There are 10 teams that have played at least one postseason game this month in the majors. Of those 10, only four have used their starting pitchers more than their bullpen. Only those four - through Tuesday’s games - have more innings coming from their starting pitchers.
This should no longer be a surprise.
The building up of bullpens has been an arms race for years now - the race to get multiple flame-throwers in the mid-to-late innings who blow fastballs by hitters. And when they can’t do that or need something else, have sometimes dominant sliders, cutters, changeups, and so on.
We are many, many years removed from the days of four-man rotations when a pitcher like Jim Palmer could throw 319 innings (as Palmer did in 1977). And we are many years removed from the days when we saw pitchers throw several complete games during a season. Now it’s a rare occurrence.
The last O’s pitcher with five or more complete games in a season was Sidney Ponson, who threw five in 2004.
Here are average innings per game from starters for the playoff teams:
5.27 - San Francisco in five games
5.10 - St. Louis in one game
4.92 - Milwaukee in four games
4.90 - Atlanta in seven games
4.11 - Boston in nine games
4.11 - Los Angeles Dodgers in nine games
3.08 - Chicago White Sox in four games
3.04 - Houston in eight games
2.83 - Tampa Bay in four games
2.00 - New York Yankees in one game
Not a lot of starter innings there. We know the reasons for this, starting with the bullpen buildup we discussed earlier. But also the reticence to let starters go through a lineup the third time through the batting order anymore. The numbers tell us this is sound thinking - that most pitchers do struggle more the third time through - but now it’s become almost an automatic move managers make.
There are days when a pitcher a manager trusts is really rolling - like the day John Means pitched a no-hitter- and the manager lets him go. Those are rare now.
There was also a time in the game when a manager would consider his tiring starter still better than most options out of his bullpen, and he would let the pitcher stay in because of that. Those games are now very rare.
The data and analytics can lead to the so-called “spreadsheet” manager or “script” manager who knows how he would like the game to play out for his pitching before the national anthem is even sung.
In the playoffs, when a series can change with one batter, managers are more prone to pull struggling pitchers fast rather than let them try to work through a tough spot.
The game is not going back to where it once was. Heavy bullpen usage is here to stay, most likely, and starters who go deep will likely remain rare.
Even with the Orioles, the team with the worst pitching in the American League in 2021, you can see the ‘pen buildup in progress. The club takes a pitcher with a fastball, like Tanner Scott, and tries to add to him pitchers such as Tyler Wells, Dillon Tate, Conner Greene, Jorge López and others to have several pitchers with lively fastballs.
The days of watching a pitcher navigate his way through the lineup three times and gut it out deep in a game are being replaced by going to the fresh arm and coming at the opposition with waves of hard-throwing pitchers with big-time stuff.
It may work out well often, but not always. And some of us can still long for the day of the complete game and the starter who is a workhorse.