Last Friday, Major League Baseball officially announced the postponement of spring training games through the fifth of March. While this announcement was certainly not a surprise given how CBA negotiations have reportedly gone thus far, its lack of shock factor does not void it of meaning.
With this delay, the 2022 season is now officially the second season in the last three to feature a significant disruption to spring training. In 2020, after just a few days of action, spring training was officially cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March. Things returned to some semblance of normalcy in 2021, when the league was able to pull off a full slate of spring training games. Now, nearly a full week after pitchers and catchers were scheduled to report to camp, MLB finds itself staring down the barrel of another shortened camp.
As others have picked up on, this delay could 9have serious ramifications. The two most obvious negative effects of a delayed Spring Training have to do with players returning from injury—specifically, guys like Luis Severino and Aaron Hicks, who have missed huge chunks of time in recent seasons—not getting enough playing time to get acclimated to the speed of the big league game before regular season play, and fringe players, like veterans Ender Inciarte and José Peraza or young guys like Oswaldo Cabrera, who now have limited chances to show the club they have what it takes to make the team out of camp.
One thing I haven’t noticed, however, is a discussion of another delay’s potential effects on pitchers as a whole. In 2020, Jay Jaffe of FanGraphs pointed out that the workload for starting pitchers had been significantly reduced due to the truncated season, dropping from a rate of 5.18 innings pitched per games started to 4.73. While it’s true that these averages had been dropping year-over-year, the traditional percentage point change was somewhere in the ballpark of 2.8 percent. The change from 2019 to 2020 was -8.7. This monumental change was due to the COVID-shortened season, in which pitchers were given shorter leashes to, in part, help prevent injury after they had less time to ramp up to game-level intensity.
In 2021, the average innings pitched per games started rate rebounded slightly to a rate of exactly five innings per start across the league (for what it’s worth, the Yankees finished 12th with 5.1 innings pitched per start). While this is more in line with the trend we were seeing prior to 2020, the effects of COVID-19 were still showing on the league. With innings for starters way down in 2020—Lance Lynn led the majors with just 84 innings pitched that year—a gradual return to workload management was to be expected in 2021, and that’s exactly what we got, as we saw only four pitchers across the entire league eclipse the 200-inning mark. For reference, in 2019, there were 15 pitchers who threw 200+ innings with three more knocking on the door at 197.
This is a good place for me to pause for a second and acknowledge the elephant in the room. Prior to the 2020 season, pitcher workloads had been decreasing year over year, as Jaffe pointed out in his previously mentioned article. This decrease was due to a combination of factors—the likelihood of substantial injury, analytics showing that starters typically get less effective the further they get into a game, concern over pitch counts, etc.—and the shortened 2020 season put all of those factors in conversation with an unprecedented event that forced pitchers to rebuild themselves after a drastic fall-off in innings. So, while it was to be expected that the workload for starters would continue to decrease, the 2020 season really expedited that process.
Okay, now that the acknowledgement is out of the way, let’s return to 2022. Coming off a season where pitchers gradually worked their way back from their miniscule workloads in the prior season, the workloads of starting pitchers were expected to at least approach the norm this season. With a truncated spring training, however, threatening to derail the ramp up process, it is now entirely possible that it will take pitchers, especially starters, longer than usual to stretch out their arms. This is entirely hypothetical on my part, of course, so take it with a grain of salt, but I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility to see further truncated starts for the first couple months of the season as teams hope to preserve the health of their starters for as long as possible.
With the further truncation of starter workloads comes an increase in reliever workloads. While I don’t have the exact league-wide averages in front of me, it’s not rocket science to come to the conclusion that, as the average innings pitcher per game started for starters goes down, the number of relief innings thrown is bound to go up. This is especially apparent in the case of the 2021 New York Yankees, as Nestor Cortés Jr. (93 IP), Michael King (63.1 IP), Lucas Luetge (72.1 IP), Jonathan Loáisiga (70.2 IP), Chad Green (83.2 IP), and Clay Holmes (70.0 IP) all blew past their previous career highs in terms of innings pitched. As the workload for starters continues to decrease year-over-year, it begs the question of whether this workload for relievers is sustainable.
While I don’t think a delayed spring training will have the same effect on starting pitchers’ workloads that we saw in 2020, I do believe that a necessary gradual ramp up for starters throughout the beginning of the regular season could lead to the first sub-five IP/GS rate for a full season that we’ve ever seen. So, while there are potentially larger issues at play with a delay like this, it will be fascinating to see what effect it has on pitcher workloads, especially at the beginning of the season.