The Bears were playing a late regular season game. Cody Parkey missed a field goal. People assembled complained about NFL kickers, in general. I looked to my brother, and he was rolling his eyes. “NFL kickers are better than they’ve ever been.” I looked up a few numbers. It appears his assessment was spot-on. Kickers are normally “better than they used to be.” Which seems a curious segue to talking about relief pitchers. They’re better than they used to be. Upcoming rule changes could mildly curtail the effectiveness of some current relievers. How can teams resurrect the 40-pitch reliever?
Some of you who are particularly up to a challenge have likely looked up a baseball statistics site, and assessed who really can throw 40 pitches anymore. The reality is, until the rules change, relief pitchers rarely need to throw over 30 pitches. Some can, already. Some could, if push comes to shove. Most teams, though, look for five or six innings from a starter. If they have the lead, somewhere between three and six short relievers can often bring home the victory, whether they get any more offense or not. Because 97 with movement is tough to hit.
Bullpens are in a rather constant state of flux. In the 1970s, when I started watching Cubs games, former starters would fill the role of long reliever. The starter can’t last three innings? Bring in the long reliever. He’ll pitch until the sixth, and save the bullpen. Nowadays, that isn’t protocol, nearly as often.
The former starter that is tossing in the high-80s isn’t all that desirable, anymore. Most teams prefer younger relievers than older guys with limited velocity. That doesn’t make it right, but it makes it protocol. A minor league pipeline tends to peg a pitcher as a starter or reliever. The Astros and Indians are two pipelines that routinely flip the script for pitchers, using them as both.
It sounds a great idea. For many, it is. Players are individuals, though. If a 21-year-old throws 96, and has only one other pitch, it’s a bit useless using him as a starter. The colleges and high schools only have so many guys that throw 96 with any degree of command or control. Teams drafting later in the early rounds have to jump quick on them, or miss. Drafting and developing pitchers is hard.
What usually ends up happening is that the guys with less than three pitches are treated as relievers. They get regular use out of a minor league bullpen, an inning or two at the time. They rest a day or two, and pitch again. The regular use is what gets them their repetitions. If they’re especially good, they might get built to a third inning, or get a spot start. If they succeed there, the computer program changes. They move up a level.
To build a 40-pitch pitcher, teams have to either draft differently, or adjust expectations. Very few pitchers are able to throw 95 or better with secondaries well enough to make 40 pitches two times a week for a season. Some have those requisite skills. Many don’t. Sitting in my chaise lounger hollering “Pitch better” isn’t development. If organizations need to craft 40-pitch pitchers, it’s going to take more than three weeks.
Back when, teams had three or four rather weak hitters in a lineup. As a for instance, Bobby Wine was a defense-first infielder in the 1960s and early 1970s. For his career, BB-Ref has him as an 8.7 WAR defender, but a -4.7 WAR hitter. His highest career OPS was .599. Over half his twelve seasons saw him with an slugging percentage of under .300, and his on-base percentage was never over .300 for any season. Expansion allowed him the chance to play in Montreal, and he wasn’t a good hitter then, either.
Teams had middle infielders then that often couldn’t hit much, at all. A team could use a burnt-out arm to face bats like that, especially in a game that was an early blowout. Now, shortstops are as likely to hit as anyone else. The easiest way to an easy inning is with strikeouts, and the easiest way to strikeouts is with velocity. And shorter outings.
To have a deeper/lengthened bullpen, teams need to locate pitchers who can make 40 pitches, with the 40th as valid as the first. Again, easier to demand than produce. Tyler Chatwood, if his newly-regained command is real, could become a 40-pitch reliever. That would be useful, for the next two seasons. However, the best way to solve a problem long-term is to solve it internally.
Is it plausible to internally develop 40-pitch pitchers? To do so, it helps to identify candidates in the lower minors, and train them to fill said role. How is that to be accomplished? Perhaps every rotation ought to have a piggy-back pairing or two. If that’s the case, a 25-man roster in the lower levels gets a bit like a crimped garden hose. Lower level relievers rarely pitch in successive days. If seven of the 13 pitchers are starters, that leaves only six relievers. That gets really dangerous if doubleheaders start to back up.
The 40-pitch pitcher almost needs a third usable pitch in a big-league game. He had also better be able to throw 93 or 94 miles per hour. Those are rare birds, and are often treated in the minor leagues as starters. If they fail with those characteristics at Triple-A, it’s unlikely the results will be better a level up. To have a stable of 40-pitch relievers is possible, but not as easy as wishing it so.
It’s hard to be a reliever of any merit or fashion in MLB is tough. To be a pitching option that fans want to see a sixth, 12th, or 20th time is tougher. If he’s also required to be able to toss 40 pitches without humiliation?
Some teams will be better at having the 40-pitch pitcher, once it becomes necessary. It probably will, as the August trades are likely to go away. Instead of adding one arm, placing another (healthy or not) on the injured list, having pitchers able to throw more than one inning figures to be a more-valued skill. It will be harder than throwing one frame only. Once it becomes the norm, people will wonder why it wasn’t always so. It isn’t now, because it’s really hard to do. It will be made easier, though, by pitchers being better than they used to be. As NFL kickers generally are.