Radical Rotation Reimagination | The Short Reliever Solution

Originally written 8/29/13

Back in 2013, an idea started to germinate and I wrote a rough defense of it. With proposals for a short season, these ideas now have more potential to be tested and, I think, could change the game for the better. 

Currently, a 26-man roster has 13 pitchers on it. Five of them are usually “starters”, that is they begin the games and are supposed to be trying to finish them. The other eight of them are “relievers” who enter the game after the “starters” either due to matchups, injury, performance, or fatigue. The last guy to come into the game usually is the “closer” he is tasked with finishing games that are within a run or two of being tied. He enters for a “save chance” which is either the last 3 innings/9 outs of the game, the last out of a game which is within 4 runs, or the final outs as long as he entered when the game was within 4 and faced the potential tying run and prevents the tie from occurring ending the game. These days, the “relievers” are broken into two groups as well: “specialists” and “long relievers.” The specialists enter the game for one or two batters which they have a platoon advantage against. Such as a lefty with a good changeup against power-hitting lefties. The long relievers are available for situations when a starter gets hurt or a game goes into extra innings and the team needs another guy to go 3+ innings. The specialization has done several things for baseball. It has allowed for more turnover on rosters, as starters that can’t sustain success are replaced or moved to the bullpen. It has only been this way for a little while. The great relievers of yesteryear typically threw closer to 200 innings a season in their pursuit of saves and often were referred to as “relief aces” because they were the best pitchers on the team. Guys like Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, and Goose Gossage were workhorse arms that started at times in their careers and likely would start today. Early on, complete games and shutouts were very common. Cy Young had a season in which he had 1 more walk allowed than shutouts. Read that a couple of times, and then you will never wonder why they named the award after him.

I propose a new system. Not returning to the old model, but forging a new one. The Short Reliever Solution. Short Relievers, have one of the least financially important positions on the roster. This change would need to start from the beginning, from the ground up. The organization would focus their pitching scouting on “six out” arms. Guys that have ++ stuff despite troubles with stamina and control. In 2013, pitchers like Fernando Rodney, Johnny Venters, David Robertson, Mark Melancon, Luke Gregerson, Tyler Clippard, etc, were examples of the guys that fit the system. In a perfect world, teams would use 4 pitchers in each game. One of them would be tasked with 9 outs while the other 3 have 6 each. Right/Left matchups, Wins/Losses, Saves/Holds would all be unnecessary and outdated means of assessment. WHIP – walks and hits per inning pitched would be the key stat. Instead of focusing on pitch counts and getting through the 5th inning, the pitcher would be only focused on getting his 3-9 outs.

Right now a pitcher typically doesn’t pitch more than 100-140 pitches every 5 days. A comfortable inning is usually around 20 pitches, an uncomfortable inning is closer to 30. That being said, a reliever these days can usually pitch in 3 or 4 games in a row if called upon. That way 13 pitchers would be plenty, especially if an arbitrary pitch count, say 70, was placed on them. That way you have the 4 guys for game 1, 4 guys for game 2, and 4 guys for game 3, and an extra arm for emergencies. Not only could a pitcher throw in back-to-back games, but since he typically would only throw 45-50 pitches he would be available again after just a 2 or 3 game break. The impact of a single pitcher, which is generally restricted to 30-50 games, could expand to 75-80 games or even more with this type of management. 200 IP might be a thing of the past but 100 games started could be in reach. 

Financially, if the rest of the league was slow on the upkeep, the pitching budget for the Short Reliever System would be comfortably below the league average and allow for more spending on the offense. Also, the arbitration hearings would be based on commonly accepted achievements, again giving the organization an advantage until the system caught up. In the long run, however, if the system were to work, all pitchers would be paid on the same performance-based scale, and most likely net salaries would go up.

The biggest problem is how the players would feel. Awards like the Cy Young and Reliever of the Year are usually given out based on stats that would be invalid. We’d essentially have to reinvent what a “win” was and the save would continue to be a pointless arbitrary measure. I already mentioned the pay would be lower at first and of course deciding who is the “Ace” and “Closer” would be moot points. As far as team construction, these are benefits, but the players themselves might disagree.

Before you dismiss this idea as unrealistic, notice it has in some ways become vogue. Consider the opener, a recent trend to have a “non-starter” pitch the first inning to, in theory, disrupt the lineup advantage the opposing team has deployed. It has had mixed results, but at least one no-hitter and a great deal of the Playoff-qualifying Rays’ success can be attached to the opener. It has also gotten support from the Twitter-sphere, a recently published author and fantastic “tweeter” Jeremy Frank recently said this:

Hmmm, sound familiar?


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