Sunday, October 31, 2021

Rule Changes Aren’t Always the Correct Fix

Friday night, Atlanta's manager Brian Snitker removed his starting pitcher Ian Anderson after only 5 innings. This isn't at all unusual these days, particularly in the playoffs, but Anderson had yet to allow a hit and had only thrown 76 pitches. Baseball tradition would seem to demand that Anderson be allowed more of a chance to make history, but the likelihood of the Braves' righty accomplishing the feat was fairly remote. He had only thrown 39 of those pitches for strikes and had already walked 3 batters.

Snitker chose to make the moves he thought gave him the best chance of winning the game over the minuscule chance that Anderson could pitch 4 more innings. I would support the decision if I was a Braves fan, as most of the pundits I've read have done. Nothing is more important than winning in the World Series. But, of course, it's also an opportunity for old-timers like myself to lament the way that baseball has devalued starting pitching over the decades.

It's gotten to the point where a starter going 5 innings and exiting with the lead is considered an excellent effort. In the game of my youth, that would be frowned upon as leaving the job only partly done. But that was before MLB pitching became mostly about max-effort hurlers emptying their tank relatively quickly and then giving way to other hard-throwing arms hoping to finish the job.

As pitching evolves, the tenet of not allowing a starting pitcher to face a lineup for the third time has taken quite a bit of heat. Although it's demonstrably true that pitchers really are less effective when a hitter has already seen them a couple of times, this thinking — and, indeed, the entire field of baseball analytics by extension — has become the scapegoat for anyone who longs to see starting pitching reverse the trends of recent years.

It's become inevitable that new baseball rules are touted as the "cure" when the game of baseball changes in ways we don't really like. Sure enough, Ken Rosenthal has a piece in The Athletic proposing rule changes to "fix" the problem of devalued starting pitching. First, Rosenthal lays out the problem:

The best starting pitchers — Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, etc. — are stars who sell tickets and attract TV viewers, ranking among the top entertainers in the sport. The days they pitch are events. Even casual fans get caught up in their achievements. And yet, the way the game is evolving, the species is becoming virtually extinct, especially in the postseason, when the audiences are largest and the games matter most.

I would argue that top starters such as the 3 named by Rosenthal are given more rope to go deeper into a game than lesser starters. In Anderson's case, he's a fine pitcher, but he's also a 23-year-old who has only pitched 160.2 combined MLB innings over this season and last. Had he been a bit older with more major league experience, Anderson would probably have been left in the game longer.

I get that fans would have liked to have seen Anderson go deeper into the game to pursue the no-hitter, but the Astros have a potent offensive team. Anderson's struggle to throw strikes would make a manager worry about him making a mistake that could cost the Braves a pivotal game in the Series. There's a vast difference between being up 2-1 and being down 2-1 in a best of seven series.

There is also thinking that the swift hook for starters we've been witnessing is related to the pandemic that curtailed the 2020 season and so severely limited the number of innings pitchers piled up in that crazy 60-game season. Rosenthal acknowledges this but lacks faith that MLB will return to less drastic pitcher usage: 

...I don't trust teams to get there, not when their only mission is to win and the use of one faceless reliever after another, most throwing in the upper 90s with hellacious secondary stuff, has proven to be effective. No, teams must be forced to change the way they draft, develop and deploy pitching. And the good news — yes, there is good news — is that such change is within reach.

And, according to Ken, that change can be achieved by... you guessed it, rule changes:

The gradual implementation of two new rules, one limiting the size of a pitching staff, the other requiring a team to lose its DH once it removes its starting pitcher, would be the first step. Such rules would need to be negotiated into the new collective bargaining agreement, but the revival of starting pitching would benefit both players, leading to higher salaries for a larger number of pitchers, and owners, improving the product and generating greater interest. Repeat after me: Everyone would win

But Ken's thesis here would be dependent on how you define winning. In any scenario, implementing the "double hook" rule would not benefit players whose value is primarily as a Designated Hitter. I would have to believe that the union would be against devaluing the position, which essentially adds another regular job to a lineup. But honestly, I'm not convinced that changing the rule would enhance the game for me as a fan.

