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Workhorse pitchers in the modern game

The workhorse in today’s game is a rare breed, but if we adjust our expectations, we can still find a few.

Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

What is a workhorse starting pitcher in 2018?

With the evolution of bullpen specialists and the advanced statistics used by most teams to shuffle pitchers in and out of games, the workhorse starter seems to be a dying breed. To figure out what a workhorse is by today’s standard, we’re going to travel back to 1980—the last season a starting pitcher topped the 300 inning mark.

That year, Steve Carlton tossed 304 regular season innings for the eventual World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies. Carlton would also go on to pitch 27 1/3 innings in the postseason for a whopping 331 1/3 innings in total, making the workload that much more impressive. But for our purposes, we will assess only the regular season.

Sorting 1980 starting pitchers by those who threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, I came up with a group of 74 pitchers. These pitchers ranged from Carlton and his 304 innings all the way down to 163 2/3 innings by Larry McWilliams.

The total average of innings of these 74 pitchers came out to 219. Of those who topped 200 innings (which was a lot—a whopping 72 percent of this group threw 200 or more innings), the average was 234 innings pitched. The other 28 percent (those who threw less than 200 innings) averaged 184 IPs for the year. That’s a difference of 50 innings, or roughly a 27 percent increase in innings from the 184 IP group to the 234 IP hurlers.

Jumping ahead nearly four decades (38 seasons), we have a lower number of qualified pitchers, coming in at 57 versus the 74 who qualified in 1980. The leader in IP for 2018 was Max Scherzer, racking up 220 2/3 innings—83 1/3 less IP than Cartlon, and just 1 23 innings more than the average of all qualified pitchers in 1980.

Looking at the same percentages and numbers, the average innings for the total group was 185 (versus 219). The 200-plus IP pitchers only made up 23 percent of this smaller group, and their average IP came out to 207 (versus 234). Those below 200 IP averaged 178 innings (versus the 184 from 1980).

The biggest differences came in the total number of qualified pitchers (with 17 less in 2018) and in the 200+ IP crowd (40 fewer hit the mark).

Looking at the decrease, we can safely say the old school “workhorse” pitchers are becoming something of a bygone era. Alternatively, we can simply adjust our expectations.

What is a workhorse by 2018 standards?

Let’s apply the 72 percent of the 200-plus guys from 1980 to 2018, making our top 72 percent in the current game the ‘heavy workload’ guys (instead of the 23 percent we started with). If we look at the average IP for the top 72 percent of the 2018 group, that means we include pitchers who tossed 174 IP or more.

Our average of the 174-plus IP crowd is 192 innings, versus the 234 average from 1980.

Using these numbers, I’ll declare that in 1980, a workhorse pitcher tossed 200 or more innings, and averaged 234. In the modern era of baseball, the workhorse is at 174 innings minimum, and averages 192 innings pitched.

Here are the 40 guys who made the cut by 2018 standards:

2018 workhorse pitchers

PItcher W L G GS IP
PItcher W L G GS IP
Max Scherzer 18 7 33 33 220.2
Jacob deGrom 10 9 32 32 217
Corey Kluber 20 7 33 33 215
Justin Verlander 16 9 34 34 214
Aaron Nola 17 6 33 33 212.1
Zack Greinke 15 11 33 33 207.2
Dallas Keuchel 12 11 34 34 204.2
James Shields 7 15 33 33 204
Kyle Freeland 17 7 33 33 202.1
Miles Mikolas 18 4 32 32 200.2
Gerrit Cole 15 5 32 32 200.1
Patrick Corbin 11 7 33 33 200
Mike Clevinger 13 8 32 32 200
Kyle Hendricks 14 11 33 33 199
Kyle Gibson 10 13 32 32 196.2
German Marquez 14 11 33 33 196
Jhoulys Chacin 15 8 35 35 192.2
Jose Berrios 12 11 32 32 192.1
Luis Severino 19 8 32 32 191.1
Rick Porcello 17 7 33 33 191.1
Jameson Taillon 14 10 32 32 191
Cole Hamels 9 12 32 32 190.2
Reynaldo Lopez 7 10 32 32 188.2
Carlos Carrasco 16 9 30 30 186.2
Mike Leake 10 10 31 31 185.2
Kevin Gausman 10 11 31 31 183.2
Mike Foltynewicz 13 10 31 31 183
Zack Wheeler 12 7 29 29 182.1
Jon Lester 18 6 32 32 181.2
Blake Snell 21 5 31 31 180.2
Andrew Heaney 9 10 30 30 180
Tanner Roark 9 14 30 30 180
J.A. Happ 17 6 31 31 177.2
Zack Godley 15 11 32 32 177.1
Jakob Junis 9 12 30 30 177
David Price 16 7 30 30 176
Tyler Anderson 7 9 32 32 176
Julio Teheran 9 9 31 31 175.2
Jose Quintana 13 11 32 32 174.1
Jose Urena 9 12 31 31 174
Sorted by innings pitched

To go one step further, these guys average 32 starts per season, so the typical workhorse pitcher in 2018 is not going especially deep into games, going less than 6 innings per start, on average.

