Thoughts on the seven-inning game

From Buster Olney's blog today:

At the same time, the exec said, teams are struggling to find enough good pitching -- and, at the same time, the number of injuries is skyrocketing. If oblique strains were the prevalent injury two years ago, ulnar collateral ligament strains are the ailment du jour. Top prospect Jameson Taillon of the Pirates is the latest pitcher to be headed for Tommy John surgery; maybe he'll bump into Bobby Parnell along the way.

The executive went for his punch line, a thought so far outside the box that it either represents the absurd, or the future.

"I think they ought to change the games to seven innings," he said.

Seven innings? You mean, in each game? Seven innings instead of nine?

"Seven innings," he said again, and he went on to explain that if baseball adopted this, it could represent a tonic for all the problems he sees.

Seven innings instead of nine would mean the games would finish closer to two-and-a-half hours than three hours or longer. That would be a better fit for the common attention span in 2014.

I actually don't believe this is such an outrageous idea to be ridiculed and laughed at. You could even resolve one of the issues Buster writes about by eliminating pitchers hitting and the designated hitter and going with an eight-man lineup, thus ensuring hitters are still getting their four or five at-bats a game. Of course, all this means changing two fundamental rules of the game -- nine innings, nine hitters in the lineup -- that would cause a holy war.

Anyway, I do want to nitpick something the executive said, that teams are struggling to find enough pitchers.

Is he watching the same game I am? I understand that pitching injuries are a major issue across the sport (and always have been), but considering that run scoring is dropping and strikeouts are rising, it doesn't seem like teams are having problems finding enough quality pitching. The average runs per game in 2013 was 4.17, the lowest since 1992, and down nearly a run per game since the steroids-era peak of 5.14 in 2000. Heading into Monday's action, the early returns are more of the same: 4.05 runs per game, which would be the lowest total since 1981 and third-lowest since the creation of the DH in 1973.

As one indication of the improvement in the caliber of pitching, let's go back 30 years, to 1984. That season, 157 pitchers threw at least 100 innings; 81 of them (52 percent) struck out fewer than 100 batters. In 2013, 145 pitchers threw at least 100 innings; only 30 of them (21 percent) struck out fewer than 100 batters. OK, that's kind of a gimmick way of re-stating that strikeouts are up. There's also this statistic: In 1984, 60 of those 157 pitchers had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.50 worse (38 percent); in 2013, just six of those 145 pitchers (4 percent) had a ratio of 1.50 or worse. But again, that's just another way of saying strikeouts are way up, and you could theoretically argue that the increase in strikeouts has nothing to do with better pitching but merely with changes in hitters' approach or changes in the strike zone.

So let's ignore all that data and go with the assumption that teams are struggling to find enough pitching. What happens if games are seven innings instead of nine?

(A) Your starters don't have to pitch as many innings. Imagine Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer airing it out for four or five innings per game instead of eight or nine.

(B) You don't have to use your middle relievers as often. You would often be able to go straight from your starter to one of your top two relievers, or not use your bullpen at all.

(C) Managers could start maximizing matchups earlier in the game since you wouldn't need as many innings from your bullpen.

(D) Starters might not need as many off days between starts if they're pitching fewer innings per game. Last year, Kershaw averaged 7.15 innings over 33 starts; if he averaged five innings per start, he could start 47 games to get to the 236 innings he pitched in 2013. You could probably go to a four-man rotation without too many hiccups.

Bottom line: You'd be wiping away 324 innings from your pitching staff -- most of which would obviously come from the worst pitchers -- while still being able to keep the innings totals for your best pitchers close to what they are now without increasing the risk for injury. (In fact, it's possible that throwing 70 pitches every four days may result in fewer injuries than throwing 100 every five days.)

The end up result: Scoring would go way, way, way down. The only thing to counteract all this is that you wouldn't have to carry as many pitchers, roster spots that could be used on hitters to help managers with more options off the bench. But that minor advantage wouldn't balance out getting rid of the bottom three or four pitchers from a staff.

So offense would plummet even more and strikeouts would rise even more.

The games would, however, be much quicker.