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Pitching roles matter more than you think

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While many would argue that the role a pitcher is placed in has no bearing on their performance, that isn’t true.

Cincinnati Reds v Atlanta Braves Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

There are often a ton of baseball analysts that say that pitching roles do not matter. The quote I hear most often when making that point is “three outs is three outs,” basically saying that getting three outs is the only factor. While may pitchers will tell you that that is their mindset on the mound, it doesn’t mean that other factors do not have an effect or influence how particular pitchers perform in various situations.

If three outs were three outs, why aren’t teams just loading up 10-12 starters and having two starters split each game? Why aren’t the best bullpen pitchers throwing two or three innings every appearance? Why don’t teams sign two or three all-star closers and have them pitch from the back-end? These are the questions I aim to answer by breaking down how and why pitching roles matter in the context of the game.

At one point in history, starters would pitch a complete game almost every outing regardless of the number of runs given up. There are several obvious reasons that doesn’t happen anymore. Firstly, pitch counts are tracked and monitored. Most starters do not throw more than 110 to 120 pitches. This is done mostly to ensure starters are not overworked, thus lessening the risk of injury and increasing longevity. Another reason starters don’t throw complete games a majority of the time is most starters, even some of the best, would give up a large number of runs if they pitched eight or nine innings every start.

Another reason is the development of bullpen usage. Teams always had bullpens, it’s just that they just were used much less often than they are now. In 1900 bullpens pitched 171 innings total compared to starters, who pitched a total of 9743 innings that same season. The trend of bullpen usage has almost constantly increased since the start of professional baseball. This table below shows the change of bullpen usage from the beginning of the game to present day.

Starter and Reliever Splits

Season IP Relievers IP Starters Ratio
Season IP Relievers IP Starters Ratio
1871 61.1 2188.2 0.0280
1900 171.0 9743.0 0.0176
1910 685.1 21690.1 0.0316
1920 2637.1 19196.0 0.1374
1930 3036.0 18826.0 0.1612
1940 3419.2 18632.0 0.1835
1950 3130.0 18842.2 0.1661
1960 5091.1 17112.0 0.2975
1970 8936.2 25922.0 0.3448
1980 11210.1 26655.1 0.4206
1990 12042.2 25521.0 0.4719
2000 14488.0 28756.1 0.5038
2010 14244.1 29061.0 0.4902
2017 16469.2 26787.1 0.6148
2018 16149.0 24639.1 0.6554

Bullpens weren’t utilized the same as they are now; even 20 years ago it was much different. You’d see pitchers like Goose Gossage toss two or three innings each appearance, most of which were in closely contested ballgames. The game has evolved, though, with an increase in technology and new, ever developing statistics.

Teams utilize all of this available information, and pour it into a strategy that continues adapting as the game evolves. You now see bullpens having dictated roles, such as closer and setup man. Some are just referred to as seventh or eighth inning guy, but almost all bullpens have a specific guy or guys that come in during the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.

That’s why we see teams forking over millions upon millions of dollars for a closer who exclusively pitches the ninth inning (or sometimes comes in the eighth and pitches two innings). Their job is to close the door on any late scoring chances to win the game. It’s a statistical fact that the later the game goes, the more stress there is. That’s measured by using Leverage Index, which tells us how particularly stressful an appearance is.

There’s no denying that certain people cope and handle stress better than others—this is true in every profession, not just baseball. So when someone can handle the stress of a close game in the late innings, they’re going to receive a “setup” or “closer” role because that is the skill set they have. This is why closers and setup men have the roles they do. By using several pitchers through the seventh, eighth and ninth, pitchers can exert more effort in a single inning than what they could if they had to pitch a second or third inning after that. Additionally because they’ve only thrown one inning, this allows teams to utilize the same pitches in back to back games or even three games in a row.

A prime example of how roles affect a particular pitchers performance is former Washington National Drew Storen. In the last month of the 2014 season, Storen became the full time closer for the Nationals. He had mixed experience between closer and other late innings roles, but after 2014 he was exclusively closing. However, in 2015 near the trade deadline, the Nationals made a move to acquire Jonathan Papelbon.

With Papelbon being the veteran he was given the nod as closer, moving Storen to an eighth inning role. Up to that point, Storen had allowed seven total runs in 36.1 innings and put up some of the best overall numbers of his career. After moving to a setup role, everything fell apart. He allowed 16 runs over 18.2 innings and wasn’t re-signed by the Nationals following the end of the season. Sadly, Storen hasn’t been right since either. He’s pitched for three different teams following the 2015 season, and has a 4.55 FIP and a 20.2 percent strikeout rate. This season he tore his UCL and received Tommy John’s surgery.

This goes to show that some pitchers thrive in certain roles while some pitchers struggled in the same roles and vice versa. That’s why the notion that pitching roles don’t matter is non-sense. The game dictates that they matter, which is why they exist and continue to exist. While it’s fully possible the game evolves to a point where pitching roles and bullpen roles no longer matter, as of right now they do.


Ron Wolschleger is a pitchaholic and a Contributing Writer for Beyond the Box Score as well as Bless You Boys. You can follow him on Twitter at @FIPmyWHIP.