How Do You Feel About the Decline of the Starter?

If good starting pitching is your jam, there’s a whole lot of it left. Only four teams now remain in the playoffs, but they’re possibly or probably the two best teams from each league, which would mean they’re the most talented. And there’s plenty of talent to find spread across the rotations. The Red Sox rotation begins with Chris Sale, and no matter what you think of David Price in the postseason, his overall body of work is that of an ace. The Astros rotation is excellent front to back, and it’s headed by Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. The Dodgers still have Clayton Kershaw, who’s still great, and Walker Buehler has been a dynamic rookie. Hyun-Jin Ryu wound up with a sub-2 ERA. And there’s still more talent where all that came from. The role of the starting pitcher remains alive and (mostly) well. Every team wants to have at least one ace, and more if they can get it.

But of the remaining teams, the Brewers stand out. The Brewers have assembled a strong and deep bullpen, and they’re not afraid to use it. Their rotation is easily the weakest of the four, yet they know it, and they’ll work to keep it from getting overexposed. The Brewers won’t be relying that heavily on their starters. And even the other teams are likely to go to the bullpen sooner than they would’ve a decade ago. The role of the starter is shrinking. People got mad at Aaron Boone for not quickly pulling his starters in the third and fourth innings. The A’s bullpenned their wild-card game. The Brewers already bullpenned a game of their own.

This is the season that provided us with the opener. This is the season that introduced the bulk guy. This is the season with teams not hesitating to go all-bullpen in the playoffs. We’re all by now aware of the trends within the game. My question to you is: is this good?

The other day, Ben Lindbergh and I were talking about this on Effectively Wild. And, conveniently for these purposes, Ben just put up a whole feature at The Ringer on Thursday morning. If you haven’t read it already, you should. Much of the information, you might already know. Each season now brings us more pitchers than ever. Starters are throwing fewer innings than ever. Starters are finishing games less often than ever. Complete games are such an extreme rarity that they’re nearly extinct. It’s hardly even controversial anymore to pull a guy in the process of a no-hitter if his pitch count’s too high. For the most part, starters still start. It’s after that that we’re seeing a decline. And then there’s the additional concept of the opener, and the bullpen game. You can see why starters might feel under attack. The evidence is compelling.

You’ve heard about these trends. You’ve thought about these trends. But have you considered whether you support these trends? Not that you really have that much power to stop them. But, ultimately, baseball is entertainment. As a consequence of the decline of the starter, do you find the game more or less entertaining?

The way Ben lays it out, which I agree with, the starter has long served as the protagonist. Or maybe I should say, the starters have served as the protagonists. Historically, games have revolved around them, revolved around how dominant they look, or how tired they might be getting. There was value in chasing a starter early, because if you worked him enough, or hit him enough, you could then feast on the soft underbelly of the bullpen. There was strategy around the starter, and there was a story around the starter. On any given day, the starters were likely to be the most important participants in a game. So often, as the starter went, so went the team.

With the role of the starter diminishing, the significance of the starter is diminishing. Games are now more likely to be decided after the starters are gone, and the soft bullpen underbellies are fewer and further between, with power arms with good sliders popping up everywhere. We hardly even need to think about starter fatigue these days, because by the time a guy is wearing down, there’ll be two strikeout relievers already warm. Starters can increasingly just go air it out. Then they’re replaced by relievers who go air it out. Many of the relievers are effectively anonymous, a good number constantly shuttling between Triple-A and the majors. We might, as fans, feel less connected to the relievers. But it’s all in the name of winning, right?

That’s why we’re seeing so much of what we’re seeing. The A’s bullpenned against the Yankees because they thought it would give them the best chance to win. The Rays embraced the opener because they thought it would give them the best chance to win. Managers are staying away from using starters for a third time through the order because they think it will give them the best chance to win. Across so many different subjects, fans seem to prioritize winning over everything else. Do you find that this is one of those cases, or do you miss the way that things were? Is pitcher-usage optimization working for or against the entertainment value of the product?

There is no right or wrong answer. Your opinion is your own, and your opinion is valid. I’m only publishing this because, for as much as we’ve already read about the decline of the starter, I’ve never seen anything to indicate how people feel about it. I’ve mostly only seen graphs. Anecdotally, on Twitter, I’ve seen people complain that they miss having workhorses. I’ve seen people complain about the bullpen revolving door. But I’ve also had a good number of Rays fans suggest that they found this season especially exciting, in large part because of the usage of the pitching staff. In 2018, perhaps the starting pitcher is something of an outdated construct. I have no idea where public sentiment lies, hence the poll at the bottom of this post. This is only one small and selective audience, but it’s better than nothing. Collectively, you all consume an awful lot of baseball.

The starting pitcher isn’t dead, and, by definition, every game for the rest of time will have two pitchers who start it. But the old, familiar model is gradually eroding. This has been going on for a very long time, and I’m not sure what would cause the trend to stop. Starters are working less than they ever have. The stories of the games are changing as a result. The way we watch games is changing as a result. You’re a baseball fan, presumably. Baseball is presenting itself differently. Does that make you happy, sad, or somewhere in between? Thank you all in advance for your votes.

We hoped you liked reading How Do You Feel About the Decline of the Starter? by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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113 Comments on "How Do You Feel About the Decline of the Starter?"

newest oldest most voted
vi800
Member
vi800

Even at Fangraphs, we are not fans of change. To be honest, other than pace of the game, I can’t think of great reasons for why I don’t like it but I don’t .

