Prepare those clouds, because they’re about to be yelled at by this 27-year-old man.
In this year’s postseason, we’ve seen an intriguing trend, as on the mound, teams haven’t been afraid to go with a “bullpen game” where they essentially just use a carousel of relievers for an inning or two at a time rather than having a traditional starting pitcher.
This still happened occasionally in years past, but as teams have devalued starting pitching in recent years, their data tells them it’s better to use several different pitchers to prevent them from seeing the same pitcher multiple times in a game as opposed to trying to nurse their fourth or fifth starter through a lineup two or three times on the biggest of stages.
From a purely strategic point of view, for teams who are willing to do anything to win the 11 or 12 games needed to claim the World Series crown, it’s easy to see why they’ve gone down this road.
Take the now-eliminated Dodgers as an example. Because of the wave of injuries to their starting pitchers, they were left with just Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler, and Julio Urías. Their next best starter was either Tony Gonsolin, who didn’t make it out of the sixth inning this season, or David Price, who was primarily a reliever this year.
The problem isn’t so much that teams are doing the wrong thing for themselves, it’s that this strategy doesn’t make for a particularly aesthetically pleasing way to watch baseball.
Having a new reliever almost every inning drags the game out more and more with the warm-ups and the slower pace that relievers tend to work with compared to starters.
Reliever-ball at least plays some part in the fact that games this postseason are dragging on towards the four-mark, meaning those scheduled at 8pm, such as the World Series, will often finish close to midnight. Hardly a viewer-friendly experience for diehard and casual fans alike.
Late nights are one way to put off the more casual fan, having new pitchers coming in and out of the game in the blink of an eye is another. It doesn’t allow the fan to get familiar with who is on the mound. Whenever they start to get a feel for the pitcher, another one trots in from the bullpen.
Traditional starting pitching not only speeds the game up, but it’s also much easier to market big starting pitchers and keep people engaged with the same pitcher going as deep into a game as possible.
For the Washington Nationals, for example, every day that Max Scherzer was starting on the mound, it was a can’t-miss event where fans would come specifically to see the future Hall of Famer pitch. His display of fire on the mound was a performance in itself, let alone the masterpiece he would often orchestrate onto the game’s box score.
Or with Stephen Strasburg, his first start was the most-anticipated major league debut in recent memory and his starts were on a similar pedestal to Scherzer’s.
Sure, those are two extreme examples with two of the best pitchers of this generation, but they show just how important starting pitching can be to a team and the game as a whole.
The question then becomes how can MLB try to emphasize starting pitcher while not completely inhibiting a manager’s freedom to make a decision that he feels is best for the team, especially in a postseason scenario where they need to do anything to win.
ESPN’s Buster Olney covered a similar issue recently around too many pitching changes but had a pretty lackluster suggested solution in just restricting the number of pitching changes to five.
That’s exactly what MLB can’t do. That handcuffs managers too much, forcing them to keep ineffective pitchers in games purely because of the rule, leading to a poor product on the field.
A better solution may be one that’s intertwined with the Designated Hitter, in all likelihood, coming to the National League: The “Double Hook” DH.
It’s been bandied about a few times before by prominent writers in the business, including The Athletic’s Jayson Stark at the start of the year.
In short, this rule would give the team their Designated Hitter while their starting pitcher is in the game. When the manager hooks his starting pitcher, he also hooks his DH from the game, hence the “Double Hook” name from Stark.
Implementing this rule would absolutely put even more of a premium on starting pitchers and starting pitchers who can go deep into games. It would give the team a decent advantage with a DH in their lineup for as long as that pitcher can go as.
It also preserves the strategy from the NL game in that it requires managers to have a feel for whether to keep pitchers in or pull them, knowing they’ll lose the DH in the latter while keeping the feel of the AL where pitchers will rarely see meaningful at-bats via the DH and pinch-hitters.
It may not be the perfect solution and it could get some tweaking to make sure it still fits with the modern game, but MLB definitely needs to bring a premium back to starting pitching in an effort to help the game on and off the field...