Goldman: Relievers eat everything

From SABR member Steven Goldman at The National Pastime Museum on August 18, 2016:

When I was very young, one of the so-called children’s stories I found deeply disturbing was “The Happy Prince” by Oscar Wilde. It’s the story of a haunted but charity-minded statue that coaxes a swallow to gradually strip off its jewels and gilded leaves to aid the sad and impoverished residents of the city around it. Eventually (do we need a spoiler warning for a 128-year-old story?), the city fathers notice that the statue—once the pride of the community—has been totally denuded of its finery and is now an ugly lead eyesore. So they melt it. Oh, and the bird dies.

These days, sometimes the 25-man roster seems a lot like the stripped-down colorless version of the statue. It’s a monolith of relievers now, 12 and 13 per team, squeezing out all the color and flexibility of earlier, 10-pitcher configurations. “It would be nice to be able to carry twelve pitchers,” Casey Stengel once said, “but you’ve got to leave room on your bench for some pinch-hitters too.” The Ol’ Professor was wrong: teams have shown they can do without pinch-hitters, and pinch-runners and platoon players too. They are an endangered species, especially on a career basis, because there always has to be room for one more relief specialist.

It’s easy to see how it happened, this creeping relieverism. Let’s stick to very recent history for a moment: nowadays, the average bullpen throws about 500 innings a season. In the old days, assuming an even distribution of workloads, well, that’s five pitchers pitching 100 innings each. Of course, no one throws 100 innings in relief anymore—no pitcher has done that since Scott Proctor in 2006. We could add a sixth reliever, reducing the total to 83.1 innings per reliever. But that’s a problem too. In the last three years, there have been only 11 pitchers who exceeded 80 innings in a season; 10 if you only count Dellin Betances once. So we add a seventh pitcher. Now we’re down to 71 innings per reliever. That seems doable, right?

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Originally published: August 18, 2016. Last Updated: August 18, 2016.