The only thing worse than a bad bullpen is a manager who’s determined to use it.
The parade of awful pitchers in baseball continues, and just as it appears to have no end, there appears to be no explanation for why it continues.
Major league rosters are replete with relief pitchers who have all the qualifications of, perhaps, being worthy of a spot on a Class AA minor-league team. Yet despite the serious limitations in their ability to pitch, these players continue to be used by big-league managers.
This results inevitably in more runs by opponents, instant deflation among starting pitchers who put in good performances, dismay among hitters who have otherwise put their teams in position to win, and great frustration for people who pay good money to see major-league competition.
It also results in handsome rewards for mediocre ballplayers masquerading as big-league pitchers.
Cumulatively, major league teams this season have used an astounding total of 712 pitchers. Each game carries a familiar storyline. A starting pitcher works into the fifth or sixth inning, or makes up to an arbitrary limit of 100 pitches, does reasonably well, then yields the game to an endless list of relievers who routinely give up hit after hit, or home run after home run, ruining the work of the rest of the team.
There is, of course, a simple way to stop the madness. Don’t put them in the game. Managers don’t seem to understand this concept.
Managers today are determined to use poor talent. Every day. They want quality athletes in their starting pitchers. They want quality in hitters. But with relief pitchers, it matters not if the pitcher can get a batter out, he simply must be used.
Not one manager deserves to keep his job if he pursues this strategy. Yet all managers are allowed to do so. In fact, they’re expected to do so, simply because it’s the accepted formula.
But it does not help a team win baseball games. So the shame is thereby earned.
Take a close look at some of the numbers on the use of bad pitchers. The Seattle Mariners have used 35 different pitchers this season, an extraordinary number, the most of any major-league team. It is no coincidence that the Mariners have the second-worst earned run average as a staff, 5.16 runs per game. Only the Baltimore Orioles have a worse earned run average, 5.59 runs per game, and it is no coincidence that the Orioles have used the second-highest number of pitchers, 30.
Why is this allowed to continue?
Of the five teams in the American League with the worst earned run average as a staff, with one exception, they have each used 24 or more pitchers this season. Of the five American League teams with the best earned run average, all have used 24 or fewer pitchers. The correlation is obvious.
In the National League, of the five worst teams in ERA, with one exception, all have used 24 or more pitchers. Of the five best NL staffs in ERA, with one exception, they have used 25 or fewer pitchers.
There is simply no disputing that the worst players in baseball are the multitude of relief pitchers. Major League Baseball just admitted as much with its All-Star Game rosters. The pitching staffs were comprised essentially of starting pitchers and closers, with the exception of Ryan Pressly of the Astros who has 21 holds. Liam Hendricks of Oakland has seven holds to go with five saves. There were no other middle relief pitchers. Each year, the All-Star Game is a very public admission that middle relief pitchers are not very good.
Ah, but one might say, that has always been the case, and indeed it has. Middle relief pitchers have never been the best pitchers. That’s why they are in middle relief. But the problem is today’s managers are compelled to use them, all of them, one pifitul pitcher after another, every game. Not just some games. Every game. With the rare exception of a pitcher throwing, or coming close to throwing, a no-hitter. At which point the entire philosophy of the manager goes out the window. Without the prospects of a no-hitter, the manager will not let his best option stay in the game.
So how did baseball come to this unjustifiable approach? Call it the La Russa Effect.
Tony La Russa, who built a Hall of Fame managerial career, revolutionized the use of bullpens. Most notably with his use of the staff of the Oakland Athletics in the 1980s, La Russa had it prescribed before a game that he would strategically use relievers for specific assignments before handing the ball to a closer, Dennis Eckersley. The primary relievers he used were left-hander Rick Honeycutt, a former University of Tennessee standout, and right-hander Gene Nelson. It worked very well, and managers have been trying to copy that success ever since.
But guest what. In 1989, the year the Athletics won the World Series under La Russa, how many total pitchers do you think La Russa used that season? The answer is 16. That is fewer pitchers used than any — any — of the teams in Major League Baseball already this season. So explanations that this is the way La Russa did it just don’t hold up. They have stretched La Russa’s concept into absurdity.
