning, even the 9th inning, because they hit 100-110 pitches. Then seeing the bullpen choke up the game. Tigers fans are still smarting from the 2013 ALCS Game 2 debacle caused by Jim Leyland. Ironman Max Scherzer had 108 pitches through the 7th inning. He had a lead of 5-1 over the Red Sox. Jim removed Max, much to the astonishment of fans. Had it been Verlander, he’d have kept him in. The result was catastrophic. The Tigers bullpen choked up five runs in only two innings, and wound up losing 6-5. Ausmus pulled the same stunt on Scherzer in 2014 during the ALDS Game 1. With Max at 98 pitches after 7.1 innings Ausmus yanked him. Granted, Max was credited with giving up five runs, but he wasn’t given the opportunity to redeem himself as he’s so great at doing. He’s a clutch pitcher. The result of being pulled? The Orioles buried the bullpen, scoring seven runs beyond the five Scherzer gave up. Essentially, by pulling Max at 98 pitches, Ausmus guaranteed the loss, relying on three relievers over 2-2/3rds innings. Instead of a two-run game, it became a blowout. All because of an arbitrary pitch count number.
Stories like these are common throughout baseball. Coaches are so stuck on 100 pitches they no longer think in terms of the big picture.
BULLPEN PITCHERS OVERPAID AND INEFFECTIVE
Today, it’s not uncommon to see a bullpen pitcher brought in for one batter. We saw this during the Mets-Marlins series July 22-14, 2016 when the Mets brought in a pitcher specifically for Ichiro Suzuki. Despite coming in for one batter, these relievers are guaranteed the MLB minimum salary of $507,000. In some instances, they are paid just to be a specialty pitcher.
How a pitcher is given a contract for $500,000 and up for being a “special teams” pitcher is fiscally questionable. He sits in the bullpen and collects that money for only having to work once every 3-4 games sometimes, barely racking up 10 innings over the course of the season.
This waste of payroll is more troubling when one knows bullpens have been increasingly ineffective at nearly the same rate starters have become more effective.
In 2015, the minimum relief pitcher salary was $507,500 (the MLB minimum salary). However, the average salary for a reliever is in line with the league average salary of $4,400,000 with many earning double and triple that amount.
Yet bullpens are needed less in current baseball. With the advent of 5-man rotations, starters get more rest, which might account for the increased effectiveness of starts over the last 30 seasons. This indicates their arms are stronger and more durable, therefore, they can go deeper into games. A starter who is capable of this—though most coaches refuse to all starters to go deep—saves the bullpen, which means the bullpen works even less, yet still gets paid at least the minimum salary of $507,000, thus large bullpens are not only inefficient but obsolete and irrelevant.
In other words, Major League Baseball teams are maintaining dead weight and unnecessary payroll as a result of these facts.
The salary issue is just one problem. We also have the ongoing debate over what to do with pace-of-game. The 2015 pace was 2:56; despite the efforts Major League Baseball has made to speed up the game, the first 79 games of 2016 were back over the 3:00 mark, a pace about 8 minutes slower than the previous season.
This means Manfred’s mandates have failed miserably to be anywhere close to effective in reducing pace-of-play problems. But there is a simple solution that, when combined with having smaller bullpens, is fiscally responsible and profitable.
It takes roughly two minutes of warm-up for each new pitcher. This two minutes includes the 15-20 second “jog” from the pen, the 30 seconds of warm-up tosses, the coach and player meeting on the mound with the obligatory butt slaps and the umpire’s cleaning off the plate. We often see starters yanked at or before six innings and at least three pitching changes in the remaining three innings. All due to the arbitrary 100 pitch count limit.
Two minutes doesn’t seem that bad. But when the average game has nearly four pitching changes over the course of three innings, depending on when starter was pulled; that’s nearly six minutes of play added to the game.
SOLUTIONS TO PAYROLL AND PACE
The general break downs in time for the various aspects of a pitching change are as follows:
- Time out to the mound: Approximately 30 seconds
- Current rules state eight pitches or 30 seconds of warm-up, whichever is first.
- Entire switch can take upwards of 2 minutes.
- Currently, nearly four pitchers are used in the average game (up nearly 1.5 pitchers from 30 years ago); these pitchers account for an average of three innings.
Every fan agrees: Shortening the game is imperative to bringing in more fans. We also know the average length of a game has increased from around 2:45 to over 3 hours in 20 years, essentially gaining a minute each season.
Pace-of-play rules have been enacted over the last two seasons (2015 and 2016). However, as noted earlier, while these appeared to initially work, times have slowly creeped back to about 3 hours. Even if Major League Baseball doesn’t want to admit it publicly, the length of the game has taken a toll on attendance which translates into lost revenue. Teams have resorted to many tricks to lure back fans, but the main two reasons they aren’t out in full force every game are the cost of tickets and length of game.
Given many teams currently face one or both of these issues—bloated salaries and diminishing revenue due to fewer fans in the seats—making one simple two-step change will not only help teams drop some of their salary overhead, but also solve part of the pace-of-game issue.
The solution is pretty simple: Change pitching changes.
Currently, nearly four pitchers are used in a game to pitch an average of three innings. While I am a proponent of the “good ol’ days” when pitchers like Jack Morris and Nolan Ryan went to pitch counts of 120, 150, and even higher, playing complete games regardless of the score, I know these days have been permanently replaced by the arbitrary pitch count number of “100.” Add to this fact that bullpens have become increasingly INEFFICIENT over the last 30 seasons, and there’s good reason to trim the proverbial fat in this area.
The game used to be shorter for two reasons: Rare pitching changes (starters used to go longer in games, even completing games on a regular basis) and fewer commercial breaks. Games today often get held up because some commercial MUST run. That’s 30 seconds of lost play time.
Since these two aspects aren’t returning, the only logical way to cut back significantly on time—with the added bonus of saving money with a smaller bullpen, money with can be used to sign a “cheap” utility player or offer more to an elite player—is to alter the way pitching changes are performed.
It’s a simple, non-intrusive way of cutting back the time sucked up by pitching changes.
Step 1: Require all starters to complete innings they started, unless they must leave due to injury.
Step 2: Require relievers to pitch only complete innings too, unless injured.
The advantage of this is that warm-ups won’t take place in the middle of an inning. With nearly four pitching changes during a game, and assuming at least two of those take place during the inning, rather than between inning (and mid-inning) breaks, the time saved is upwards of six minutes of time cut off due to the elimination of the two minutes of waiting time between each pitching change.
The added benefit is the trimming of salary. Assuming the average relief pitcher salary is $4 million, teams will have the money available for a position player or unity player because they can easily lose one or more relievers due to the new mandates of no mid-inning pitching changes. The $4,000,000 can be used in a variety of ways, perhaps to build the farm teams more or for extra money during trades.
Logically, it makes sense to revise the rules to ensure there are fewer pitching changes during an inning. The pitcher can warm up during the commercial breaks, the time is cut by at least six minutes (about 2 minutes for three changes), and team salaries are pared down considerably when smaller bullpens are used. Given the evidence showing how grossly ineffective bullpens are over the last 30 years, it’s a wonder teams even rely so heavily on relief pitching. It’s an area they can easily trim, getting money back for higher quality players or whatever else they might us it for.
Six minutes and $4,000,000 dollars. It’s a simple solution to a convoluted problem.