The Day of the (Starting) Pitcher
So we’re one day into the new baseball season, and most of what we’ve seen is great starting pitching. Even though the Mets moved in the outfield fences at Citi Field, the Mets and Braves managed to scratch out one puny run between them. Kyle Lohse didn’t allow a hit to the Marlins until the seventh inning on Wednesday, the Reds shut out the Marlins yesterday, and the Phillies also scored a 1-0 victory. But before we declare this “The Year of the Pitcher” just because Day One reminded those of us who were watching baseball in 1968 of that offense-deprived season, let’s take a closer look at what some other pitchers did yesterday.
Last night, someone posted a message on Facebook to the effect that “I enjoy watching closers mess up because it brings us closer to managers stopping the insane way they use relievers.” It made me realize that I’ve felt the same way for a number of years, since I started doing studies of the relationship between starters and relievers. I hadn’t seen anyone else say it as blatantly as that, but without a doubt, yesterday was a great day for people who think managers deserve to get burned for micromanaging their bullpens in the late innings.
Thanks to Retrosheet.org, I launched a massive study seven years ago that has seen me examine–so far–more than 100,000 box scores from the last 60 years. I’ll summarize the study briefly here. I looked at the key situation which has changed for managers in the past few decades: your starting pitcher has gone seven innings and now has a lead of three runs or less. As the manager, do you leave him in there or take him out? Do you give the starter a little rope and let him get in trouble before you replace him? Or do you have a blanket strategy for who pitches which inning no matter what has led up to that situation?
In the 1950s and 1960s, the question was a no-brainer. Your starter stayed in and pitched the whole game. Only if he had a major collapse in the final two innings would he be replaced. More than 90% of the time, the starter went longer than seven innings. In fact, this tendency continued all the way into the 1980s. Even in the mid-1980s, if your starter gave you seven innings and had the lead, he would start the eighth inning more than 80% of the time. (Similarly, a reliever who held the lead through the eighth inning started the ninth inning more than 90% of the time.) The trends didn’t shift markedly until the late 1980s, when managers (can you say “La-Rus-sa?”) started along the path that has led to today’s prevailing strategy of managing from the end of the game forward–that is, going to the ballpark with the hope that your closer will pitch the ninth inning, your main set-up guy will take care of the eighth inning, one or two guys will be the seventh-inning specialists, and whatever you get out of the starter past the fifth inning is almost a bonus.
Here’s the bottom line of my study. Decades ago, the starter always went more than seven innings with a small lead. Over the past two decades, a starter with a lead through seven innings gets to start the eighth inning less and less often, with the recent figure only about 20% of the time. Even if he makes it through the eighth unscathed, it’s still hugely likely that he won’t pitch the whole ninth inning. Even a reigning Cy Young Award winner isn’t immune to this overriding strategy. If you’re a major league manager today and don’t want to field a lot of questions after the game, you put your closer in to pitch the ninth inning no matter what.
But the truth I’ve uncovered through those 100,000-plus box scores is consistent and inescapable: it doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter how far you go with your starters or how compartmentalized you are with your bullpen deployment. Back when Robin Roberts and Warren Spahn were completing most of their starts, if your starter kept pitching after the seventh inning with a small lead, the team won approximately 85% of the time. In the past decade, with several relievers being used to protect leads and the starter hitting the pines after seven innings, the team has won approximately 85% of the time. Actually the team success has been lower in the past decade, but the variation has been only a few percentage points.
The point is clear: using four pitchers to hold a 3-1 lead is NOT a more successful strategy than letting your starter carry the responsibility for holding the lead. You don’t need a 12-man pitching staff to win more games; you need a better ten-man staff, and jettisoning your bottom two pitchers in favor of an extra pinch-hitter or defensive replacement could only help your team’s chances of winning.
After each season, I return to Retrosheet.org, go through the season’s box scores, and update my spreadsheet with the result of every game in which a starting pitcher has a “save situation” lead (three runs or less) after seven innings of work. There are hundreds of such games every season, though fewer than there used to be because managers increasingly tend to excuse the starting pitcher after a mere five or six innings of work. Yes, if it’s Johan Santana coming off a missed season due to arm surgery, I’d take him out after five innings, as Terry Collins did yesterday. So that game won’t be part of my study because the starter didn’t go seven innings.
As I scan the box scores, I look for those seven-inning outings by starters. Only they will be in the study. (That excludes Kyle Lohse’s six innings of no-hit ball on Wednesday because by the time his manager had to send him out there for the eighth inning, he led 4-0–the so-called “non-save situation” which is seemingly akin to asking the landlord to take out your garbage. But I also find myself more and more eager to open up that next box score and find the next blown saves. Each one validates my core belief that relievers are responsible for blowing a lot of leads that the starter would have held.
