A starting pitcher has a larger impact on a baseball team than does a reliever. That claim is as much a matter of opinion as the operation of addition. Full-time starters throw 180-220 innings in a single season. Healthy relievers typically log 60-75 innings. 200 is more than 70. That’s why organizations tend to put their best pitchers, at least the ones with a full pitch portfolio, in a starter role.
But what if the standard practice for a reliever was adjusted so he pitched 120 innings? Suppose the team used him for two innings per appearance and in close ballgames, when the team was a run ahead, tied or a run behind. Under those parameters, the value of a hybrid-role reliever could come close to that of a starting pitcher.
But is the mental picture of a hybrid, 120-inning reliever in today’s game purely stuff of historical fantasy?
In 2015, Dellin Betances of the Yankees pitched the most in relief of any major league pitcher; that was 84 innings. In the last ten years, only a handful of relievers have pitched more than 90 innings. Scott Proctor (yes, that Scott Proctor) is the only pitcher to throw more than 100 innings in relief since 2005. Rob Dibble threw 98 innings (4.3 WAR) for the Reds in 1990. Scott Sullivan (113 IP) and Danny Graves (111 IP) were the most-used relievers in 1999 and the latest pitchers to throw more than 110 innings in a season.
It was not always so. In 1976, 17 pitchers threw more than 100 innings in relief. The Reds’ Pedro Borbon (117.2 IP) and Rawly Eastwick (107.2) were among them. Rollie Fingers pitched 134.2 innings (4.1 WAR) out of the bullpen. In 1975, Rich Gossage threw 141.2 innings (4.0 WAR).
Back then starters also tossed more innings. In 1976, Vida Blue had 298 IP (7.6 WAR) and in 1975, Catfish Hunter (328 IP) and Jim Palmer (322 IP) threw the most. Tom Seaver led the league in 1975 with 7.8 WAR in 280 innings.
Starters and relievers throw fewer innings than they did a few decades ago. Practices have changed.
Why bring this up?
On July 29, I wrote about the resurgence of the Reds bullpen. The main explanation was the return of Raisel Iglesias (June 21) and Michael Lorenzen (June 24). During the previous month, the Reds had used both in an unconventional way, with spaced-out, two-inning appearances. More math: If the Reds were to use Iglesias and Lorenzen for an entire season the way they had through the end of July, Iglesias would pitch 117 innings and Lorenzen 98. It recalled a warm, hazy vision of Scott Sullivan and presented a template for compromise between a starter’s full load and traditional reliever.
A little more than a month later, my ears perked up at the Q&A session with the Reds front office staff when Nick Krall floated the notion that a reliever like Raisel Iglesais, if he pitched 120 innings, might be nearly as valuable as a starting pitcher. It’s one thing for an uncredentialed writer (me) to spitball a new idea. It’s another level of seriousness when a major league assistant general manager does it.
Let’s take a closer look, starting with reaffirming the transitive property of inequality.
Starting pitchers and relievers have been worth different amounts. The top 10 starters in 2015 earned an average of 6.1 WAR (using FanGraphs WAR). For example, Clayton Kershaw pitched 232 innings and earned 8.5 WAR. Anthony DeSclafani, who was the #30 ranked starting pitcher, threw 184 innings and earned 3.1 WAR.
In contrast, the top ten relievers in 2015 earned an average of 2.2 WAR. Cody Allen of Cleveland was tops, with 69.1 innings and 2.6 WAR. The #30 reliever was A.J. Ramos of the Marlins, who threw 70.5 innings with 1.2 WAR. Mariano Rivera was a reliever for 18 years. He pitched 80 innings twice. Rivera, a Hall of Fame lock, averaged 2.2 WAR/year. Another example closer to home is Aroldis Chapman. He has been used an average of 60 innings each season, generating 2.6 WAR/year.
Behold, math. Starters are worth more than relievers because (a) clubs tend to use their best pitchers in that role, and (b) other things equal, starters throw about three times the number of innings as relievers. But in theory, a reliever who was assigned 120 innings instead of 60 could close that value gap about half the way.
The Reds used Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen in unconventional ways, at least for certain parts of the season.
In 16 of his 25 appearances, Iglesias pitched for at least two innings. Twice he went three. Not only have the Reds not used Iglesias on back-to-back days, he’s enjoyed at least two days between 22 of his 25 trips to the mound. However, the club has cut back his innings of late. Bryan Price has used Iglesias in 42 innings since his return on June 21. That extrapolates to 90.2 IP/season, down from the projected 117 IP/season when we calculated it at the end of July. In August and September, Iglesias has pitched at the standard modern bullpen rate of 71 IP/season.
The Reds have given Michael Lorenzen 41 innings over 29 appearances since he came back on June 24. That works out to 93.2 IP/season. Through August 9, the club used Lorenzen in similar fashion to early Iglesias. In eight of Lorenzen’s first 16 trips to the mound, he threw at least two innings. But that pattern has changed. Price has assigned Lorenzen more than one inning in only two of his last 13 appearances. In September, for the first time this season, Lorenzen has twice been used in back-to-back games. Over the last month, Michael Lorenzen has been used like a regular high-leverage reliever.
What caused the Reds to slow down their use of the two pitchers in August and September? Maybe concern for the health of their arms. Or maybe the early usage practices had to do more with medical protocols than paradigm busting.
What conclusions can we draw about the now-fictional 120-inning reliever?
The hybrid use of a relief pitcher as conceived here would be a sharp break from modern practices. It has been a quarter-century since any reliever has thrown 120 innings in a single season. The Reds seem an unlikely organization to challenge this (or any) conventional wisdom. But maybe that’s selling the new front office short.
We know they aren’t experimenting with it in 2016. The hybrid would average 20 innings per month. The Reds used Raisel Iglesias 18 innings in July, but only 12.1 in August. He’s on pace for 12 in September/October. Michael Lorenzen hasn’t been used even 15 innings in any month. To reiterate, the Reds are no longer doing anything provocative with their high-end relief pitchers.
That said, forty years ago a 120-inning reliever wasn’t a freakish rarity. Major league teams play an average of 27 games per month. Pitching 20 innings in 2-inning stints would mean appearing in 10 out of 27 games. That doesn’t seem crazy impossible.
Maybe the hybrid strategy works if it’s only one pitcher, not two, at a time. There are only so many appropriate situations. Lorenzen and Iglesias may be taking innings from each other. One solution would be expanding the parameters for when the hybrid pitcher is used. Include games when the team is two runs ahead or behind.
At 120 innings (or even 90), relievers will still be worth less than full-time starters because of math. But confining their innings to high-leverage situations would bring the values closer together. A certain percentage of the starter’s innings are with leads or deficits of three runs or greater.
If Raisel Iglesias’ balky shoulder or Michael Lorenzen’s pitch portfolio mean one or both are destined for the bullpen, then any number of innings beyond the typical modern reliever role would be beneficial to the club. 90 innings from above-average pitchers have more value than 65. While you’re thinking about it, throw this on the mounting pile of arguments against the restrictive, Dusty Baker-style closer role for the best arm in the bullpen.
Finally, if the Reds front office staff genuinely wants to explore a hybrid reliever strategy, they’ll need to make sure the manager agrees. He’s the one who determines the use of pitchers in games, not the general manager. Flexibility on this issue is yet another reason to make sure the next manager is wide open to new ideas. Dusty Baker isn’t the only manager to graduate from the Old School. If the next guy believes the best relievers only play when the team is in the lead, and then only for one inning, then the Reds will never come close to maximizing the use of their bullpen.