Pwn Shop
Member
Pwn Shop

The reason I don’t like it is actually mentioned in the article. It instead emphasizes innings by anonymous relievers, who often I literally have never heard of. This takes away from the feeling of this being my ‘team’ that I follow and that has a sense of continuity. It’s more like I showed up to watch the local high school play, where I don’t know anyone. It’s much the same reason that it is disappointing to see players traded around the league so often, we become more conscious of the fact that we are cheering for laundry.

scotman144
Member
scotman144

Totally agree with Pwn Shop:
It’s also happening with position players: teams are more willing to platoon / rotate multi-pos guys than I can recall in my 35 years. It goes hand in hand with allocating more roster spots to pre-arb players who are likely to be limited/still developing. It’s strategically rational and it keeps the arb paydays/FA dollars down for everyone when everyone but the truly elite are at best 3/4 time players. It also seems to mean more players in and out having shorter careers on average.

Shalesh
Member
Shalesh

I think there was more platooning when teams carried only 10 pitchers and had 6 bench players. Now, they carry 12-13 pitchers and only 3-4 bench players. Sure, you’d rather have a pre-arb player producing 1 Fwar than an expensive veteran producing the same 1 Fwar since the pre-arb player has more variability and, yes, develops. Thus, you roster Miguel Andujar rather than Neil Walker.

scotman144
Member
scotman144

Yes and no: I think the smarter clubs have eliminated pinch hitting/running specialists / 5th OF / 3rd catcher roster spots (except in September) and have more guys that start 2-3 times a week and can play a few different places. I could be wrong and may have to do a little research for a community post if my hypothesis has legs.

tung_twista
Member
tung_twista

Quick and dirty look doesn’t seem to support your claim.
Number of qualified hitters across years.
2013: 140
2014: 146
2015: 141
2016: 146
2017: 144
2018: 140
Contrast with the changes in qualified starters during the same period. 81-88-78-73-58-57

scotman144
Member
scotman144

going by 600 PA campaigns:

This year, 72 players got to 600. Ten years ago, it was 91. Ten years before that, 102

Yes, batters are still qualifying which only requires 500 PA but we’re seeing less true “full time” players

Nats Fan
Member
Member
Nats Fan

As for the 20 years ago, I apologize, but steroided players needed less rest because they healed faster and felt more energized.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

Agreed. In the era of tanking, payroll becomes a predictable priority. Consider that younger players are getting more prominent jobs – which means that they will develop less. Why work when you are already there? When I watch MLB baseball, I see the best athletes but they don’t appear to be a group that gets much instruction. Well, they do for 6 weeks during spring! I think the end result is… not great!

filihok
Member

I know the relievers on “my” team.

I like seeing guys from AAA (which I follow almost as closely as the Major League team) get to play in the bigs. Even if they are up and down.

johnforthegiants
Member
johnforthegiants

Exactly. How could anyone not know the relievers on ‘his’ team if he’s at all serious?

TheHibachi
Member
TheHibachi

I know all the relievers on MY team, but I’m pretty serious and I don’t know all the relievers on EVERY team. I DO know starters though. I do think the game is at least a small % less enjoyable if the opposing team is throwing out randos you’ve never heard of.

zurzles
Member
zurzles

I agree with this on both ends — it’s more anonymous relievers, less “star” power from starters. Even though I know damn well throwing 100+ pitches every 5 days is a horrible, unhealthy way to do things. It doesn’t feel like batters vs. pitchers if you only care about the individuals on the batting side, it feels like batters vs. shrewd management decisions, and innovation in management decision-making makes for interesting articles and uninteresting 162-game seasons. In 50 years will any pitchers be getting into the Hall? It’s already way harder than it should be for SPs. Will our standards get so low that the only ones getting in are the Josh Haders who don’t burn out in 5 seasons? Ironically, it feels like there are fewer “star” relievers now than at any other point in the closer era.

RoyalsFan#14321
Member
RoyalsFan#14321

I have *absolutely* (in the past) decided on going to a game mid-week at the last second based on the pitching match-up.

It’s been years since I bothered with that.

lilpudge
Member
lilpudge

I do that sometimes. I live in the DC area and as long as it’s not raining I don’t hesitate to buy tickets the afternoon of a Scherzer start.

But more often it works the opposite way. I say “wow it’s a nice day, maybe I should go to the ballpark, ” check the matchup and say “oh, it’s Nola v Jefry Rodriguez. I’ll pass on that one.”

oozyalbies1
Member
oozyalbies1

I absolutely still make decisions to go to games based on the SP match up. As a Yankee fan, I sought out Luis Severino games very actively the last two years.

Unfortunately for him, he let public rhetoric and worsening standards for what should be expected of starters impact his mindset going into the playoffs. When you’re supposed to be an ace, and you come out before an elimination game saying you’d be happy to go four good innings, you’re setting the bar for yourself very low.

He went out and delivered on four good(ish) innings in the WC Game, but it looked early on that he could’ve done a whole lot better than that. He was just pitching to a diminished standard, and I think it impacted him not only in that game, but in Game 3 against Boston.

This is, in part, why I am against this trend. Not only does it impact the way games are managed, but also the players themselves.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

LOL most of this community are fans of change and they don’t even need to know what they support. Go read the comments on the “strategy” articles and see how much people want the game to be different. I guess it is easy to mistake the real majority with the commenting majority, which may be different groups, but I kind of doubt it. The majority is not positive in this survey (which doesn’t measure satisfaction with change) because they just watched MIL’s bullpen cough up a bunch of runs and OAK did not win a week a go with a bullpenning strategy. It is pretty hard to watch it not work and support the idea of it too much. RP and matchups are fine, but devaluing starters means that teams are intending to see if they can win with their 4/5 best reliever which is unacceptable… then those elite guys end up looking like mortals when they don’t have anyone to clean up their messes and they end up facing respectable collections of hitters.