It Is Time for Baseball to Fight Back Against Big Bullpen
Bullpens are too big, managers are relying on them at an unprecedented rate, and teams are becoming inflexible and less fun as a result.
Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
You have heard a great deal about the predations of Big Pharma and the Big Banks, but even Bernie Sanders is afraid to talk about the risk presented by Big Bullpen. Do you enjoy games that feature a half-dozen pitching changes per team and hamstrung, frantic managers? If so, you are the target audience for "Thirteen-Man Pitching Staffs," MLB's newest extravaganza. It's not a musical, and it's not even really an entertainment. It's the apotheosis of LaRussian anal-retentive micromanaging, and it's pretty boring. It's also what Big Bullpen does, and it's everywhere.
Thirty years ago, 26 major league teams called in a relief pitcher 7,554 times. That's 291 appearances per team, a little less than two per game. Last year, 30 major league teams called for a reliever 15,108 times—an all-time high. This means that, on average, managers made 504 calls to the pen per team, a little over three per game. If they still used bullpen cars, the price of a gallon of gas would be a dollar higher based on ballpark consumption alone; if any other adult called for mother that often society would stamp him as a case of failure to launch.
There are consequences to Big Bullpen. In the olden days, managers generally spread the work among five relievers. Now they carry seven or eight, and these additional arms have devoured the bench like so many fastball-throwing termites. If my rudimentary counting skills have not betrayed me, as of Monday 16 teams were carrying 12 pitchers, 13 were carrying 13, and the Twins were (briefly, as the result of some roster shuffling) carrying 14 and only two bench players. I'm choosing to pretend that last bit is a misprint, but it's equally tempting to say it's a sign of the apocalypse. Also, it's the Twins.
As a result, managers can watch as pitchers wear a rut from the bullpen to the mound but lack the flexibility to do much else. A few times already this season we've seen pitchers taking on tasks they haven't encountered since the 1930s, when Wes Ferrell and Red Ruffing used to pinch-hit and take the occasional turn in the outfield. On April 20 at Yankee Stadium, Oakland A's third baseman Danny Valencia had to leave the game after the top of the fourth. Manager Bob Melvin had listed infielder Jed Lowrie as his designated hitter that day and had no other infielders on the bench. So he moved Lowrie into the field, losing the DH and slotting pitcher Kendall Graveman into the cleanup spot. Graveman subsequently became one of the few pitchers to bat in an American League game when Yankees manager Joe Girardi intentionally walked Josh Reddick to get to him. Graveman struck out on three pitches, stranding two baserunners.
A few days later, on Sunday, April 24, two extra-inning games (one between the Twins and the Nationals, the other between the Pirates and the Diamondbacks) saw three of the four managers run out of position players. As a result, pitchers were called upon to pinch-hit in key situations and, in the case of Shelby Miller, also to pinch-run and play left field.
Now, managers can and will run out of players in extra-inning games. It has ever been thus and ever will be. But Sunday's events are emblematic of a wider problem that is only now revealing itself fully. Think of it as a climactic event, a version of global warming that's more annoying than scary. Temperatures rose throughout the 20th century, but it's only now that Greenland is shedding its permafrost and revealing its potential as the teabag that will drown Miami. Well, the role of relief pitchers grew right along with all that carbon output; only now have the effects become too dramatic to ignore.
From 2002 to 2015, the major leagues averaged 466 pinch-runners a year. They haven't reached that total since 2011, and twice in that period have barely scraped past 400. In 1986, the average NL team utilized 42 pinch-runners; the number last year was exactly half that. The American League uses far fewer pinch-hitters now than it did in the 1980s and 90s, a time before expansion and interleague play, when teams never had to worry about doing without the designated hitter. In 1986, the average AL team used 123 pinch-hitters and the average NL team 282. Five years later, the averages were 140 and 275, respectively. In 2015, they were 99 and 262, and those figures were on the high side for the period. This is how the narrowing of the game plays out: as a reduction in potential by degrees. It's not visible every game, but perhaps a couple of times a week you'll notice managers not doing things they used to do to give their teams a chance, because they just don't have enough players on the bench. Pinch-hitters, pinch-runners, and defensive subs will never become extinct, but they're a greatly reduced species, something like the tourist's bison herd at Yellowstone.
The days of the complete game and the 100-inning reliever are likely gone for good. In and of themselves, those developments represent progress, but they also mean that the proliferation of reliever kudzu is likely permanent. The trick is how to deal with the consequences without making the situation worse. One possibility is to stop thinking of the 25-man roster as sacrosanct. Major league rosters have come in all kinds of configurations. In the late 1950s, teams could carry 28 players out of spring training and had 30 days to diet down to 25. In the Great Depression, rosters shrunk to 23 so owners could save a couple salaries; this is also why it was the age of the player-manager. The roster was 24 from 1986 to 1990 as part of the owners' fun-with-collusion strategy to beat the Players Association—the collective bargaining agreement called for a 25-man roster maximum and a 24-man minimum, and somehow every team individually came to the conclusion it would be better off with 24 players. Teams are also now allowed a 26th man for scheduled doubleheaders. There is no tablet anywhere with a 25 engraved upon it.
Sadly, though, it's hard not to suspect that if rosters were expanded, managers and general managers would only stuff more relievers/security blankets onto the teams, until bullpens start to resemble the Marx Brothers' state room scene. Owners would also no doubt object to adding more salaries to the payroll, even if they would be inexpensive part-timers. A more productive alternative would be to place limits on the number of 25-man roster spots pitchers can occupy, and then liberalize the rules for moving them on and off the active list. This would require the creation of a pitching taxi squad: spent relievers and even starters who have just pitched could be delisted on a transient basis. They would still accrue service time and in all other senses be major leaguers. They just wouldn't be eligible to play.
The way it works now, a player is either on or off the active roster. He's in the majors, the minors, or on the disabled list. Further, a player demoted to the minors must remain there for 10 days barring the big-league club placing another player on the disabled list. Veterans who are out of options must clear waivers to be sent down, and a player with five years' experience can refuse to be optioned altogether. None of that would apply to our hypothetical pitching taxi squad. It would simply be an extra-dimensional space where a certain number of designated pitchers—say, three—would exist in a hypothetical extension of the bullpen. Managers would still have their 13-man security blankets, but only 10 of the blankets would be available on any given day.
The three roster spots freed up by the hypothetical bullpen could be used for anything but pitchers: all-speed, no-hit guys; all-hit, no-field guys; all-field, no-hit guys—let a thousand variations on Joey Gathright, Daryle Ward, and John McDonald bloom. Every fringy first baseman, left fielder, and pudgy catcher with a bat worthy of the name would suddenly have a job at the end of a major-league bench, and the world would be a more joyful place.
If baseball has missed anything these past few decades, it's round guys whose only job is to bat once a game and make sure the team minimizes food spoilage in the clubhouse spread. I'm talking classics like catcher/gourmand Smoky Burgess and the late, great Gates Brown, who once slid head-first into second base with two fully loaded hot dogs stuffed down his shirt. You think Bartolo Colon is fun? Wait until you have one per team and he pinch-hits .360—something both Burgess and Brown were capable of doing—while drenched in mustard. Even if the additions turn out to be svelte fliers, that would be fine. Anything beats watching Oliver Perez swinging when his team is down 5-4 with two outs in the bottom of the 15th.
It's going to be a long road back, but it'd be nice to at least think about how things could be different. It's only the last week of April, and we have 13,500 pitching changes to go until October.