I think we’re at a fairly interesting crossroads in baseball. On the one hand, you have the declining importance of the starting pitcher. Fewer and fewer pitchers are qualifying for the ERA title, with just 57 such pitchers in 2018. In 2017 that number was 58, and in 2015 there were 78 qualified pitchers. In just four years the number of “qualified” starters dropped 27%.
The number of true workhorse pitchers, the classic 200-inning man, is also declining. In 2015, 28 pitchers threw 200 innings, and since then the number has dropped off considerably. Fifteen 200 inning pitchers were seen in 2016, and 13 each of the last two years. Teams are more conservative than ever about how they’re deploying starters; with mandatory rests, spot starts and generally shorter outings.
On the other hand, teams that lean on their bullpen to take up more and more innings – a natural symptom of fewer innings thrown by starters – are all on the hunt for starting pitching this winter. Milwaukee and Oakland both went into the 2018 playoffs without much of a rotation, instead relying on the likes of Josh Hader and Blake Treinan to pick up the slack.
Milwaukee has been linked to just about every starting pitcher on the trade market, while the As are hoping Sean Manea, Jharel Cotton and AJ Puk can all return from injury and possibly boost the rotation for 2019. The team with perhaps the single biggest impact on the modern use of bullpens, the New York Yankees, also appears to be on the hunt for pitching help, even if they’re seemingly unwilling to spend what it costs to acquire such help.
The Yankees need to bite the bullet on that front. Their bullpen, while formidable, needs some relief – no pun intended. As cumulative innings climb, the effectiveness of Yankee relievers drops:
The control of the Yankee relief corps gets a boost in September when callups can take on some of the load, but the truth is it’s pretty clear to see that the bullpen gets worn down over the season. That’s a symptom of a lack of rotation depth.
One of the things that I like to look at is how teams distribute innings among their relievers. Does a given team focus their innings on the same four or five guys, or do they try to spread 30 innings or so among all eight men in the bullpen? The MLB playoff teams had mixed results in 2018:
The takeaway here is the burden the Yankees shouldered on their big relief arms, three of whom – Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson and Dellin Betances – are on the wrong side of thirty. Robertson is also a free agent, meaning there’s no guarantee his innings will be picked up by a player of his caliber in 2019.
Now, the Yankees have solved some of the rotation depth by trading for James Paxton earlier this offseason. That would mean the Yankees have two arms that pitched 160 innings in 2018, and Paxton at least on paper seems to be replacing Sonny Gray in the rotation. If Paxton repeats his 2018 performance, the Yankees would see a net gain of 30 innings pitched over Gray, taking some of the load off a worn bullpen.
Paxton doesn’t have a great track record for being a workhorse though, setting a career-high in IP in 2018. I’m about as big a Paxton backer as the site has, but I’m not expecting Justin Verlander levels of work in 2019. That’s why shoring up the rotation with a pitcher that can work more is so vital this offseason, and it’s one reason why losing on Patrick Corbin stung so much. Even if you don’t believe Corbin is a 6.3 fWAR true talent, he threw 200 innings this year and 189 in 2017. Those marks would have ranked him first and second in the Yankee rotation the past two years, and would have taken a lot of the slack off the bullpen, probably easing some of the late-year ineffectiveness we’ve seen from the relief corps.
The two “big” free agent pitchers left, J.A. Happ and Charlie Morton, pitched 177.2 and 167 innings in 2018 respectively, but will be 37 and 36 in 2019, and you have to wonder what they each have left in the tank. Yusei Kikuchi is interesting, but there are always usage questions whenever a pitcher comes from Japan.
The Cleveland pitchers rumored to be on the trading block, Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, are true workhorses. The trouble is, it’s hard to look at the Yankee system and see the high-level pieces needed to trade for pitchers like that. You can’t just throw a bunch of 50 FV prospects at a team and hope they stick.
Milwaukee, Oakland and the Yankees all have to find ways to bolster their rotation for 2019. Oakland has pieces returning from injury that may help, while the Brewers and Yankees are left to look at the trade or FA markets with depleted systems to boot. For the Yankees, relying on their bullpen so heavily is playing to their strengths, but it’s a fine line between doing that and tapping out your reserves. A reliable innings eater not only boosts your rotation, it takes some strain off your bullpen, but those reliable pitchers are being swallowed up quickly and the Yankees can’t be left out in the cold.