The state of the starter. 13 comments

The final look at the numbers that defined baseball in 2018, from Jason Stark. And they all tell the story about the future of pitching in baseball.

It appears analytics are leading to the commoditization of pitching. The traditional role of the starting pitcher is becoming less important. It really doesn’t matter who gets the twenty-seven outs.

That’s why in 2018 fans had the pleasure of watching 6.72 pitching changes per game. That’s 6.7 plodding walks to the mound by a manager per game, 6.7 long tedious jogs from the bullpen per game, 6.7 monotonous pauses in the action to watch a guy play catch with his catcher per game. It’s a trend that is only increasing each year. As Stark shows, in 1998, baseball had 4.92 pitching changes per game. Bullpenning is here to stay. It gives fans plenty of time to turn the channel to something more thrilling, like the Seniors Bowling Tour.

Baseball is desperately trying to speed up the pace of play. Teams’ analytics departments are conspiring against that idea. There’s no relief in sight.

Also, as Stark notes, for the first time in baseball history, fewer than one thousand starters were allowed to work through a lineup at least three times. Just one game a week on average does a team allow its starter to face a lineup more than three times. It’s not fear of injury, it’s the notion the numbers prove effectiveness diminishes each time through the order.

Just three seasons ago, the number of games in which a pitcher was allowed to make it through the lineup more than three times was 1,405. That’s a drop of thirty-two percent. And as starters are less valued, it will only get worse.

There were just forty-two complete games thrown in 2018. Total. From all pitchers on all thirty teams. Stark has a startling glimpse into stats. In 2011 there were 173 complete games. Five seasons later, that was cut in half to eighty-three. Now it’s been cut in half again.

No starter had more than two complete games. In 2008, C.C. Sabathia had ten. In 1998, Curt Schilling had fifteen.

An interesting byproduct of this commoditization of pitching is happening. If starting pitching is less valuable, the pitchers themselves are less valuable. You no longer have to pay Clayton Kershaw forty million dollars a year to get twenty-seven outs a game, or even twenty-one. Pay an anonymous pitcher a couple million dollars a year to get nine outs per start.

Then start the parade of bullpenning.

Say goodbye to marquee matchups. Say goodbye to that glorious characteristic that fueled every game, the marquee starting pitcher matchup. Say hello to coming out to the ballpark and watching a parade instead of a game. Watching chess instead of baseball.

It used to be you let the game play and at the end of the year you see where the numbers ended up. Now you let the analytics play and at the end of the year you see where the game ended up.

The analytics crunchers have run amok.

In spite of it all, I am optimistic.

The pendulum will swing back. Try as they might, they cannot kill something so inherently good.