A Mightier Pen

ByPeter Keating ESPN logo
Monday, May 18, 2015

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's May 25 Pitchers Issue. Subscribe today!

HERE'S HOW WE revolutionize major league pitching: First, we go to your favorite team and identify the guy with the filthiest stuff -- Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey, someone like that. Then we persuade the club to throw him at the start of games, only at the start, and for just one inning. Ideally, the team would build its staff around properly using this pitcher -- the "opener."

Think about the benefits! The opener could pitch two or three times a week. He could rear back and fire ammo like a Metal Storm. He'd hardly ever get tired. And he would pitch in the most crucial part of games. After all, the first is the only frame in which you're guaranteed to face an opponent's leadoff man and No. 3 hitter -- and the opener could shut them down, right off the bat. He'd have that special "opener mentality" it takes to charge to the mound right after the national anthem and challenge the top of the order.

Of course, our plot would never succeed. One giant minus easily outweighs all the pluses: Teams will never cap an ace starter, even one with a history of serious injury like Strasburg or Harvey, at 65 innings or so a season.

Which should make you realize just how crazy it is that most clubs are willing to do exactly that with an ace reliever like Aroldis Chapman.

Each of the arguments for openers applies to closers -- except organizations actually believe them. By imagining that the final inning is so important that it requires extraordinary mental powers, wanting to give players set roles and measuring success by saves, most teams end up drastically limiting the productiveness of their bullpens.

For example, if there's any reliever who could be effective for more than three outs, it's Chapman, who regularly throws 100 miles per hour, has three devastating pitches and was a starter in Cuba. Over six seasons in Cincinnati, however, he has averaged less than one inning per appearance. He didn't even get into the 2013 NL wild-card game, when Dusty Baker used seven other pitchers, saving Chapman to hold a lead the Reds never took. This year he has watched from the bullpen while relievers like Kevin Gregg and Jumbo Diaz have blown eighth-inning leads.

Honestly, though, we're long past beating a dead horse here. Statistical analysis says it's more important to use relief aces in the seventh or eighth inning of close games than to hold a three-run lead in the ninth. But so does common sense. And so does history. Relievers' roles steadily expanded for decades after 1920, when the rise of the home run meant starters could be knocked out at any moment, and peaked more than half a century later when five relief pitchers won a Cy Young from 1974 to 1984. These men essentially pitched whenever a game was on the line, averaging 73.4 games, a whopping 133 innings (twice what a closer might throw today), 9.8 wins and 28.8 saves.

Unfortunately, that heavy, often indiscriminate usage burned out many relievers, which brought baseball to a major crossroads. The question: What's the best way to limit relief aces' innings while preserving their dominance? Oakland's Tony La Russa decided in 1988 to use Dennis Eckersley almost only in save situations, and the team's success helped persuade clubs to follow the easiest path, maximizing relievers' save totals rather than their leverage. "Firemen" turned into closers. And baseball has clung to this managing-for-dummies model ever since, despite years of complaints by statheads -- and a halfhearted failed attempt by the 2003 Red Sox to break with tradition after hiring Bill James. Teams still overvalue saves and spend more on relievers without getting better returns.

Here's what's more interesting: A handful of clubs are revisiting the crossroads and getting smarter about traversing the gap from starters to closers. These teams have grasped a critical analytical insight, best described in a 2014 research paper by Hamilton Marx, a Duke business school student.

Relievers have many advantages over starters. Shorter stints, for example, mean they can use fewer pitches and throw harder. But it turns out their biggest edge comes from unfamiliarity. Marx found that starters suffer a significant "times through the order penalty" (TTOP) that swamps other differences between them and relievers. For instance, from 2008 to 2013, OPS allowed by starters jumped from .728 their first time through the order to .783 their third. On average, the more often a starter runs through an opposing lineup, the more accustomed hitters grow to facing him, the less effective his pitches become and the more line drives he surrenders.

Fatigue may also be a factor, but it's notable that starters with varied arsenals -- those who throw four or more kinds of pitches at least 10 percent of the time -- are less susceptible to the TTOP. As Marx wrote, "Those with only one or two pitches (generally heavy fastball pitchers) actually start out better than their counterparts but get hit harder quickly as batters become familiar with them."

So to optimize pitching staffs, managers should limit the number of times starters, particularly those with limited repertoires, pitch through the order. The real key is to be as strategic about the middle innings as teams already are about starters and closers. Clubs should shift one-note flamethrowers to the bullpen, focus on accumulating relievers with good peripheral stats (like low home run rates) and use them early and often for crucial matchups, rather than preserving them for save opportunities.

That's just how the Royals rode a deep relief corps to the World Series last year: Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland all pitched regularly in high-leverage situations, amassing 258 strikeouts in just over 200 innings. This season Kansas City has been even better. And a handful of other clubs are trying to follow suit by pursuing diverse strategies to accumulate low-FIP relievers, from the Astros (free agents) to the Dodgers (no-name injury replacements) to the Yankees (tall guys). Bullpens that combine the high impact of the 1970s and '80s with the situational data and injury concerns of the 2010s: That's the cutting edge.

Because so many teams -- and players, agents, arbitrators and media types -- have bought into the idea that closers are a breed apart, change will come slowly. Already, however, middle relief isn't quite the dumping ground it used to be. And there's still lots of room to experiment. Marx actually recommended that teams throw starters three innings every third day and deploy, as he put it, "an army of superrelievers." He is now an intern with the Rays -- who planned a full bullpen game against the Marlins on April 10, using eight relievers from start to finish. It didn't work that game (they lost 10-9), but that hardly means the dream is dead. Maybe the opener's day will come after all.