Matt Strahm

Workhorse Rotations are Out; Versatile Bullpens are In

After a postseason where bullpens were deployed in ways we haven’t seen for years, if ever, the popular question was if this would change the way bullpens are used moving forward. I’d argue that change already occurred before the postseason.

Since 2010, 24 team pitching staffs have failed to accumulate 900 innings from their starters. That’s a little more than three teams per year on average. How many of those 24 came in 2016, though? The answer is 12 of them. That’s right. Half of the staffs over the last seven seasons to not reach 900 innings from their rotation came this past season.

Come to whatever conclusion you want for why that’s happening. It could be that there just aren’t that many good starters anymore. Teams use pitch counts and inning counts on pitchers, so maybe they’re babying young starters more than ever before. I’m of the belief that more and more managers are afraid of their pitcher seeing a lineup a third time.

The third time through the order penalty isn’t a new phenomenon, of course, but things have changed. Look at this chart below to see how many plate appearances by time through the order over the last three seasons.

1st PA 2nd PA 3rd PA
2016 43,482 42,294 29,240
2015 43,532 42,406 30,820
2014 43,616 42,827 32,589

So teams have obviously always known about this. I mean, the data is readily available. But it does seem like there’s more of an emphasis placed on getting the starter out of there before they can get in trouble. The issue, though, is that these bullpens are being run into the ground because of all the innings that are being expected of them. Think about the Royals. We thought the starters were really struggling to get deep into games. There were 12 teams with less innings from their rotation than Kansas City. Can you imagine getting less than the Royals got?

By now I’m sure you’re wondering if this is going anywhere. And the answer is yes. The idea of Moneyball, as you might recall, is uncovering market inefficiencies and exploiting them. The Royals did that a bit with the building of their monster bullpen (though you have to admit they lucked into it somewhat with Wade Davis becoming a cyborg) and their emphasis on speed and defense before the offensive climate shifted to what it was for a few years. Now the league is shifting again. Bullpens are so insanely important that there’s talk of the top relievers getting nine-figure deals in free agency.

Let me emphasize that. Relievers may get paid $100,000,000 or more to throw 70-75 regular season innings. We can argue whether or not that’s good for the game or good decisions from teams later, but the point is that the secret is out about relievers. So how do the Royals exploit this?

I had a couple thoughts. The first is to develop a strategy that allows a starting staff to remain effective deeper into games. That’s much easier said than done, of course. I’m not going to get into what makes some pitchers capable of getting deeper into games than others because I haven’t done the proper research. The basic answer here is that the best pitchers can get a lineup out multiple times per game even when hitters know what’s coming because they’ve seen eight, 10, 12, 14 pitches against them to this point in the game. Developing good, young, cost-controlled starting pitching isn’t a new idea or philosophy. I’m not sure what the strategy would be that would allow an average starting pitcher to excel in the middle to late innings where others before him (or her, sorry Ginny Baker) haven’t before. My thought was that you teach holding a pitch back for the third time through the order, but that really only works in theory.

With that in mind, it started to become clear to me. I believe the Royals need to do what’s already been done but do it better. I know, mind blowing. As it stands right now, I think you’d feel confident in three of the Royals starters – Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy and Yordano Ventura – to give the team some innings.

Last year, the three combined for 561.1 innings, and that’s with Duffy spending the first few weeks in the bullpen. I don’t think you can count on 600 from that trio, but it’s not out of the question. The final two spots are a bit more of a question mark with Jason Vargas and whoever sits in that fifth starter role. I don’t think it’s a good idea to count on getting more than 900 innings from next year’s rotation unless Vargas or someone else really steps up in a way that’s unexpected.

Because of this, the Royals need to be focused on finding multiple inning threats who can all be deployed in similar ways to what the playoff teams did during the postseason. No, it would be impossible to use one pitcher over a full season the way a team like the Indians used Andrew Miller without burning him out. But it would be possible to use multiple pitchers that way.

And now that brings me back to a variation on my starter-by-committee that I had last year. To catch you up if you missed it around this time last year, my idea was to fill out the remainder of the Royals rotation with pitchers who could rotate between the rotation and the bullpen. The idea behind this is that it would keep them fresh for the full season because their total workload is limited and it could help split the payroll burden between the rotation and the bullpen.

I still think that would be a good idea, but given what we know, I’d rather find at least one free agent starting pitcher who probably shouldn’t be a starting pitcher. A guy like Andrew Cashner would have made sense, but the Rangers gave him $10 million to be a starter for some reason. The Royals should be targeting pitchers who you can’t count on for seven innings, but you probably could use for three innings each in two relief appearances per week. Given the innings constraints the rotation will likely have, the work will be there and they can also be used in a more traditional role if needed.

I believe the Royals have two pitchers who fit that role in their system already. I’ve mentioned before that I’d utilize Matt Strahm in that role during the 2017 season. I think that allows him to build up innings on his arm while helping the team in the best way possible for him. I also think Josh Staumont is a candidate for that role as he continues to develop. With his fastball and his improving curve, he could be an absolute beast of a weapon for multiple middle innings of work. Brian Flynn is another internal option who could work.

Then you really need to go out and find a guy. I’m not sure if that’s Jhoulys Chacin, who I’ve mentioned before, or if it’s a trade option such as Chad Bettis, who has been rumored to be vaguely available. Whatever it is, I would love to see the Royals assemble a bullpen full of pitchers capable of working through an entire lineup who can be useful in short stints as well.

Sometimes it works to go against the tide and find something that nobody is doing yet. Other times, though, you have the chance to simply take the current trend and do it better. That’s where I think the Royals are. They might as well steer into the skid and use their strengths even more to mask a rotation that could very well be a weakness once again.

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