So about those wimpy starting pitchers…

So if there’s anything anybody knows about starting pitchers these days, it’s that:

1. they don’t pitch as deeply into games as they used to, and

2. the lazy bums don’t throws as many pitches as they used to.

Except neither of those things are actually true. From Bill James’ latest (sorry, subscriber-only) column:

… What is happening at this time is not relievers taking innings away from starting pitchers so much as it is relievers taking innings away from other relievers. The batters faced per game by relievers are declining, at this point, only because we switch more rapidly from one relief pitcher to another.

Actually, the historical trend toward fewer innings for starting pitchers appears to be over. Major league starting pitchers pitched more innings (and more innings per start) in 2014 than they did in 1999—fifteen years earlier. There is no decline in innings pitched by starting pitchers occurring at this time; if anything, the numbers are increasing.

In the year 2003, major league relievers pitched more innings than they did in 2014. However, in 2003 they pitched those 14,720 innings in 12,958 relief appearances. In 2014 the innings were down to 14,622—but the games were up to 14,461.

This part of the essay is essentially a response to Brian Kenny wondering, if relief pitchers are forever getting bigger and bigger chunks of the workload, why not just skip a few steps and create entire pitching staffs of one- and two-inning pitchers? 

To which Bill responds, a) the relievers are not getting a bigger chunk, and b) anyway, there aren’t enough good pitchers to go around. As long as Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke and Brett Anderson exist, you might as well use them for six or seven innings at a time.

Oh, and 95 pitches. In the comments under Bill’s column, we learn that the average number of pitches per start has been essentially unchanged for nearly 30 years (at least): It’s always been around 95 pitches per start. What’s changed, of course, is that there are now many fewer fast hooks and slow hooks; many fewer short outings, many fewer complete games.

I do think we might see something interesting happen. Actually, we’ve already seen it a few times. No attractive starter on the staff for today’s game? Bullpen game. Which of course is nothing new. But I can imagine teams just giving over their No. 5 slot to the bullpen. Especially if the rosters are someday expanded, or the roster rules somehow liberalized elsewise.