When it comes to starting pitchers, 2018 felt different. Relievers were used differently, several teams unveiled ‘The Opener’ as part of their strategy, and the trend of giving more and more innings to the bullpen continued. Bullpen games that were deemed unthinkable several years ago (even in Wild Card games) became something of the normal trend to try to gain an edge in both regular season games, and the postseason.
Some of the noteworthy and otherwise atypical achievements of the season include the Rays innovative way to use their own bullpen. Sergio Romo became the first picture in modern baseball to start multiple games on zero days’ rest, Diego Castilla managed to compile 17 innings despite starting in 11 games, and Ryne Stanek started 29 (!) games, but only posted 40 total innings.
Not to put too find a point on it, but in August, the Tampa Bay Rays still had a shot at the playoffs, and had a short period of time when they rostered ZERO starting pitchers.
Rays' updated rotation— Devan Fink (@DevanFink) July 31, 2018
The Rays weren’t the only team to expand their starting pitching corps, as teams started more players than ever in 2018. In 2017, 315 players started games. Across 4862 total games started in 2018, teams sent out a total of 343 pitchers to the mound to start a game, a near 10-percent year-over-year increase.
Of 2018’s 343 ‘starters’ nearly half (160) started fewer than 10 games in total, meaning over 46 percent of 2018 starters accounted for only 11.5 percent of total starts. That’s a lot of work for the remaining 53 percent of starters, and teams had to get creative with depth, especially when players only started a handful of games, or one game.
Nearly one-third of the 160 starters who started nine of fewer games only got one spot-start. In other words, 53 players started only one game all season. Talk about bucking a trend, a near-15 percent of the total starts last year went to guys who only started that one game! This is more than double the number of ‘one-and-dones’ from 2017, a year in which we saw a total of 27 spot-starts.
Collectively, starters averaged a total of 76 innings last year, with the median innings pitched being 53 ⅓. But this only part of the story, because as mentioned above, 183 pitchers accounted for nearly 90 percent of all games started in 2018. Unsurprisingly, looking at those pitchers’ aggregate numbers tells a different story.
Analyzing pitchers who started more than ten games this season, what we can define as the more classic starting pitcher role (although the Rays throw that off a bit), the median stat line shows the most typical pitcher threw 130 innings, posted a 4.15 earned run average, struck out about 7.8 hitters per nine innings, and walked 2.98 per nine innings. The median 2018 pitching value ended up about 1.4 wins per FanGraphs’ WAR.
Using these median numbers as anchors, we can identify the most quintessential pitchers of the 2018 seasons — pitchers who really define the average starter in the game last season.
The Padres’ Joey Lucchesi threw 130 innings (check), had an ERA slightly below the median at 4.08 (check), and a walk per nine at exactly the median, 2.98. His 10.04 K/9 was much higher than the typical 2018 pitcher, but that was mitigated by a home run per nine that was higher as well (1.59). He only totaled 1.1 wins last season, but he’s a good example of your typical 2018 starter.
Madison Bumgarner is right there with Lucchesi, having started 21 games. Bumgarner was one out short of the exact innings pitched median, finishing the season with 129 ⅔ innings, and he was right on the money with a 2.98 walk per nine. Unsurprisingly, he finished with the exact pitching wins median, with a 1.4 fWAR.
2018 represented a major shift in the way starters are used in the game, but if you’re looking for a statline that represents the typical 2018 starter, pull up the stat page of Bumgarner or Lucchese to get a sense for what average really looked like.