As O’s look for more rotation innings, the AL trend is for less

It is not a secret that the Orioles need to get more innings out of their starting rotation than they have in recent years. Not only has their starting rotation ranked near the bottom of the league in ERA, but also in combined innings pitched.

But this has happened to the Orioles at a time when the entire American League has seen starters pitching fewer innings. The trend of teams pulling starters earlier and getting to their bullpens sooner was big in the 2017 postseason, when starting pitchers averaged just 4 2/3 innings per start. Yep, just 4 2/3 innings.

Now postseason and regular season bullpen usage can be two very different things. Starters are pulled sooner in a short playoff series when one win can swing a series. Bullpen pitchers can throw more often with off-days built into series. They can pitch in three straight games without having to pitch on three straight days. Very different from the grind of the 162-game regular season.

But the average team in the AL saw its starters pitch 69 fewer innings last season than it did in 2014. Here is the average by years followed by the Orioles ranking.

AL team average starting rotation innings and O’s team ranking:
2014: 960 innings, O’s at 954 (10th in AL)
2015: 946 innings, O’s at 916 (13th in AL)
2016: 921 innings, O’s at 886 (12th in AL)
2017: 891 innings, O’s at 846 (15th in AL)

Both the AL average and the Orioles average combined starting pitcher innings decreased each year since 2014, when the O’s rotation posted an ERA of 3.61 to rank fifth in the AL. The club went 96-66 that year and won the AL East.

The average outing by an AL starting pitcher was 5.9 innings in 2014 and just 5.5 innings last season. The bullpens are obviously becoming more important than ever.

In 2014, in the entire American League, 17 pitchers threw 200 or more innings. Last season, that number was down to eight. In his career, Jim Palmer went 280 innings or more seven times and pitched 300 or more four times. This is a very different time for pitchers.

Some of this is by design. With teams now more inclined to rely on analytics, clubs realize that facing a lineup a third time through an order can produce very poor results for some pitchers. Some clubs, including the Rays and Mets, have indicated they will limit the exposure of some of their starters to a lineup a third time through in 2018. This means more bullpen innings by design. This could mean more 13-man pitching staffs that include eight pitchers in the bullpen. Perhaps the organizations with more optionable bullpen arms can more easily pull this off.

bundy white cg side.jpgInterestingly, the two young pitchers the Orioles are counting on for the foreseeable future - Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman - fare well generally when pitching deeper into games.

Bundy, batting average/OPS against in 2017:
First time through lineup: .242/.690
Second time: .252/.766
Third time: .221/.698

Gausman, batting average/OPS against in his career:
First time through lineup: .251/.712
Second time: .291/.815
Third time: .262/.752

This could bode well for the young pitchers going forward. Perhaps it shows us they have the ability to make in-game adjustments and also that they could eat even more innings in the future and become true starter workhorses.

But the trend currently in the sport is for more bullpen usage and more multi-inning relievers. The Orioles’ development plan for Tanner Scott, for instance, could have a long-term benefit. In the short term, the goal of three-inning starts was to help improve his command and secondary pitches. And also provide a between-starts side session to continue that important work. But it could also make him more likely to have success in the ability to pitch more than one inning.

But it is interesting that the Orioles and many teams want their starters to pitch as many innings as is possible and that makes strategic sense. They do so at a time when the overall trend in the game is fewer starter innings.

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