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Two trends that began in MLB in 2018 might stick around for a while

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The game is in constant flux. Here are a couple of things, just beginning, that could define baseball going forward.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Baseball is a cyclical game. Baseball also changes. Those sentences have different meanings. Getting right which one applies the most, and why, gets you ahead of the curve of the “long game” aspect of the sport. Some changes are shorter term, and others are longer. The changes have less to do with are they “good for teams” or “good for the game,” and more to do with “what seems sustainable” and “which is more trendy.” I’ve noticed two changes is baseball in 2018, and I think they might be around for the longer term.

The Phillies and Dodgers both routinely dressed 40 players in September. Teams have historically brought up “a few” players to their September roster. Even last season, 33 or 34 seemed to be “the right number.” Teams might have gone a bit over or under. However, somewhere in that range was the standard.

Teams didn’t go much over or under for two rather understandable reasons. Finances are always a consideration. Similarly, teams didn’t want to call players up to sit on the bench. Whether hitters or pitchers, summoning a player up for blowout usage isn’t that useful of an idea. However, this year, the teams in the post-season hunt have decided it’s far more worthwhile to have a fully stocked bench than not.

To discuss this as a future trend isn’t about “Do you like lengthier games?” or “Should teams use eight relievers in a nine-inning game?”, nearly as much as, “Is the team better served by a full bench?”. It’s a bit akin to the DH/No DH discussion (which I’m not discussing at all). Discussing “dress 40” isn’t about “Do you prefer 3:40 games?” nearly as much as “Does Jorge De La Rosa being on the roster make the Cubs more likely to win the NL Central?”.

It isn’t even about a mild edit in the daily roster. Even if MLB requires teams to pare down to 25 guys per game for a calendar day in 2019 (that might or might not be a good thing to push for), I think the dam is broken on this concern. Starters aren’t expected to get 18 outs anymore. Especially with four lefties in the September bullpen.

It’s been a bit arguable if over 33 or 43 made sense in the past. However, with so many players (both hitters and pitchers) so equal in the 23rd guy on the roster versus the 37th guy on the roster range, can you really be predictive anymore on who is the better arm between Jaime Garcia and Randy Rosario?

You can FIP or w/OBA+ all you want. Quite a few players in the league right now are ridiculously similar. I don’t know that that used to apply as much. It seems to now. Also, from a Cubs perspective, a few offensive players seem less useful this September than they were “before” for whatever reason. For a few other teams (Cardinals/Dodgers/Brewers) that seem to be lefty/right pinch-hitting for pitchers every time after the fourth or fifth inning, having ten bench bats now seems protocol.

The Cubs don’t really have 10 bench bats to pinch hit with in September. That wasn’t a disadvantage before. Now, it is. For what possible reason will teams not want to have 18 or 19 hitters on their side next September? With the rest filled with pitchers? The Cubs effectively wasted a roster spot with Duane Underwood Jr. not being in Chicago in September. That was never a concern before. Into the future, it will almost always be a concern, and a disadvantage. More is better than less, all things equal.

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The other trend is a bit more November through January than September. It involves pitching more than hitting, and will probably be just as contentious. It involves a baseball truism that you may wish to argue away, or not. Familiar is better than less familiar.

Over the offseason, teams will continue to have to assess starting pitching. Especially, teams that are substandard at developing their own. Whether you consider the Cubs negligent on pitching development is an interesting (and contentious) argument. However, the Cubs development isn’t the question.

Alex Cobb was being considered for a Cubs rotation spot last winter. For reasons, he signed with the Orioles. The Cubs ended up with Tyler Chatwood for three seasons. The Cardinals added Miles Mikolas for two seasons.

It’s easy in a butterfly effect-free world of saying that avoiding Cobb was rather smart, adding Chatwood was just short of catastrophic, and Mikolas was a brilliant signing.

As owners, like it or not, don’t like spending $40 or $50 million on kindling fuel, those sorts of signings will be closely scrutinized in the future. Also, teams will likely be more willing to give internal options chances to sink or swim. Early in a campaign, many teams can afford the luxury to see if “that kid from Triple-A” can get it done at the top level, if they’re making league minimum. Trades can be made in July or August. (See above.)

Yes, considering cost as a coefficient is also a can of worms when season ticket holders are spending what they spend. However, business owners don’t want to be burdened with costly and counter-productive contracts any more than players want to get shoe-horned into a deal with a chronic fifth-place team.

The touchstone here is Mikolas. He pancaked his first time through the league. He went to Japan, and had three really good seasons for the Yomiuri Giants. Upon returning, he’s been sensational. Which really screws up the calculation mechanism for myopic MLB-only types.

For a swath of people, which may or may not include you, ignoring the Far East League was rather convenient. Hitters have come back as successes. However, now people trying to push the spreadsheet angle of baseball have to account for “Who will be the next Mikolas?” Which can be quite frustrating for those of that mindset.

“Well, that was just Japan” has been a proper (if rarely spoken) refrain. Now, those that were dismissive of Mikolas’ numbers in Japan have to come up with a new way to figure how to account for players who struggled, went overseas, learned how to pitch, and are ready to come back.

Those types of pitchers aren’t necessarily round pegs or square pegs. They breed “I really don’t know” as an answer. Regarding Cobb, Chatwood, or whoever, it was perfectly fine to defend or oppose a years/dollars combination over advanced metrics in MLB. If you were wrong, so be it. You had your numbers you respect. Now, another axis has been introduced, and my timeline seems a bit oblivious. Not only on how to account for it in the future, but that the trend is happening at all.

Baseball is different in 2018 and not all for the good. However, I think both of these trends (longer rosters and more available pitching options) are both good things. When teams only have 30 players worth using in September, that is worse for a team than having 35 or more. That will draw the game out, and make it equal parts more suspenseful, and less watchable for a casual fan. (You may freely disagree on either half.)

That the Japanese League is going to be more likely to supply more pitching is likely a better thing, as well. However, I doubt that will be considered an across-the-board good thing, either. Baseball people tend to prefer sameness. When unexpected players from unexpected locales are better than expected, some non-players seem somehow threatened, because their MLB spreadsheets don’t cover the galaxy.

My thought is that the game is constantly in flux. More teams are willing to trade more relievers in August for second- and third-day draft picks. I’m not seeing that going away. Nor am I seeing statistically oriented types having to factor in non-MLB free agents going away. To the team who builds the best roster goes the spoils. Especially in a league where teams don’t want to eclipse certain spending limits.

Poll

Which best describes you regarding September rosters?

This poll is closed

  • 22%
    30-man September benches are cool.
    (56 votes)
  • 15%
    I loathe 30-man September benches, but not as much as losing.
    (38 votes)
  • 9%
    30-man benches in September ruin baseball
    (23 votes)
  • 51%
    So it goes. Have another beer.
    (126 votes)
  • 1%
    Other (leave in comments)
    (4 votes)
247 votes total Vote Now