Here, in alphabetical order, is a list of the big-league teams and how many pitchers each has used this year:
Arizona Diamondbacks 20
Atlanta Braves 26
Baltimore Orioles 30
Boston Red Sox 25
Chicago Cubs 25
Chicago White Sox 24
Cincinnati Reds 17
Cleveland Indians 24
Colorado Rockies 23
Detroit Tigers 26
Houston Astros 21
Kansas City Royals 21
Los Angeles Angels 25
Los Angeles Dodgers 22
Miami Marlins 19
Milwaukee Brewers 24
Minnesota Twins 24
New York Mets 26
New York Yankees 19
Oakland Athletics 21
Philadelphia Phillies 27
Pittsburgh Pirates 25
San Diego Padres 23
San Francisco Giants 21
Seattle Mariners 35
St. Louis Cardinals 20
Tampa Bay Rays 22
Texas Rangers 26
Toronto Blue Jays 27
Washington Nationals 24
Total Pitchers Used 712
It can’t go unnoticed that the New York Yankees, using the fewest pitchers of all American League teams, have the best record in the league. It can’t go unnoticed that the Cincinnati Reds, with the second-best earned run average in the National League at 3.77, used the fewest number of pitchers in their league to get there. It also can’t go unnoticed that the Reds got that earned run average on the strength of their starting pitchers, notably Luis Castillo, Tanner Roark and former Smyrna High and Vanderbilt pitcher Sonny Gray, not relievers, and certainly not middle relievers.
For some reason, the Washington Nationals have used Wander Suero and his 5.30 ERA 40 times this season. For some reason, the Reds have used David Hernandez and his 5.92 earned run average 40 times. Why?
Seriously, is it in their contracts that poor pitchers must be put in major-league baseball games?
Let’s take another look at that championship Oakland A’s team from 1989. Honeycutt was used in 64 games and compiled a 2-2 record with a 2.35 earned run average. Nelson appeared in 50 games, went 3-5, with a 3.26 ERA. Eckersley appeared in 51 games and got 33 saves. Those were considered to be a lot of appearances. But have you noticed they were very good pitchers?
A further look at that staff shows what today’s managers clearly miss. Dave Stewart, the A’s ace, pitched 257 2/3 innings, for a won-lost record of 21-9. Mike Moore pitched 241 2/3 innings, his record being 19-11. Bob Welch pitched 209 2/3 innings, a record of 17-8.
La Russa let his starters pitch. There was no arbitrary “save the poor pitcher’s arm” foolishness. The A’s won because the manager used his best pitchers for the situations given, not the worst pitchers on the team.
Last season, there were 13 pitchers in Major League Baseball who pitched 200 or more innings. In 1989, the year of La Russa’s champion A’s, there were 52.
Here is a list of the five best and worst teams by ERA this season and how many pitchers they have used:
TB 3.32 (22 pitchers)
HOU 3.86 (21 pitchers)
CLE 3.94 (24 pitchers)
MIN 3.97 (24 pitchers)
OAK 4.06 (21 pitchers)
BAL 5.59 (30 pitchers)
SEA 5.16 (35 pitchers)
KC 5.08 (21 pitchers)
CHW 5.03 (24 pitchers)
DET 4.98 (26 pitchers)
LAD 3.37 (22 pitchers)
CIN 3.77 (17 pitchers)
CHC 4.09 (25 pitchers)
STL 4.14 (20 pitchers)
ATL 4.18 (26 pitchers)
COL 5.16 (23 pitchers)
PIT 4.91 (25 pitchers)
NYM 4.86 (26 pitchers)
PHI 4.64 (27 pitchers)
MIL 4.61 (24 pitchers)
Note the team earned-run-average leaders for each league. It is no coincidence that they are all in contention for playoff spots, including the resurgent Indians in the American League Central Division and the bunched-up race in the National League Central.
Also note that according to Baseball-Reference.com major-league teams used 799 pitchers last season, and 755 the year before that. In 1989, the year La Russa worked his bullpen magic, the total was 449.