Innings-eaters consumed by time, overworked bullpens, sabermetrics

By on March 13, 2018

Bully for Jon Lester.

Embarrassed by a sub-par 2017, the Cubs well-compensated lefty wants to pitch 200 or more innings and spare his bullpen overwork this season.

Why it’s even an issue of Lester reaching a traditionally modest innings-pitched mark for starter shows the problems of 21st century baseball.

Sabermetrics and new-age front offices believe perils are courted if a starter goes through a lineup a third time. “Five and fly” or “five and dive” are no longer epithets against no-endurance starters, but new standards of performance. Bullpens are bloated to eight arms with a 13-man pitching staff overall. An extra starter is added for a doubleheader.

OK, where is the corresponding expansion of rosters to, say, 27?

Say a team inflates to 14 pitchers. That means eight position players are augmented by just three backups, one by necessity a catcher. If you’re in the National League, that gives a manager limited pinch-hitting and double-switching options. We’ve seen managers run out of players with a six-man bench, so a three or four backups — figuring the reserve catcher must be held back as long as possible — won’t serve the game situation’s needs well.

Theo Epstein's off-season work can be classified as "re-tooling."

If Theo Epstein backs Joe Maddon’s mid-game hooks of starters, then he must advocate expanded rosters, to 27.

Theo Epstein was branded the greatest leader in the world and a future Hall of Famer. But I’d like to see Theo use his stature in the game to balance out the sabermetrics of his front-office posse and Joe Maddon’s itchy fingers for his bullpen with an advocacy of enough players to accommodate the quick hooks for starters. Epstein would have to defy cost-cutting owners. If no starters go seven innings consistently with some pulled before five innings, and also relievers cannot go more than one inning apiece, then teams need 15-man pitching staffs.

I recall the hue and cry against Dusty Baker for supposedly burning out Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. To properly baby the hard-throwing wunderkinds, Baker would have had to pull Wood and Prior after 100 to 110 pitches maximum, going no more than six innings. I wrote back in the day that to do so, Baker would need a 15-man pitching staff. Now we’re right there with the typical handling of starters and relievers, which gets more urgent and desperate (paranoid?) in the post-season.

If 200 innings is the top standard for starters — and many don’t pass 180 or 190 — then we’ve dropped by 50 innings in two decades. The durable Cubs right-hander Jon Lieber led the NL with 251 innings pitched, covering 35 starts and just six complete games, in 2000. Lieber then went 20-6 in 2001, as the last Cub until Jake Arietta to win 20. That was achieved in 232 1/3 innings.

Once moved out of his Cubs closer’s role in 2008, Ryan Dempster racked up four consecutive 200-inning seasons. Ted Lilly barely went over 200 innings in his two best Cubs seasons in 2007-08.

On the South Side, Mark Buehrle was the endurance pace-setter in the AL in 2004-05 with the league-leading 245 1/3 and 236 2/3 innings respectively.

Yet we won’t see such standards now as a pitcher going seven, let alone the route, is increasingly threatened — at the cost of burning out the bullpen.

Wilbur Wood in 1972 stands as the endurance master of Chicago baseball through most of the last century.

Three-hundred-inning starters were already in the rear-view mirror when Greg Maddux led the NL with 263 and 268 innings, respectively, as a Cub in 1991-92. Baseball-ignorant, budget-crunching Stan Cook, then Tribune Co.’s viceroy running the team, apparently did not recognize the endurance factor in his cavalier handling Maddux’s free-agent deal. The five-year, $25 million contract was pulled off the table because the pitcher did not meet an artificial deadline to agree in the winter of 1991-92.

Wilbur Wood stands as a throwback to the early 20th century in his innings-eating spree as a four-time 20-win knuckleballer for the Sox from 1971-74. Wood passed 320 innings each of his 20-win seasons with a peak of 376 2/3 innings in 1972. He often started on two days’ rest due to the lack of conventional strain from the flutterball. The only other big-league pitcher who matched Wood’s workload was conventional-tossing lefty Mickey Lolich of the Detroit Tigers with 376 innings amid his peak 25-win season in 1971. Lolich led the AL with 45 starts, obviously making some on two days’ rest as he did in his heroic Game 7 victory over Bob Gibson in the 1968 World Series.

The only other Sox pitcher in the era to pass 300 innings was Jim Kaat’s 303 2/3 output in his 20-14 season in 1975.

Fergie Jenkins, of course, is the standard-bearer in so many ways for the Cubs. He exceeded 300 innings in his second through fifth 20-win seasons (out of six in a row) from 1968-71. Fergie’s peak was 325 innings (30 complete games, just 37 walks) in his Cy Young Award season in 1971. He fell short of a fifth consecutive 300-inning workload in 1972 after he was scratched from his final two starts, after winning his 20th in Philadelphia, due to a tender shoulder.

Any human cannot keep up that pace, though. After a career-high 328 1/3-inning, 25-win season with the Texas Rangers in 1974, Jenkins never again got close to 300 through the end of his career in 1983. Correspondingly, his top victory total was 18 with the Rangers in 1978.

Three-hundred innings is not as common as a fan might think. Twenty-game winner Bill Hands hit the 300-inning mark on the nose in his peak Cubs season (2.49 ERA) in 1969. But Cubs 20-game winners Dick Ellsworth in 1963 and Larry Jackson (matching Jenkins for high-water mark since the 1920s with 24) in 1964 did not reach the 300 mark. No starter on the 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938 and 1945 pennant winners totaled 300.

On the South Side, the impression was Early Wynn was a durable pitcher who never left the mound. In truth, “Gus” never reached 300 in his 24-year career that included five 20-win seasons. With 22 victories and the Cy Young Award for the Sox in 1959, Wynn pitched 255 2/3 innings.

The record book shows Big Ed Walsh somehow logged 464 innings, his second consecutive 400-inning season, for the 1908 Sox. Cy Young himself amassed 453 innings in baseball antiquity in 1892. Physicians had no way to measuring the wear-and-tear on arms during and after careers then, but the damage along with the pain tolerance must have been off the charts.

Now the workload has swung totally the other way. And the only way to accommodate starters who work basically half the game is adding more arms and more roster spots?

Bowing to the lords of sabermetrics, are the Epsteins of the world willing to put their money where their mouths are?




Category Baseball Under Glass Blog Tags , , , , , , , , , ,