I didn’t have to look very hard to find them yesterday. Several games will be part of my study. Let’s start with Ryan Dempster of the Cubs, who gave up a leadoff single to Ian Desmond and then didn’t give up another hit until the eighth inning, when Desmond singled with one out. Dempster struck out the next batter, and then his manager, Dale Sveum, took him out of the game. He led, 1-0, and had struck out ten batters, including both outs in the eighth. But he had thrown 108 pitches, and out he came, replaced by Kerry Wood. Desmond promptly stole second, and Wood walked the batter. Both runners moved up on a wild pitch. Another batter walked to load the bases. Already it was clear that a hot pitcher, Dempster, had been replaced by a reliever who couldn’t find the plate. But that’s the guy Sveum chose to leave in the game–even though the team’s closer (and, presumably, their best reliever), Carlos Marmol, was more than available. To no one’s surprise, Wood walked one more batter to force in the tying run. The Cubs went on to lose when Marmol allowed a run in the ninth inning. Have a nice season, Cubs fans!
Next up is Justin Masterson of the Indians, an underrated pitcher who completely stymied the Blue Jays yesterday. In eight innings, he allowed just two hits, one of them a Jose Bautista home run. He struck out ten Blue Jays and walked only one. He did all of this while throwing a mere 99 pitches. He had a 4-1 lead after the seventh inning, and his manager, Manny Acta, let him pitch the eighth. Incredibly, he retired four batters that inning! One reached base after striking out on a wild pitch, but it was no problem for Masterson, who retired the side easily. So why did he need to be replaced for the ninth inning? He hadn’t allowed a hit since the fourth inning. But out he came, replaced by closer Chris Perez. How did that go? It went single, single, sacrifice fly, walk, two-run double, and a tie ballgame. This game wound up going 16 innings, an opening-day record, before the Indians lost. I can’t help thinking that if were managing in Cleveland, I would have liked Masterson’s chances of holding a three-run lead in the ninth inning.
Still, Masterson isn’t a star and perhaps hasn’t earned Manny Acta’s unflagging faith in him. That should not have been the case with Justin Verlander, the defending AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner. He faced the Red Sox yesterday in a great duel with Jon Lester. Neither team scored in the first six innings, and Verlander allowed just two hits (yes, it’s a recurring theme, a starter getting replaced and burned despite allowing only two hits). The Tigers gave him a 1-0 lead in the seventh inning, and he responded by retiring the Red Sox in order in the eighth. In the home half, the Tigers got another run to give him a 2-0 lead.
What a dream situation for Tigers manager Jim Leyland! He had the best starter in baseball, who was clearly on his game, and he also had the best reliever in baseball, Jose Valverde, if that can be judged by his streak of 51 consecutive saves, including 49 for 49 last season. How do you want that steak, Mr. Leyland? You want potatoes with that? Fine. How about some broccoli? No? It’s the best broccoli in the world. It has delighted 51 consecutive customers. Yeah, steak and potatoes is pretty traditional, but how about that broccoli! Look at all that cheese!
Leyland went for the broccoli, and it took Valverde exactly five batters to blow the 2-0 lead. So much for Verlander’s quest to top his 24-win total from last season. Valverde, after blowing his first save since 2010, scavenged the win when the Tigers got a run to win, 3-2. The run was charged to Boston’s new #2 reliever, Mark Melancon, on a hit off the new #1 man, Alfredo Aceves, who will carry the load to replace Andrew Bailey, who was brought in to replace Jonathan Papelbon, who blew New England for Philadelphia, allowing the Phillies to jettison Ryan Madsen, who blew his elbow out during spring training with the Reds and whose absence means that Aroldis Chapman will continue to blow away hitters out of the bullpen awhile longer before we get to find out if he’ll be the next Randy Johnson.
That’s how baseball goes these days. Closers, like bullpens in general, are merry-go-rounds full of guys coming out of nowhere, showing their potential, blowing out their arms, replacing each other, coming back, and piling up numbers. Almost anyone with one superior pitch can be a closer in the short run. As ephemeral as they are, every team wants one. If it’s the ninth inning, you’d better get that closer in there no matter how great the current guy on the mound looks. To be sure, other opening-day pitchers got through seven innings with a small lead and were rewarded with a “Win” on their records. Johnny Cueto led, 2-0, after seven innings, and two relievers (including Chapman, who blew away three hitters) polished off a 4-0 victory. Roy Halladay also got through eight innings with the traditional two hits allowed and a 1-0 lead, only to get the hook in favor of Papelbon. The new guy got the job done to preserve Halladay’s first win of the season.
So the tally so far this season is two wins and three no-decisions for an aggregate of five starting pitchers (each one talented enough to be the opening-day starter) who totaled 38 2/3 innings of work and allowed all of two runs (one scored after the bullpen took over) and 11 hits. For me, that’s a dramatic way to start the season. Usually there are five or six successful outcomes for every lead that is blown. Maybe the next 20 starters to hold a seven-inning lead will get the win. That happens. But after one day (albeit with only half the teams playing) of seeing aces ruined by their bullpens, I can’t help hoping that this is the season where it all blows up on the over-specialization of relief pitching, the season where the success rate drops from the 82-86% range down to an indisputable 64%, and managers finally see the light.