The trade for Ardolis Chapman by the New York Yankees serves as a beacon that demonstrates how teams are building their pitching staffs these days. It goes without saying that the Yankees now have the best backend bullpen in baseball with Chapman, Betances, and Andrew Miller. More than that though, Brian Cashman may silently be making a statement about his starting staff too…….they suck and he doesn’t trust them at all. In fact. Cashman is not alone when it comes to modern day team building and he’s absolutely correct……..except for the upper crust………starting pitchers are overpaid, overvalued, and underworked………
Putting the Kershaws, Greinkes, Scherzers, Prices, and a handful of others aside for a moment, (although there’s an argument against this ilk too as we’ll see later) pitchers last year averaged a mere 87 pitches per start. For most, that’s not even enough to get through five innings, much less six with three or fewer runs allowed to earn what is termed a “Quality Start”. In fact, in 2015 (read more here) high priced starters like Phil Hughes (11 of 25), Stephen Strasburg (11 of 23), CC Sabathia (11 of 29) only managed to achieve what used to be almost automatic for a starting pitcher less than half of the time they took the mound. More and more, starting pitchers are simply not earning their keep…….
So Brian Cashman sees the trend and he seeks to fortify his bullpen paying handsomely for that privilege. But because baseball moves like a turtle in adapting to the obvious, he still nneeds to pay his starters like they have grown accustomed to. Unless he and the Yankees are on to something else which I’m betting they are……… And they’re two steps ahead of everyone in de-accenting the role of starting pitching by refusing to enter the overpriced market – Mike Leake (left) $80 million at $16 million per – give me a break. How much is four+ innings and 87 pitches really worth once every five days?
Even among the best of the best today, starters don’t nearly approach the number of innings (read value) hurlers used to throw not too long ago. In fact, until thirty years ago league leaders regularly threw 300 or more innings (full list here) not counting the post season. A starter was expected to provide innings (not to mention that ugly phrase complete game). Today, 200 innings and everyone marvels at the job they’ve done and he’s labeled a “stalwart”…..go figure. Understand, I’m not one of those naysayers who gravitates to the past reflexively, but when something is askew, it needs to be dealt with.
From the Minors on up, starters are coddled and (in my view) held back. Management makes decisions for them. The almighty pitch count reigns supreme. As a result, nothing is bound to change until mid-level starters see both their role and salary diminished to the point where the pendulum is forced to swing back the other way and starters regain the mindset of old…..and that’s finishing what you start (or getting darn close). But change in baseball does not come exponentially – it comes gradually. The Royals had an inkling into this phenomenon two years ago and have successfully built on it culminating with a Championship last year. Now the Yankees are following the same mold…….other teams will surely follow if the model continues to prove successful.
Trends in baseball don’t live forever (remember when closers routinely pitched at least two innings and sometimes three to earn a save?) and we shouldn’t expect this one to either………but it sure does look like the demise of starting pitching will continue as it should…..at least for a while…..especially given the evidence that their role is continuing to diminish as GM’s continue to fortify their bullpens and hold their breath as their two through five starters fail miserably delivering a mere 87 pitches every five days……..