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 2⁄3 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
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
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.