The next question, related to these inning-eating starters, is how valuable are they, really? You’ll notice some good pitchers, like Chris Sale, did not make the cut in 2018. If I lower the threshold to 150 innings and sort by fWAR, how many non-workhorse pitchers would crack the top 30?

Most valuable pitchers—150+ IP

Pitcher IP ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Pitcher IP ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Jacob deGrom 217 1.7 1.99 2.6 8.8
Max Scherzer 220.2 2.53 2.65 3.06 7.2
Justin Verlander 214 2.52 2.78 3.03 6.8
Chris Sale 158 2.11 1.98 2.31 6.5
Patrick Corbin 200 3.15 2.47 2.61 6.3
Gerrit Cole 200.1 2.88 2.7 3.04 6.3
Trevor Bauer 171.1 2.26 2.44 3.14 6
Luis Severino 191.1 3.39 2.95 3.1 5.7
Aaron Nola 212.1 2.37 3.01 3.21 5.6
Corey Kluber 215 2.89 3.12 3.08 5.6
Carlos Carrasco 186.2 3.33 2.98 2.92 5.1
Blake Snell 180.2 1.89 2.95 3.16 4.6
German Marquez 196 3.77 3.4 3.1 4.5
Mike Clevinger 200 3.02 3.52 3.86 4.3
Miles Mikolas 200.2 2.83 3.28 3.67 4.3
Kyle Freeland 202.1 2.85 3.67 4.22 4.2
Noah Syndergaard 154.1 3.03 2.8 3.29 4.2
Zack Wheeler 182.1 3.31 3.25 3.81 4.1
Mike Foltynewicz 183 2.85 3.37 3.77 3.9
James Paxton 160.1 3.76 3.24 3.02 3.8
Jameson Taillon 191 3.2 3.46 3.58 3.7
Dallas Keuchel 204.2 3.74 3.69 3.84 3.6
Marco Gonzales 166.2 4 3.43 3.59 3.6
Clayton Kershaw 161.1 2.73 3.19 3.19 3.5
Zack Greinke 207.2 3.21 3.71 3.44 3.5
Jose Berrios 192.1 3.84 3.9 3.89 3.3
Kyle Hendricks 199 3.44 3.78 3.87 3.2
J.A. Happ 177.2 3.65 3.98 3.88 3.2
Charlie Morton 167 3.13 3.59 3.42 3.1
Kyle Gibson 196.2 3.62 4.13 3.91 2.8
Sorted by fWAR

Seven pitchers with less than 174 innings cracked the top 30, when sorted by fWAR. The names are not surprising — Chris Sale, Trevor Bauer, Noah Syndergaard, James Paxton, Marco Gonzalez, Clayton Kershaw, and Charlie Morton.

Of course, Sale and Kershaw were injured at times this year, hurting their inning totals. Paxton and Morton, however, are two pitchers without a track record of durability. When you see the names who didn’t meet the innings threshold, a new question arises. Do you want 158 innings of Chris Sale or 199 innings from Kyle Hendricks?

The answer is Chris Sale, of course. But that doesn’t mean the 199 from Hendricks isn’t valuable. If you’re going to have a high value pitcher who you only count on for 5 innings per game, you need to give your bullpen a rest at some point. If you can get 177 from a Jakob Junis (way down the fWAR leader board with a 1.4), there is value in that. You don’t want him to be your ace, but you do want those solid, if not great, innings.

Reliability is valuable. Looking at the above chart, we see that 76.7 percent of the top 30 fWAR leaders are still workhorse pitchers.

As these numbers will likely continue plummeting, your favorite team might happily refer to a 160 IP starter as an anchor of the rotation. The workhorse as we once knew it may not be extinct, but certainly lands on the endangered species list. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just different.

Maybe that lessened workload not only gets the best from your home team’s pitchers, but keeps their arms intact for the lengths of their expensive contracts. In the meantime, don’t scoff if a GM declares someone like Charlie Morton a workhorse due to his average of 157 IP over the last two seasons, because he may not be too far off.


Bob Ellis is a lifelong Royals fan. He has written in the past for Kings of Kauffman and Statliners. Follow him on Twitter @BobEllisKC.