As the 2018 season has begun, it’s apparent that Major League Baseball is evolving in several areas. From the front office to the dugout, clubs are beginning to experiment with new-age tactics that can be referred to in a general sense as just “analytics”. It gets more complicated from there, but my main concern is the fact that how the game of baseball is perceived is evolving.
The game itself isn’t exactly evolving, per se, but rather people are finding new ways to use data that’s always been around, and applying this data to game management, scouting, contract negotiations, and much more. The Atlanta Braves have managed to hop on to the analytics bandwagon in recent years, and that could mean big changes are coming.
John Coppolella is a mathematical genius. He’s quoted in this Q&A as saying, “I was always real good with numbers; when I was 3, I was doing ninth-grade math, basically.” Fortunately, a numbers guy like Coppy was able to get the Braves’ proverbial feet wet in these new-age analytics while he was around, and Alex Anthopoulos’ regime will undoubtedly continue the trend of digging past the traditional stats.
One new tactic that teams seem to be trying out is limiting starting pitchers to facing the opposing lineup no more than two times. There have been exceptions to this, of course. Guys like Clayton Kershaw and Corey Kluber will have games where they just can’t be touched, and a manager obviously isn’t going to pull his starter if he’s got a one-hit shutout with ten strikeouts through five innings, but for the most part, there may not be many starters that see work beyond the sixth inning this year.
Atlanta Braves fans have had the privilege (?) of seeing this new tactic in action early this season with new Philadelphia Phillies manager Gabe Kapler. Over the course of a three-game series, Phillies starting pitchers tossed a combined 12 innings, averaged just 70 pitches per start, and none got past the Braves’ 2-hole for the third time around. As one might imagine, Philadelphia’s bullpen took quite a hit.
Gabe Kapler walked out to the mound and made 18 (EIGHTEEN!!) pitching changes over the course of a three-game series. Eighteen! That’s using a starter plus an average of six relievers every game! You can’t do that to any bullpen, much less one like the Phillies have.
In today’s game, long relief pitchers don’t get a lot of appreciation. Teams will occasionally carry a washed-up starter in their bullpen for when their rotation gets beat up, but there aren’t many long men that are long men by trade. However, with this new idea that starting pitchers don’t need to go deep into games, there’s no way a traditional bullpen will hold up over the course of an MLB season.
Thankfully, the Braves are in a great position to commit to shortening the leash given to starting pitchers, and it may have more benefits than one might think. Atlanta’s most valuable asset in the minor leagues isn’t any one player, but instead the collection of highly-regarded arms that have been put together over the last few years.
While the Atlanta Braves have far more starting pitchers than relievers in the farm system, that doesn’t mean something can’t be made of the crop. Who’s to say that relievers only need to pitch one inning, and why have guys been groomed so that they can’t go multiple innings easily? Major League Baseball is on the heels of what I’d call an Analytics Revolution, and revolutionizing the way rotations and bullpens are managed could be up first on the agenda.
The Braves have ten starting pitching prospects that received an overall grade of 50 or better by MLB.com. Even if only half of these guys make it to The Show, there would be one heck of a log-jam in the rotation to clear up, and the ones that don’t make the rotation are traded, right?
If I’m Alex Anthopoulos, I want to hang onto as many of these arms as possible. Of course, if resources from the farm system must be spent to fill a hole in the roster, then so be it. Even then, however, I wouldn’t be so quick to rid the system of any talent.
As mentioned earlier, Alex Anthopoulos is going to continue to indulge in analytics until the end of time, and if that means experimenting with the lineup, rotation, or bullpen, it must be done right. Limiting starting pitchers to facing the opposing lineup just twice is certainly something worth trying out, but if it’s not done right, it could lead to a plethora of injuries to these young arms.
Here’s how I envision the Atlanta Braves’ pitching staff by 2020 with an analytical twist:
Mike Soroka (R)
Luiz Gohara (L)
Julio Teheran (R)
Kolby Allard (R)
Yes, a four-man rotation. Crazy, right? Not exactly. The number of days a pitcher needs to rest between outings depends solely on the workload he took on during the previous outing. There are plenty of MLB starters that can get through 4 or 5 innings in 50-70 pitches, as opposed to the 100-plus-pitch outings where guys are going 7 and 8 innings.
