Starting Off on a Bad Foot

Corey Kluber and other postseason starters are on much shorter leashes this year.

Corey Kluber and other postseason starters are on much shorter leashes this year.

By Evan Biancardi

Corey Kluber and other postseason starters are on much shorter leashes this year. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

For years now, baseball analysts have stressed the importance of a team’s bullpen and the ability to turn a wild card team into a World Series champion. There’s no debating the effectiveness of the guys pitching in the back end of games, but are they now more critical to a team’s success than the guys starting the games?

Through the first 12 games of this year’s playoffs, starting pitchers have thrown just over 101 total innings pitched. That’s just 4.2 innings per start. Last year, throughout the entire postseason, starters averaged five innings per start, and in the previous two seasons, that number was nearly two-thirds of an inning higher. Another interesting metric to look at is pitches thrown. This postseason, starting pitchers have thrown just 75 pitches per outing. In each of the last three seasons, starters averaged a pitch count of 83, 93 and 95, respectively.

So, what exactly is the reason behind all of this? Well, the obvious answer is that bullpens are just better, and there’s certainly an argument to be made for that. This season, major league bullpens had an ERA of 4.14, compared to starters’ ERA of 4.50. That is not too significant of a margin, but when comparing opponents’ batting average, relievers’ BAA is 16 points lower than their counterparts. During this year’s postseason, though, the difference is far more staggering. Relievers’ ERA comes out to an unimpressive 5.14, but starters’ ERA is a whopping 9.22. Compared to previous seasons, these numbers are alarming.

While bullpens are certainly seeing an increase in workload this postseason, this may just be the result of starters struggling out of the gate. Through 12 games, there have been only 15.5 total scoreless frames to start a game, and most of those frames came over the course of just two games. Is this due to poor starting pitching or simply better hitting, or both?

Despite this, we have seen a slight change in managing philosophy. If you’ve watched any postseason games this year, you may have noticed that starters have been given a much tighter leash. In fact, of the 24 starters to pitch in the playoffs, only three have eclipsed the infamous 100-pitch count. In 2014, that number was 14. In several instances, starters have been removed early from games in which they were pitching well.

Is this because managers are afraid their starters will succumb to that 9.22 ERA, or is it because they simply trust their bullpens more? While there are benefits to going to your bullpen as early as the third inning, the long-term effects of overusing relievers and taking them out of their regular season routines have proved costly in games down the stretch.

All of this will certainly be discussed throughout the offseason, as general managers look to rebuild their teams to better suit them for October. With guys like Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta and a slew of relievers ready to hit the open market, it’ll be interesting to see whether teams will continue to pay record-breaking contracts for starting pitchers, or if they’ll be stingier and gradually close the gap between the salaries of starters and relievers. Right now, though, let’s just enjoy playoff baseball while it’s still here. This is a discussion for November.