Progress doesn’t necessarily mean that all things always move along a single direction; it’s one of those reliably annoying truths of history and housing markets alike. Certainly in the arc of relief-pitcher usage patterns in baseball history over the past several decades, we’ve seen dramatic changes, which generally trend reliably in the same direction. The number of relievers teams use has consistently gone up, while the length of time relievers pitch has consistently gone down. That’s fairly straightforward, but we’ll touch on the scope of how many and how much in a bit.
What’s interesting is how much that has remained the case even as the great offensive boom of the “See No Evil” '90s and the Naughty Aughties has given way to our current little ice age of offense, with consecutive “Year(s) of the Pitcher.” With scoring going down, you might expect that relievers would pitch a little less of every ballgame, and that also turns out to be the case. Nowadays, major league relievers pitch almost a third of every ballgame, or 32.4 percent in terms of innings pitched, and 32.7 percent of all plate appearances. However, with the game’s decline in scoring, relievers are carrying a lighter overall load -- even as the number of relievers per game remains much the same as it was earlier in the decade.
It used to be that relievers were a lot more thinly spread, and they had to pitch for longer periods of time. If you liked your closers throwing 100 innings or more in 60 games, you probably grew up in the '70s. Overall, in the 10 years from 1980 to 1990, relievers went from pitching just under 30 percent of the total workload to just over 32 percent, both in terms of the total batters faced and the innings pitched. That might not sound like much, but keep that 32 percent mark in mind, because in general terms it means starters are getting into the seventh inning.
Also, from 1980 to 1990 teams went from using just over three relievers every two games to two relievers per game on average. Again, maybe that doesn’t seem like a huge difference, but across the entirety of both leagues, it’s significant. In 2000, another 10 years later, the number of relievers used per game had gone up to 2.5 per team, and in 2007 the number of relievers used per game reached its all-time crest of three relievers per team. The 2007-2008 seasons also represent a peak for total reliever usage, in that they were pitching just over 35 percent of the total workload -- starting pitchers were having trouble getting through six innings, at a time when overall scoring was coming down from 4.9 per team per game in 2006. There had been a blip in 2005, when relievers fell below pitching a third of the total amount of the time (32.9 percent of plate appearances, 32.6 percent of the total innings), but that was the only year from 2000-2009 when relievers threw less than a third of the total workload.
So, across all that time, several things remained fairly constant, in that the numbers kept getting higher. Total number of relievers used per game? As noted, that kept going up, the flowering of the Age of Shouse and the tedium of three-pitcher innings and slavish managerial convention in securing platoon advantages more easily than ever, because seven- or eight-man bullpens severely constrained in-game options on offense when it came to pinch-hitting. A “good” manager avoided controversy by playing this game, a “bad” manager was the one who inspired sports-radio flame wars by being less fussy.
The number of plate appearances per game or innings pitched per reliever? Consistent from what you’d expect with the increasing reliance on situational specialists -- both left- and right-handed -- that kept going down, too, from 5.2 batters faced and 1.4 innings pitched in 2000 to 4.6 batters faced and 1.1 innings pitched in 2009. OK, so all of this is headed in the same direction.
Then we get to last year. Scoring has dropped, strikeouts are as high as they’ve ever been, but where are the relief workloads going? They’re dropping, as you’d expect, because it’s slightly easier for starters to be able to get later into the game. There’s a chicken/egg issue there, of course: maybe it’s the young pitching talent driving scoring down, or cold springs, or nothing extra in those biscuits for breakfast Harry Caray always encouraged hitters to eat.
Whatever the root causes that are helping starters pitch a little bit more of every ballgame, though, managers are still using relievers the same way as they did when scoring levels were much higher: While relievers are now pitching less than a third of the total innings and total plate appearances -- 32.7 percent of the innings, 33 percent of the batters faced -- they’re still being used just about as often, about three relievers per team per game, and as briefly as ever, facing just 4.4 batters or one inning per appearance.
What does that mean? On some level, you could say it’s the natural outgrowth of the “too many relievers” problem we got as soon as everyone in the dugout or in a front office decided that you absolutely had to have at least seven of them. Teams are still generally carrying seven relievers apiece, and even if there’s less game time for them to pitch in, managers still feel the compunction to keep trying to use them all, however briefly. That’s still seven roster slots committed to a shrinking amount of game time. Whether anyone counters by committing to a six-man bullpen might be seen as revolutionary, but it might more properly be seen as devo-lutionary, and a return to the way things were.
The other thing that’s involved is that teams are enjoying a lot more success with the “anonymous” relief hero, or what I like to refer to as the Miami miracle, in honor of the Marlins bullpens, essentially going back to Jack McKeon, but especially noteworthy in recent years. It’s not really that miraculous, because it’s a bit too easily repeatable -- witness David Pauley in Seattle, a relief hero via a few leverage-light metrics that the Mariners have used while losing as often as not, and someone who’s generally gotten clobbered by hitters with more than a few at-bats against him. Is he useful? Of course he is, as a finesse righty who throws strikes in a pitcher’s park, and as a middle reliever who can tackle multiple innings. That doesn’t mean he’d be equally valuable in a higher-leverage role, or in a smaller park.
When you consider Fredi Gonzalez’s track record as a manager in Florida and now in Atlanta, with the Marlins, he managed to get good work out of castoffs, journeymen, and non-descript soft-tossers. Kevin Gregg and then Leo Nunez became moderately successful closers for Gonzalez, something nobody else was willing to try beforehand. Where most people couldn’t find ways to use Joe Nelson or Justin Miller or Lee Gardner or Brian Fuentes or Dan Meyer, Gonzalez got value, and as a result the Marlins weren’t particularly punished by opponents for being deliberately cheap when it came to casting about for relief help. Now that Gonzalez is in Atlanta and was handed Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel -- younger, better talents. Is there any surprise his Braves are enjoying late-game success with “no-name” relievers?
A key element to this kind of success is the relationship between today’s shorter-than-ever relief outings and the schedule. Even in the unbalanced schedule of the present, a batter might take a couple of years to get full games’ worth of plate appearances against a specific relief pitcher. Take Venters, perhaps the most frequently used reliever of the present day. Prince Fielder has all of six at-bats against him so far, Andre Ethier five. They don’t get to see Venters twice in a game, and not even necessarily twice in a series. The age-old expectation is that pitchers hold an initial advantage, so if you’re still operating from Earl Weaver’s old belief to pass no judgments on a specific batter/pitcher matchup until 20 at-bats or so, it might still be four or years before you have enough hands-on experience to say this matchup’s been killing you. You might instead place your faith in your hitters using the video and advanced scouting assets available today, but not everyone’s going to be Tony Gwynn when it comes to doing his homework.