Two weeks ago, Chelsea Janes asked a great question: Do the Nationals need a long reliever? As it turns out, Dusty Baker and Anthony Mike Rizzo decided that they did not, breaking camp with seven relief pitchers who, in 2016, made 387 major league appearances and threw 351 1/3 innings — less than three outs per appearance. In those 387 games pitched, the group got more than three outs just 67 times, about one in six.

This hardly makes the Nationals unique in today’s game. Whereas a generation ago there was a category of pitchers whose job it was to go three innings at a time, those pitchers are now scarce. Relief pitchers, whatever their skill set, are mostly asked to throw one inning, preferably coming it at the start and leaving at the end, and then hand the ball to the next guy. These days, long relief is an accident, happening when a starter leaves the game due to injury or a game drags on past the 11th inning.

Fewest Long Relief Appearances (Three Innings or More), 1996-2016
2014: 255
2010: 273
2012: 273
2011: 280
2015: 287

For some perspective, here’s the other side of that scale:

Most Long Relief Appearances (Three Innings or More), 1996-2016
1996: 590
1997: 538
1999: 535
1998: 513
2000: 511

Relief pitchers are being “bred” to throw one inning at a time at maximum effort. This has produced some incredible stat lines, including all-time highs in individual strikeout rates and overall reliever strikeout rates. This isn’t the choice of any one manager, but rather, an entire industry evolving.

Consider Baker, who first helmed a team 24 seasons ago in San Francisco. Those 1993 Giants got 414 relief appearances, with nearly a third (131, or 31.2 percent) lasting at least four outs. Last year, Baker’s Nationals went to the pen 509 times, but just 106 of the outings (20.9 percent) went that long. Baker wasn’t out of step with his peers; the Nationals’ total of 1-plus relief appearances was 12th in baseball, and his rate was almost exactly the average (20.8 percent). It’s hard to argue with success: The three teams with the fewest 1-plus relief appearances all made the playoffs, with the champion Cubs 29th in the league, with just 80 of them.

The most obvious change necessitated by this is the need for seven, and sometimes eight, relief pitchers on the game-day roster. Intragame durability is at an all-time low, and managers are cautious about using their top arms for three straight days, or bringing back a reliever the night after a longer outing. But sometimes, starters do get rocked, so how does a team carrying seven short relievers handle a disaster start?

Fewest Starts of Three Innings or Fewer, 1996-2016
2014: 126
2011: 143
2010: 159
2012: 164
2013: 178

And again, the other side of that scale:

Fewest Starts of Three Innings or Fewer, 1996-2016
1996: 270
2000: 261
1999: 261
2006: 240
2003: 231

Now, some of this is run environment; there were fewer short starts in the 2010s because run scoring was lower than it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mostly, though, it’s the ongoing evolution of pitcher roles. In the same way that relievers are now almost all guys who pitch one inning at a time, regardless of how effective or efficient they may be in that inning, starters are supposed to give you 90-100 pitches every time out, even when they don’t have anything on those pitches. This is a change over the last generation, and a radical change from baseball history up through the 1970s or so.

Essentially, starting pitchers are now their own long relievers, and absent injury, are left in to clean up their messes until the fifth inning or so.

Gio Gonzalez was absolutely torn to shreds by the Mets on May 23, allowing five straight hits in a five-run third inning. For much of baseball history, Gonzalez would have been lifted before the inning ended. On this night, he not only finished the frame, but went two more, allowing two more runs in the fifth. A few weeks later in Milwaukee, Gonzalez allowed three runs in the first, then was allowed to bat with two on and two out in the second, striking out. Teams no longer are prepared to take an ineffective starting pitcher out before getting some innings from him, even if it makes them less likely to win that day’s game.

The absence of true long relievers can produce absurd results. Last August, the Nationals watched Stephen Strasburg give up four doubles, two singles and two walks to the first nine Rockies he faced, and not only let him finish the inning, they let him bat in the top of the second and go out to the mound again. He didn’t get out of the second.

So the answer is no, teams don’t need to carry long relievers any longer. The jobs they once did are now filled by starting pitchers expected to provide some innings no matter what, and to a lesser extent by the extra one or two short relievers now populating rosters. The death of the long reliever isn’t a conscious choice, but rather, the long-term effect of reducing “relief pitching” to the job of throwing 15-20 pitches three days a week. Until the league starts asking more from its short relievers, it won’t have room for long ones.