The Royals have pretty much accomplished the wildest dreams of any franchise, as they have gone to two straight World Series, winning the latter of the two. However, what makes this stretch even more impressive is that they have done it with what is essentially a void of starting pitching. Lacking anything close to an ace from 2014 until the middle of 2015(James Shields was just not that good), the Royals still managed to go 141-105 over the stretch, which was the best record in the AL over that time period. Of course, as many of you know, they acquired Johnny Cueto, and his his ace-level talent during their run to the World Series. Nevertheless, Cueto left for greener pastures, leaving the Royals happy with a World Series, but also back in the exact same position they were in to begin with.
Needless to say, the starting pitching has been mediocre once again this year. Despite improvements of late, the rotation is still at best considered decent, once again highlighting Dayton Moore’s front office’s inability to develop starting pitching. After 10 years of mediocre rotations and 3 years of phenomenal bullpens, I sit here questioning conventional baseball knowledge. Further, the latest resurgence of the Royals’ bullpen and the subsequent record-breaking scoreless IP streak has finally pushed me over the edge, making me think ‘What would happen if a team carried 13 bullpen pitchers?”
As a disclaimer, I realize that I cannot in any sense realistically advocate for a Major League team to completely disregard all prior baseball wisdom and carry a 13-person bullpen. However, despite the impossibility of the suggestion, hypotheticals can be interesting to explore.
What originally focused me on this idea was the overwhelming sentiment that starters are simply better pitchers than relief pitchers. Arguments such as these limit outstanding relief pitchers from the Cy Young discussion, despite posting absurd numbers, such as the .69 ERA(nice), .827 WHIP, 1.96 FIP, and .2 HR/9 that Zach Britton has posted this year. To put that in perspective, the league leaders in all of those categories have posted are 2.19 ERA, .929 WHIP, 2.23 FIP, and .547 HR/9, all of which are held by a different pitcher. Of course there is the argument that it is harder for a starter to put up a reliever numbers because the starter must deal with fatigue, but why must single-game fatigue even exist? Further, if starting pitchers are just that much better of pitchers, then how dominant would they be if they too came out of the bullpen?
It has been shown time and time again that a struggling starter can be turned into a phenomenal relief pitcher, whether it be because they have eliminated the fatigue or that they can focus in on just one inning better. Take the two best closers the game has seen in the last few years, Zach Britton and Wade Davis. From 2011-2013 Zach Britton was a starter for the Orioles, starting 46 of his 48 appearances, and he threw 245.2 innings and racked up and 4.77 ERA, a 1.51 WHIP, 9.7 HR/9, and a 1.5 K/BB. Truth be told, those numbers were simply not good enough. The same went for Davis, who for 2010 and 2011 was a bottom of the rotation guy, but then was simply awful during the 2013 campaign, posting a 5.19 ERA, 1.677 WHIP, and a 4.18 FIP. The three combined years were good for a -1.1 WAR, while Britton’s was just a measly .5.
Obviously,not every starter is going to flourish in the bullpen, as Danny Duffy has actually lowered his ERA since transitioning to the starting pitching role. However, it is worth considering that if Davis and Britton flourished, then many other starters may be able to make that transition to a bullpen role. Even if they are not able to, they may simply have to adapt to a different kind of starting pitching role. Enter: The 12-man Bullpen.
I will use the Royals as a roster example, simply because it is the team I know best and I imagine the same goes for many who are reading this. The 12-man bullpen is broken down into three roles: there is one ace who performs as a starter, 5 long relievers, and 7 short relievers. This is still relatively similar to the system baseball has now, except four starters are thus transitioned to a long reliever status. Despite it being a seemingly meaningless and useless transition, limiting a SP’s innings to under 3 per game has a much larger benefit than one might expect.
With a regimented program, the starting pitcher who is transferred into a long reliever role is now able to throw around 40 pitches for each appearance, giving them consistently one or two days to let their arm recover. Those 40 pitches will ideally get them through 2.2 innings, as using the league average of 16 pitches per inning, they would be at exactly 43 pitches through 2 ⅔ innings. Assuming they keep up this pace of 5 IP per 6 games, they would be on pace for 135 IP in a season, putting them at roughly 2200 pitches thrown on the season. For Edinson Volquez specifically, that would on average save 800-1100 pitches per season, potentially saving toll on his arm. While this may be a benefit, the decreased periods of rest could still have an adverse effect on health, so there is really no telling the effects on the health of the players sans a legitimate application of this plan.