Basically, implementing the universal DH has two purposes: to protect pitchers from getting hurt and inject more offense into the game. With rare exceptions, pitchers were never very good at hitting in my lifetime. Skills like bunting seem to have fallen by the wayside in an era where pitchers concentrate all of their efforts into their work on the mound, even in lower levels of baseball. This ensures that the vast majority of pitchers are absolutely useless with a bat in their hands.

Even with a relatively good hitting pitcher such as the Mets' Jacob deGrom, at least one of his injuries last year happened when he was swinging a bat. Running the bases is also a risky proposition for most pitchers, mainly since they don't do it very often. Adopting some hybrid rule like the double hook that Rosenthal champions would basically ensure that some pitchers would have to hit late in games if a team runs out of position players. Moreover, they would likely be relievers who might get MLB at-bats a handful of times in an entire season.

Beyond that, I honestly question if baseball needs another convoluted rule to get a few more innings out of starting pitchers in games. Teams will still make moves that they feel give them the best chance of winning games, even if they have to sacrifice ABs from their DH position.

I look at this in a similar way that I look at defensive shifts in the game. There is talk that cutting down on shifting would inject more offense into the game. But really, hitters abandoning one-dimensional approaches that make them easy to pitch to and to set up a defense against them would go a long way towards reviving offense. It doesn't take tremendous skill to lay down a successful bunt when the other team is giving a hitter an entire side of the infield to aim for, nor does it require elite opposite-field hitting skills to chop a ground ball through when an opponent is positioning all of their infielders on the other side of the diamond.

I remember when the Mets played against the Cardinals early in the year, the Mets deployed a drastic shift against Nolan Arenado. Arenado simply sent a slow grounder through the vacated shortstop hole for a base hit. The next time he came up, the Mets played him a lot more conventionally. No rule change was required, just some reasonably elementary hitting skills. Why reward one-dimensional hitters by limiting the shifts employed against them? This would only encourage them to keep using a one-size-fits-all approach to offense.

Clubs can throw many nameless relievers into a game with success precisely because the ability to throw 4-seam fastballs up in the zone, complemented by a decent slider, is all most pitchers with a live arm need to get the majority of MLB hitters out. Throw those pitches for strikes often enough, and you too can be a major league reliever. Maybe if MLB clubs could broaden their offensive approach, the era of generic relief pitchers dominating hitters would come to an end. This, in turn, would restore at least some prominence to good starting pitchers.

I wrote a piece back in May about George Bradley of the St. Louis Brown Stockings, who pitched organized baseball's first recognized no-hitter back on July 15, 1876. When Bradley pitched, teams didn't worry about building bullpens. Bradley started all 64 games for his team that season, finishing 63 of them. His RF pitched 4 innings of the one game that Bradley exited. All told, George Bradley pitched 573 innings that season, which didn't even lead all of baseball. Jim Devlin of the Louisville Grays piled up 622 IP.

A few years later, Old Hoss Radbourn of the Providence Grays amassed 678.2 innings in the 1884 season. Just over a decade later, a mere 447.1 IP by Pittsburgh's Pink Hawley would lead all hurlers in the 1895 season. Ed Walsh of the 1908 Chicago White Sox was the last pitcher to go over 400 innings, although he came close again in 1912 with 393 IP.

For many years, accumulating over 300 innings was the gold standard for starting pitchers. But decades went by, the game kept changing, and Philadelphia's Steve Carlton was the last one to accomplish that in the 1980 season when he was 35. Last year, Robbie Ray of the Blue Jays led the AL with 193.1 innings. Time marches on, and the game evolves.

No one expects a starting pitcher to pitch just about every inning of every game anymore. As much as we all claim to want to see starters go deeper into games, none of us wants to see our team lose a game because the manager stuck with his starter too long.

One thing that Rosenthal mentions that I believe will help reverse recent trends a bit is limiting the number of pitchers on a roster. We may see that next season. But, while baseball continually evolves, that change inevitably happens slowly.

I remain convinced that teams developing hitters who can do more than just attempt to uppercut home runs will put an end to drastic defensive shifts and the absolute dominance of relievers who can only attack hitters one way. In my opinion, this would make for a much more enjoyable game than simply trying to fix everything we don't like by throwing more rules at the problem.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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