More and more, it’s starting to look like last year’s seemingly extreme pitcher usage was the beginning of a bigger shift.
Last October, baseball observers took note as managers called on elite relievers such as Andrew Miller to pitch early and often. To some extent that departure from tradition was a necessity given the injuries on Cleveland’s staff. Either way, Terry Francona was willing to buck convention and it worked.
One year later, it’s no longer surprising when Miller enters in the fourth inning, as he did Wednesday night. It’s now expected. In the span of 12 months, these assignments have gone from cutting edge to commonplace.
Along the way, we’ve seen starting pitchers pitch less and less. Of course that’s a league-wide trend, even in the regular season.
Just 58 starting pitchers qualified for the ERA title this past season, less than two per team. That’s a drop-off compared to 2016, when 74 pitchers qualified. Look back to 1998, the first year MLB had 30 teams, and there were 96 qualified starters, more than three per team.
There are many causes for this trend, expanded bullpens and sabermetric advances among them. Regardless, there’s no denying the way the sport is going. Starting pitchers just don’t pitch as much anymore, even in the regular season.
And, if the wild-card games and Division Series offer any indication, that trend becomes more pronounced in the post-season.
Entering play Friday, starting pitchers are averaging just 4.1 innings per start this October. Relievers, in other words, have recorded more outs than starters—515 total outs from the bullpen compared to 496 from starters.
To some extent those numbers are misleading. We’ve already seen starters as accomplished as Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello,