Carney Column: The death of the starting pitcher
Last week, I stumbled upon a great article from The Athletic’s Jayson Stark, taking a look at the future role of starting pitchers in Major League Baseball. If you’ve followed baseball closely the last five years or so, you’ve likely seen the decline in starting pitcher usage, as well as the number of high-end starters available in today’s game. Now, that usage has shifted to late-inning relievers who throw 97-100 miles per hour, and strike out a ton of hitters in each outing.
While that shouldn’t shock anyone, considering when watching a game today, it’s a parade of relievers, a high number of strikeouts, and a couple of home runs to provide the scoring, Stark asked a number of baseball executives where they thought the future of the starting pitcher was going. The response was staggering.
Most executives said they see the art of starting pitching dying off, mainly because of the inability to develop aces compared to good bullpen guys, as well as the advanced numbers showing it’s easier for teams to parade a reliever out for one inning at a time to shut things down, compared to a starting pitcher’s advanced numbers getting worse a second, and third, time through the order against major league hitters.
It’s scary thinking about the role of starting pitchers dying off. I grew up idolizing Randy Johnson as a starting pitcher. He made me want to be starting pitcher, not because he was tall and lanky like I was at the time, but he was a power left-hander, which is exactly what I wanted to be on the mound. Alas, I never developed into that, but watching The Big Unit dominate on the mound helped me fall in love with baseball, mainly because I didn’t care about hitters putting the ball over the fence, but because I liked to see how pitchers attacked certain guys, and what their mentality was on how to attack the zone.
That’s the baseball nerd in me coming out.
But Stark’s article leads me to believe that the sport I love is going down the wrong path, where teams embrace “bullpenning,” much like the Tampa Bay Rays have done this year, trotting out relievers such as Sergio Romo and Ryan Stanek to “start” games for an inning before giving way to a starting pitcher. It makes sense for the Rays to do that, due to the lack of quality starting pitchers available to them (it’s also helping them win games, as the Rays have a 3.60 team ERA, good for seventh in MLB).
We’re never going to see a single starting pitcher win 300 games, like Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux or even Randy Johnson did. What we will see is someone run down Mariano Rivera’s saves record (652) , and Jesse Orosco’s games pitched record of 1,252 games. Heck, Romo is already 60 percent of the way to setting his own career high for games pitched in a season, and it’s only the first week of July. Something needs to change, but what?
Where the real problem starts is with the organization’s development. Too often, we see guys who throw hard race through the minors riding their heater, but once they reach the majors, they don’t have anything else to turn to, leading to them being used up, and then quickly discarded.
Gone are the days of a team waiting for 4-5 years for a young arm to fully develop in the minors before including him in the starting lineup.
It’s not as if there’s a shortage of high-end starting pitchers in the minors. Guys like Sixto Sanchez (Phillies), Michael Kopech (White Sox), Forrest Whitley (Astros), Mitch Keller (Pirates) and MacKenzie Gore (Padres) are all knocking on the door, looking to join the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Luis Severino.
My hope is that this trend of “bullpenning” disappears, but with it being this affective — at least for the Rays — I can’t see it going anywhere. That’s bad for baseball. There’s nothing better than a pitcher’s duel. That seems to be dying a slow, painful death as we move forward in today’s game.
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