David Huzzard: The end of the 100-inning reliever

Baseball is always looking to innovate. Most baseball fans’ bookshelves include books like Moneyball and The Extra 2 Percent - books about how the A’s and Rays innovated in order to win at baseball despite not having the money to win the way everyone else did.

This desire to find advantages is nothing new to baseball and wasn’t always about statistical analysis. Candy Cummings was a major league pitcher from 1872-77 and is in the Hall of Fame as the pitcher credited with inventing the curveball. The reaction to the curveball was not a positive one. Baseball wasn’t viewed as a game played between the pitcher and the batter. It was a game between the batter and the fielders. The intention of a curveball is to deceive the batter, and this was simply not how the game of baseball was played, but Cummings was looking for an advantage and in the curveball he found it, and now baseball is a game played between batters and pitchers. So much so that 18,384 out of 58,251, or 31.5 percent of plate appearances in 2013, have ended in a walk, strikeout, home run, or hit by pitch and haven’t involved the defense.

For nearly 100 years after Cummings pitched, the game of baseball was a battle between the batter and the pitcher, but more specifically, it was a battle between a batter and a starting pitcher. It wasn’t until 1969 that the save became an official stat and it wasn’t until the rise of Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage, and Rollie Fingers that the closer became a thing. In the early days of closing, the starting pitcher would go as deep into the game as he could and then the closer would come in to record however many outs were left.

Between the first closers and now, relief pitching has changed quite a bit. Most teams now employ a seven-man bullpen with some having recently gone to an eight-man ‘pen. That is a lot of pitching just to get through nine innings day in and day out. As with a lot of great innovations, sometimes the best new thoughts are reworkings of old thoughts. With the amount of money being invested in one-inning closers, the days of pitchers like Dan Quisenberry making 84 appearances, pitching 129 innings pitched and recording 37 saves are over.

There is something there in the number of innings pitched though. Since 2006, baseball has not seen a 100-inning reliever. Scott Proctor of the Yankees was the last. Proctor did have some injury issues after that, but that likely has more to do with going from 44 2/3 innings pitched in 2005 to 102 1/3 in 2006. A max of a 30 percent increase is advised for pitchers from season to season, and the Yankees put Proctor in danger with such a radical increase. This isn’t the cause for the end of the 100-inning reliever. It was already on the decline before Proctor’s injury issues. The last season with more than one was 2003 when Steve Sparks and Guillermo Mota accomplished the feat, and Mota finished the season with a 1.97 ERA, but still two pitchers doing it is nothing like in 1985 when 17 relievers pitched over 100 innings.

The two relievers with the most innings pitching in 2012 were Josh Roenicke of the Rockies and Craig Stammen of the Nationals with 88 2/3 and 88 1/3 innings, respectively. It may not be that either of these pitchers can go to 100 innings pitched, but Stammen has pitched over 100 innings in all but one of his seasons as a professional. It would be an advantage for the Nationals to be able to use just one reliever to bridge the gap from their starters to either the set-up man or closer depending on the availability of both, and Nationals starters are averaging over six innings a start. Maybe Stammen can’t pitch 100 innings as a reliever, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t someone else in the system that can; someone that is currently a starter, but maybe doesn’t have the pitches to make it two times through a major league lineup.

Whenever the idea of a starter versus a reliever is debated, the number thrown out for starters innings is 200. The Nationals didn’t have a 200-inning starter last season and of the 286 pitchers to start a game, 31 of them pitched 200 innings. Most often when a reliever is converted to a starter, he doesn’t make it to the 200-inning mark either. The Rangers have tried it with both Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando, and the most they have gotten from either is 169 innings pitched in 31 games. That isn’t bad, but it isn’t great, and there is an argument to be made that some pitchers can be more effective as a reliever where they can ramp up the velocity and don’t have to see batters a second or third time. The debate when considering converting a starter to a reliever shouldn’t be between 200 innings pitched as a starter versus 70 innings pitched as a reliever, but more between 160 innings pitched over 30 games versus 100 innings pitched over 70 games.

The 100-inning reliever was once a common sight in baseball, something forgotten that could become new again, and something that would give a team a competitive advantage. It has to be asked what is the use of having talented players if not to use them as much as possible and put them in the best position to help themselves and the team succeed. Why not take a borderline back-of-the-rotation starter and turn him not into a one-inning reliever, but a multi-inning, 100-inning reliever that can not only help the team by getting more outs, but by also giving a team more roster flexibility?

David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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