Column: Here’s why 200-inning pitchers are an endangered species
Clayton Kershaw starts for the Dodgers on Sunday, on the way to 200 innings. He is a proud dinosaur.
“Two hundred?” he said. “It shouldn’t be that hard to get to.”
He should get there, so long as he stays off the disabled list. In the last two seasons, both interrupted by injury for Kershaw, no Dodgers pitcher recorded 200 innings.
The previous time that happened in a full season? That would be 1944, when World War II depleted rosters, Jackie Robinson was three years from his debut and the Dodgers were 13 years from moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.
Kershaw is a special pitcher for plenty of reasons, but throwing 200 innings should not be one of them. This is not about asking a pitcher to throw a complete game.
This is about a pitcher getting 600 outs over 30 starts. That’s 20 outs per game, or 6 2/3 innings. To which the new wave of baseball thinker tends to say: No way.
“I hate to say it, but it’s kind of like shooting for mediocrity,” Dodgers pitcher Rich Hill said. “Your standards should be much higher.”
In 2005, there were 50 major league pitchers that threw 200 innings. In 2010, there were 45. In 2015, there were 28.
In 2016 and in 2017, there were 15 each season.
The Dodgers’ four non-Kershaw starters — Hill, Kenta Maeda, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Alex Wood — have combined for 24 major league seasons. None ever has pitched 200 innings.
“That’s a goal people always have in their mind,” Wood said. “At the same time, the way stuff is going, it seems like everyone gets further and further away from seeing that as an attainable goal.”
On the surface, at least, it makes little sense to lift a reasonably effective starter in the fifth or sixth inning, replacing one of a team’s best pitchers with perhaps its eighth-best or ninth-best pitcher.
Even as the 200-inning pitcher has become an endangered species, there has been no statistically significant decline in the number of pitching injuries from 2011 to 2017, former Dodgers athletic trainer Stan Conte said.
Conte, now an injury analytics consultant, said publicly available studies have not demonstrated that inning limits and pitch counts imposed by major league organizations necessarily lead to a reduced risk of injury.
“Inning and pitch limits for youth are absolutely cause and effect,” Conte said. “We have been able to show that. On a professional level, we haven’t been able to show that.”
Instead, Hill suggested, the inning and pitch limits are becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Every pitcher is different,” Hill said. “Why is 100 the benchmark for the number of pitches that every pitcher should throw as a starter? That just doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe Jon Lester is able to go 140 pitches.”
No manager or front office has to answer for letting a pitcher throw 100. If a pitcher throws 120, cries of abuse echo throughout the land.
“And you’ll see diminishing returns at 105, 110 pitches, because you never have really worked yourself to go 120 or 125,” Hill said. “If the car is only trained to go so fast and so long, how are you going to get more out of it?
“I think we’ve become so wrapped up in the numbers that we’ve lost a little bit of faith in what starters have the ability to do. Some guys can go 85 pitches. Some guys can go 120.”
If they can, of course, it does not mean that they should.
In 2016, Maeda was the lone Dodgers pitcher to throw as many as 150 innings. The Dodgers advanced to the National League Championship Series.
In 2002, when the Dodgers had five starters throw 150 innings apiece, the team did not qualify for the playoffs. Andy Ashby, Omar Daal and Kaz Ishii each topped 150 innings but performed below the league average; today, those starters would probably be yanked after two trips through the opposing lineup.
“It’s about effectiveness,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations. “If what you’re doing isn’t effective, you have to reevaluate.
“There used to be three or four good starters, and three or four good relievers, and ‘pens weren’t very deep. Now there is a much larger collection of really good arms who profile really well in the bullpen and can match up really well against different hitters. That makes the quantity vs. quality argument more challenging than it might have been before.”
What most likely was a five-man bullpen a decade ago might be an eight-man bullpen today, with teams grooming arms for particular middle innings and matchups, with spin rates helping to identify which arms might flourish as one-pitch relievers, with the liberal use of options and the 10-day disabled list to cycle in fresh arms and cycle out tired ones, and most importantly with the analytical consensus that letting a starter take a third trip through the opposing lineup is not an optimal strategy.
Wood and Hill respect the numbers, but each would like to see a little less caution about letting a starter who has pitched well twice through the order remain in the game.
Wood started 25 games last season, never throwing more than 100 pitches. Opponents had a .771 OPS against Hill the second time through the order last season and a .408 OPS the third time, albeit in half the at-bats.
“We don’t get to see the third time through the order,” Hill said. “Maybe on a whole, you can assume the numbers are going to play out the way they should when, in fact, for myself they play out better.”
Those are not the words of a mutiny. Kershaw, Wood and Hill burn to win above all. The Dodgers last year won more games than they ever had in their six decades in Los Angeles.
Their starters threw at least 100 pitches 24 times, the fewest of any team in the major leagues, according to baseball-reference.com. They got to Game 7 of the World Series.
“Over the course of a 162-game season, you can’t have your bullpen throw four innings every time,” Kershaw said. “You have to have guys go six and seven [innings] a lot, especially in the middle of the season.
“You want guys to be fresh, and you want guys to be ready for when it counts [in October]. But you’ve got to get there first, and you need some starters to pitch deep into games.”
Friedman chuckles at the suggestion he might not wish to employ 200-inning starters.
“From a roster standpoint, five guys who took down 210 innings each and did it extremely effectively would be ideal,” he said. “It’s a balance between quantity and quality.”
The revolution marches on, analytically and otherwise. The Angels are trying a six-man rotation. The Tampa Bay Rays are turning entire games over to their bullpen, by choice and not desperation.
Maybe the Dodgers are on a cutting edge. Maybe everything old will be new again, or maybe the Dodgers’ research and development department will propose a radical new way to align a pitching staff.
There are only six words that are banned at Dodger Stadium: We’ve always done it this way.
“What works in 2018,” Friedman said, “might not work in 2020.”
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin
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