Baseball's Unhealthy Obsession with Starting Pitchers Is Killing the Game; Starting MLB Pitchers Earn Millions of Dollars for Less Work Every Year. It's Time to End the Madness

By Walters, John | Newsweek, July 8, 2016 | Go to article overview

Baseball's Unhealthy Obsession with Starting Pitchers Is Killing the Game; Starting MLB Pitchers Earn Millions of Dollars for Less Work Every Year. It's Time to End the Madness


Walters, John, Newsweek


Byline: John Walters

The staff's ace checks every box on Frank Sinatra's list: he's A-#1, king of the hill, top of the heap. Beginning with Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw, who will earn $34.6 million this season, five of the six highest-paid players in Major League Baseball are starting pitchers. Each will earn north of $25 million this season.

It's good work if you can get it. Because every Major League club employs a five-man rotation, a starting pitcher never works--at least not in an actual game--more than once every five days. Your Friday at the office is his Monday through Friday. The starting pitcher works on four days' rest--three more than God took after creating heaven and Earth.

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That workload sounds even sweeter when you realize that starting pitchers are hurling fewer innings each season, as teams try to preserve their precious limbs. Kershaw, baseball's premier ace and a future Hall of Famer, led all pitchers in the big leagues last year by throwing 232 a innings. That's a prolific output compared to his contemporaries, but it's also the lowest total for baseball's innings leader since records were first kept in 1876. Before 1980, when Steve Carlton of the Philadelphia Phillies became the last starter to throw a 300-inning season, there had only been 10 seasons in all of baseball when the game's innings leader hurled fewer than 277 innings.

More money for less work. At what point will some enterprising general manager, harboring clandestine hopes to have Brad Pitt play him in an Oscar-nominated film, wonder if there is a better way? If your ballclub is going to play approximately 1,458 innings per year (162 times 9, not accounting for rain-shortened or extra-innings contests), do you really want to pay that much money for a player who will take the mound, at most, using Kershaw as our example, 16 percent of the time? There must be a smarter way.

Here's my pitch.

"In five to ten years, you're going to see pitchers go a maximum of 45 pitches an outing," predicts former Major League reliever and pitching coach Tom House, "and pitch two to three times a week. All of them. It makes complete sense strategically, economically and in terms of conditioning and preservation."

According to The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, a 2007 tome that is a secular bible for sabermetricians, "As the game goes on, the hitter has a progressively greater advantage over the starting pitcher." To wit, analysis of more than 450,000 plate appearances found that the first time batters faced a pitcher in a game, they had a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .345. The second and third times they faced that pitcher in the same contest, their wOBAs rose to .354 and .362. In baseball, familiarity with a pitcher breeds optimal calibration for hitters.

If baseball purists universally laud a guy who throws smoke for having an effective changeup, why not laud a manager for using his staff as a changeup? Imagine, if you will, that you are a manager with a diverse pitching staff. You have a few guys who can approach body temperature numbers (98.6) on the radar gun. One or two who have good movement on their breaking balls. A Greg Maddux-type who can hit his spots. A knuckleballer. And every time through the lineup, the opposing team sees a different arm. No batter sees anyone on your staff more than once per game.

The experiment has been tried, albeit with diffidence. "When Tony LaRussa was managing the A's in 1993, they used three-man rotations per game, with an allowance for relievers," says Rory Costello, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). "The A's lost six of seven using this formula and they abandoned the project."

"When Joe DiMaggio had his 56-game hitting streak in 1941, do you know how many different pitchers he saw in those games? …

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