A Quick Note on Relievers Wearing Down

A few weeks ago, we heard a lot of talk about how Atlanta was reaping what they sowed for overworking Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, and Eric O’Flaherty during the first five months of the season. And, of course, the Braves final loss did include a blown save by Kimbrel, which was treated as evidence that he simply had worn down from taking the hill too many times this season.

Interestingly, though, that talk has dried up during the postseason, as relievers have dominated opposing hitters and been the shining stars of October so far. Last night, Jason Motte showed no signs of fatigue as he pumped 99 MPH fastballs past Milwaukee hitters. In fact, his average fastball velocity last night (97.6) was 1.3 MPH faster than his regular season average, despite that game marking his 83rd appearance of the season.

It’s not just Motte either. Mike Adams has now made 82 appearances this year, and he’s hardly turned to mush in the playoffs. John Axford is at 78 and still dominating; K-Rod is at 76. These guys are all now in Kimbrel workload territory, and they’re still blowing hitters away in mid-October. Even Alexi Ogando, whose second half struggles were attributed to him wearing down as a starting pitcher, has been throwing harder than ever out of the bullpen and showing no signs of fatigue in October.

It is hard to watch the never-ending stream of dominating relievers trotting in from various bullpens and accept the idea that relief pitchers are running on fumes at the end of the year. If anything, we’re seeing guys throwing harder than they did in the regular season, and the performance of the playoff bullpens has been nothing short of remarkable.

The idea that relievers can’t pitch 75 times in a season without breaking down at the end just isn’t supported by historical evidence, and it isn’t supported by what we’re seeing right now. If there’s one lesson to take away from the postseason so far, it’s that the idea of the poor overworked relief pitcher is just a myth.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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I agree with Dave’s general points, but I wonder if the pattern of using pitchers two, three, or four (thanks to rain) days in a row – often for high-stress outings – will prove more taxing than the total number of appearances. Both injury and attrition can be acute as well as accumulative.