By limiting the starting pitcher to 4 or 5 innings, anywhere from 30 to 50 pitches can be knocked off of any given start. I’d say that cutting a start almost in half makes it okay for the pitcher to lose one day of rest. Honestly, I’d bet my bottom dollar that there are guys who could go out there every third day and throw 50 pitches each time. I wouldn’t want to push it that far, but knocking a single day off is well within reason.
Moreover, cutting the rotation down to four men would give each remaining starter about eight extra starts, while actually decreasing the number of innings thrown over the course of the season. Throwing an average of six innings per start 33 times a year yields 198 innings pitched, while throwing an average of 4.5 innings per start 41 times a year yields 185 (rounded from 184.5) innings pitched. This means that a) a pitcher would put less stress on his arm each outing, and b) a pitcher would put less stress on his arm over the course of a season.
Saving starters’ arms isn’t the only benefit to having a four-man rotation, though. With the loss of a starting pitcher, an extra roster spot is opened up, which brings me to my next point.
Sean Newcomb (L)
Joey Wentz (L)
Max Fried (L)
Ian Anderson (R)
Touki Toussaint (R)
Bryse Wilson (R)
Dan Winkler (R)
Arodys Vizcaino (R)
A.J. Minter (L)
What if I told you that you could have a nine-man bullpen and a four-man bench? With a four-man rotation, that becomes a possibility. However, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill nine-man bullpen. This is a ‘pen full of long men. Six of the nine guys on that list are currently starting pitchers in the minors. Converting them to the bullpen, though, doesn’t mean they have to be relegated to an inning or two or relief work.
With starting pitchers taking on a lighter load each game, bullpens will obviously be asked to step up and pick up the slack. Gabe Kapler doesn’t understand this, and tried to adjust his rotation without also adjusting his bullpen. That was a rookie mistake that likely will not be made again. After using so many relievers through the first two games, the bullpen collapsed in game three, and the Braves hung 15 runs on the Phillies, who had to bring in a position player to pitch at one point.
This new-and-improved bullpen allows the starter to go four innings and then be replaced by a guy who can also go four innings, effectively expending just two arms over eight innings. Assuming the closer is brought in for the save, that leaves seven fresh arms in the bullpen to be used the next day, and a closer that can sometimes go on back-to-back days. This, to me, seems like a far more efficient way of distributing innings than the current method.
Obviously, though, the starter isn’t going to go exactly four innings every time. One day his pitch count may be high early and he leaves after three innings, and another day he can get through five innings in fifty pitches. That’s why bullpen flexibility is so important with a limited rotation. You never know what you’re going to need from the ‘pen, but you’ve got plenty of resources anyways.
But what happens when a starter is having a great night, and the manager lets him get deep into the game? Well, you’ve got six other starters (at least one of whom should be on a few days’ rest) you can plug into the rotation to give everyone an extra day of rest, and if you’re an MLB manager, it’s your job to be able to decide when it would be appropriate to let a guy go longer based on the resources available to you for the next few days.
So… Can it be done?
Employing a four-man rotation and a nine-man bullpen composed of five or six starters and the rest relievers is possible, but it would take years of planning ahead to make sure the resources are going to be there when the time comes, but it looks like that’s exactly what’s been done for the Atlanta Braves. John Coppolella did an excellent job of stockpiling above-average arms so that the Braves will never have to worry about going through what the New York Mets have gone through in recent years.
It’s a bit far-fetched to expect all of the Braves’ top pitching prospects to pan out and become successful big leaguers, but it can absolutely happen. Even if these guys don’t all pan out, more talent can always be acquired, which is the best part of it all. The Braves don’t have to have this group of guys to pull this off. They just have to commit to staying away from the one-inning guys when they’re on the market.
However, as has already been displayed by the Phillies, you’ve got to have the right person in charge of the operation on the field in order for the plan to be executed correctly. Someone with the bullpen management skills of Brian Snitker would never be able to handle the stress and decision making that would come with this kind of pitching staff, but someone more competent might be able to win 95+ games with it.
Once the Atlanta Braves have appointed a manager capable of managing and preserving a staff full of young arms, this big, crazy idea may be worth a shot with all the talent that’s coming.