The Other, Other, Other Extreme Development

Baseball is in an era of extremes. While the game has always evolved, it’s rarely — if ever — evolved so quickly.

Home runs have increased dramatically due to a variety of factors, velocity continues to rise, bullpens keep on gaining a greater share of the overall workload. The MLBPA, meanwhile, has been taken aback by the changing complexion of the free-agent marketplace, defined this offseason by stagnation — in part due to the speed with which organizations have adapted to the terms of the latest CBA.

Another labor-ownership issue — pace — continues to be problematic. Not necessary the overall time of games, but the increasing duration of seconds between pitches in an age when attention spans are continually tested. To really engage a fan and customer, particularly the next generation, you probably don’t want them to be able/compelled to look at their smartphone between every pitch.

There’s a lot of extremes. And I’m writing to discuss yet another here today: the disabled list.

While thumbing through some MLB preview material the other day at my local Barnes & Nobles in Westlake, Ohio, I stumbled upon an interesting table from the latest edition of Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster:

DL Trends, 2010-17
Season Players on DL Days spent on DL
2010 393 22,911
2011 422 25,610
2012 409 30,408
2013 442 29,551
2014 422 25,839
2015 454 28,982
2016 478 31,229
2017 533 30,913

With the change to a 10-day version last year, we expected trips to DL to increase and they did. Our old friend Eno Sarris noted that about everyone was on the disabled list last May. As we can see in the table above, DL trips were at a record level. This was not all that surprising.

Not only does the 10-day DL allow teams to more quickly make decisions on whether to disable a player with a short-term injury, but the DL is, of course, also a roster-manipulation tool.

Besides serving as a mechanism to house injured players, the DL is also employed by club to create roster flexibility. We expected front offices to manipulate it, but no one quite maximized it like the Dodgers who used the 10-day DL like something of a revolving, de facto 26th-man roster spot. The Dodgers, in part, built their 2017 club with the 10-day DL team in mind.

Even as the game has become more and more specialized, from bullpen usage to platooning, the size of the major-league active roster has remained static. So we’d expect to see teams employ the 10-man DL as an extra spot pretty regularly. Moreover, with rest and efficiency becoming key management focal points, we’d expect to see innings per pitcher reduced and the number of pitchers employed increase.

While we expected to see a record number of the DL trips, the Dodgers really stood alone in maximizing the 10-day DL.

Of course, the 2017 Dodgers also had the deepest rotation in the game. Not every team has such a wealth of pitchers. Still, I suspect we will see the number of trips increase in 2018 as teams become more familiar with how to navigate the 10-day DL. I don’t have a great sense of how many/which clubs are copy-catting this idea this offseason particularly since many pitchers remain unemployed.

One surprise, at least to this author, is that despite, while the minimum stay on the disabled list declined by 33%, there was only a 1.3% decline in total days spent on the DL in 2017. I would have expected DL days to decline more significantly. That seems to suggest MLB players weren’t very healthy in 2017, and it’s a reminder that, because of the extremes of today’s game — namely stress and fatigue upon pitchers — injury rates have generally been another extreme element within the sport.

The limits of the game are currently being tested in a number of ways. In this particular case, it is quite possible we will see disabled-list usage increase in frequency in 2018 and beyond. Option-able pitchers have been more important as they become part of the taxi squad that is the end of a major-league roster.

Perhaps among the many other things players ought to consider in their next round of CBA negotiations, one of them is a proposal to expand major-league rosters to 26 players. Until then, expect DL trips to become yet another extreme in a game becoming more and more about swift changes and record levels. And the teams that best adapt to the changing landscape, that are most nimble, figure to enjoy the advantages.

We hoped you liked reading The Other, Other, Other Extreme Development by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Alan
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Alan

The extremes do not act in isolation – super-teams and divisional play with the added emphasis on and extra round of the postseason played a role. The Dodgers did what they did in part because they had a huge lead in the division and could coast – it was not to maximize regular season wins.

Adding an extra roster spot or continued tolerance of frivolous DL use will help super teams stay fresher for the playoffs (most likely by a trivial degree), but is not likely to change things for teams who are trying to maximize wins.

v2micca
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v2micca

I agree. If the Dodgers had been in more of a dogfight for the division, I suspect some of that pitching depth would have been expendable to upgrade other parts of the club.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

This is definitely true, but part of the reason the Dodgers could do this was because they were ridiculously deep. With the exception of Kershaw, the pitchers are all really good! I think you’re right that you wouldn’t have seen R&R breaks for Kershaw and Seager and Bellinger if not for the division lead, but there’s no reason to avoid giving Kenta Maeda a rest in favor of Brandon McCarthy (or whatever it was they did).