May 14, 2009
You Could Look It Up
Given the sorry state of the economy, if the size of major league rosters wasn't of great concern to the MLBPA, it is possible that Commissioner Selig would be floating the idea of a roster reduction to save money. That's what happened during the Great Depression, when rosters were officially dropped to 23, and as a practical matter were sometimes smaller, with teams simply opting not to replace injured players. Rosters were reduced to 24 again in the 1980s, again in reaction to stiff economic times, and did not snap back to their old shape-which had been in place since 1919-until 1990. Though such a reduction might keep a few salaries in the owners' pockets, it would further strangle in-game tactics, the increasingly anachronistic practice of move and countermove being choked to death by the human kudzu known as relief pitching.
Of the 30 major league teams, three currently carry 13 pitchers, 26 carry 12 pitchers, and one, the Angels, carries 11 (they are currently carrying a third catcher, which allows them to use Mike Napoli as the designated hitter). For the vast majority of teams, that means that their contingent of reserve position players consists of, in addition to the inevitable reserve catcher, two extra infielders and two extra outfielders. There is some variation based on a team having a versatile sub like Brent Lillibridge, Willie Bloomquist, or Alfredo Amezaga, who can play all around the diamond, which allows them to carry one fewer reserve of either variety-for example, thanks to Lillibridge the White Sox currently have three "official" outfielders on their roster but seven infielders, including Lillibridge, eight if one pretends that Jim Thome will get a chance to use his first baseman's glove for the first time since June 13, 2007. The teams with 13 pitchers have an even more compressed bench. The Athletics are carrying just one extra infielder and two spare outfielders (one of whom, Jack Cust, is the DH on most nights), the Cardinals have just one extra outfielder (Nick Stavinoha), as do the Dodgers (Xavier Paul).
The devotion to ever-larger chunks of roster to pitchers has largely put an end to the defensive specialist, the platoon player, the professional pinch-hitter. The kind of platoons created by Casey Stengel or Earl Weaver are largely a thing of the past. No more Hank Bauer and Gene Woodling, no more John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke. Today, a Manny Mota would be out of work and Smoky Burgess would have eaten himself out of the league. Dusty Rhodes, who propelled the World Series-winning 1954 Giants by hitting .355/.430/.776 in 31 games as a reserve left fielder as well as pinch-hitting .341/.370/.545 (plus two pinch-hits in the World Series) would have been stuck in the minors. Homer Bush, who as a rookie in 1998 was utilized by Joe Torre as a pinch-runner, defensive substitute, and spot-starter, a role in which he hit .380/.421/.465, would have spent the season in Columbus, Ohio instead of making a small but valuable contribution to a historic championship team.
These players have been replaced by workfare for pitchers. Few organizations possess 13 quality arms, let alone an adequate number of innings to spread among them. Having 13 pitchers on your roster means that even if you can't boast good pitching, you can at least say that you have lots of pitching. Opportunities have arisen for these lesser arms due to the confluence of a reduction of work for both starters and relievers. Twenty-five years ago, starters threw an average of six innings per start, teams went to the bullpen fewer than 300 times per season, and each reliever they called upon was used to get about five outs. Today, starters average fewer than six innings per start, teams go to the bullpen close to 500 times a season (closer to 450 in the American League), and relievers are asked to get an average of three outs before being themselves relieved. Appearances in which a reliever pitched less than a complete inning have swelled. In the National League of 1984, teams averaged 55 such appearances. In the National League of 2008, teams averaged 141 shortened outings (the Mets, spurred by their miserable pen, had 237). These truncated appearances represented 29 percent of all relief games.
The simultaneous expansion of relief pitching and reduction of relief innings can largely be accounted for by the rise of the lefty specialist, the "lefty one-out guy" or "LOOGY." Their usage is problematic, as they typically will face more right-handed than left-handed hitters; once the pitcher is in the game, the opposing manager controls the matchup and is free to pinch-hit-or would be, if he wasn't carrying two or three similarly limited pitchers. Many of these pitchers would not be on big-league rosters if not for the futile pursuit of these single-batter matchups, and in that sense teams are doubly mis-prioritizing. The platoon factor is a powerful thing in baseball, but quality is the greater driver of results, which is to say that the ability of a pitcher outweighs his handedness, and that while most lefties are limited to some degree by a lefty pitcher, they can still hit a bad one. With the game on the line, better that left-handed hitter be facing one of the team's best right-handers rather than its best pitcher who happened to be left-handed.
There are also other qualities that go into batter-pitcher matchups that seem to have been forgotten, factors that play out at the individual level. This is something Stengel, the man who did more to make baseball aware of the power of platoon matchups than any other figure in history, observed more than half a century ago: if your left-handed reliever specializes in throwing curves, and your scouting report tells you that the lefty-hitter at the plate kills the curveball, you'd be better off leaving your right-hander out there.
The current strategies, counterproductive to execute and tedious to watch, are not going away anytime soon, and even if they did, the old ways won't return. Awareness of the dangers of high pitch counts has reduced the total number of innings available to starting pitchers. It takes 230 or 240 innings to lead the league in innings pitched now; 25 years ago, it took 260, 270, or more. That means more innings available for relief pitchers. Similarly, the days of 10-pitcher staffs are gone, both because of the increased work required of the bullpen and more compressed modern scheduling. Even if, thankfully, not every team is convinced of the efficacy of carrying 13 pitchers, they will almost certainly not be weaned off of 12. It's only a matter of time before Mike Scioscia succumbs to the conventional wisdom of carrying multiple lefties in the pen, something he hasn't done for years, and then there will be none.
What this means, of course, is that if we're going to return strategic flexibility to the game, we need a roster innovation, not a reduction for these trying times, but an expansion-a very specific kind of expansion, the addition of an extra roster spot reserved for position players only. Pitcher spots can be capped at 12 or even 13, but never more. And if the economy continues to worsen and austerity measures really are called for, well, Bud, you can always hack another pitcher off the cap.