While the jury is still out on the effect on long-term fatigue, the in-game game fatigue is limited, as a pitcher is statistically shown to get tired once he gets to 50 pitches. In 2014, around the entire league, when a pitcher’s pitch count was under 25, opposing hitters slash .247/.312/.379, and from pitches 26-50 opposing hitters slash .251/.312/.379. Once the pitcher gets to pitches 51-75 however, opposing hitters hit .260/.316/.402, and then .257/.319/.405 for 76-100. While 30 points in OPS may not seem like that big of a deal, it on averages adds anywhere from .3 to .5 runs more per game. Over the stretch of a season, a Run Differential change of 50 to 80 runs would be monumental, and would most definitely make a significant impact on the record of that team.
Also, by putting a pitcher out there for just 2 ⅓ -2 ⅔ innings, the amount of times the lineup gets to see that specific pitcher decreases, which has been shown to greatly benefit the pitcher. In the first PA against a certain pitcher, the MLB average slash is .246/.304/.377, whereas the second PA improves to .256/.313/.395 and the third to .268/.327/.421. Eliminating half of those second PA’s and essentially all of the third ones would bring down the opposing batter’s OPS to .689, instead of when someone would see a batter 3 times, which would be .709. Because the amount of time a pitcher faces a batter and the amount of pitches thrown are correlated, the 20 points added are not necessarily in addition to the 30 described in the previous paragraph, but they do serve to prove an important point. Even if a starting pitcher throws the exact same pitches at the exact same velocity after he becomes a long reliever, he will still have better stats, and the team will also do better.
These stats do not even consider the potential revolutionizing mindset change or the addition of a new pitch, just as Britton and Davis were able to do.. Even finding one of that type of pitcher amongst the starters would further revolutionize a team, as they have another lethal weapon at their disposal.
Whether or not this weapon develops could develop could potentially alter these plans, but for now, I foresee 5 long relievers each pitching twice on a 5 day rotation, and all of them get the 6th day off for the Ace, Duffy, to get his start. Tentatively, it could be Volquez and Ventura on the first day, followed by Kennedy and Young on the second day, Gee and Ventura on the third, Kennedy and Volquez on the fourth, Young and Gee on the fifth, and topped off with Duffy on the sixth.
In addition to these long relievers, as I mentioned, each team would have presumably ace. I included this one ace in here solely because they would do better in 6 or 7 innings of action than two even very good long relievers would. Further, he gives the long relievers an extra day off, giving that fifth day as a day of rest for those five pitchers.
Beyond the ace and the rest of the starters, who are now long relievers, the 7 men left in the bullpen can be used as they normally would, with relatively minimal changes to their roles or pitching schedules.Most all will appear during or after the 6th inning, and they will finish the game as normal.
While I realize a suggestion such as this may be wholly condemned as baseball blasphemy, I honestly believe that there is potential. For a team such as the Royals who on average got 5.6 IP out of their starters last year, it would not be an increased workload on the short relievers, especially considering the two long relievers should last about 5 ⅓ innings. With that little of a change to the short relievers, I believe the benefit is substantial to the front half of the game, enough for even a desperate team with horrendous starting pitching to try it out. Of course there are teams like the Cubs who have simply too strong of a rotation to even begin to consider an approach such as this, but I see legitimate benefit for a team with a lack of starting pitching. This could be Rockies, as this plan could be a very viable strategy to shed up to half a run per game off of the team’s ERA. Beyond them, a team with a disproportionately strong bullpen, such as the Yankees to begin the season, or even the Royals, could use this as a way to harness their pitchers ability to pitch out of the bullpen. Unfortunately, I do not see any of these changes happening anytime soon, so until then, I will be sitting on my couch, just waiting and watching conventional wisdom reign supreme.
Seth Wingerter is a writer at Platinum Sombrero. When he/she is not twittering he/she can be found writing gucci blog posts for
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