When the Seattle Mariners brought in right-hander Austin Adams to pitch the eighth inning Monday night against the Oakland Athletics, they quietly reached a grim milestone: Adams was the 20th pitcher to appear in relief for the Mariners in 2019, a season that was barely a quarter of the way to the finish line at the time. The Baltimore Orioles, meanwhile, had used 23 relievers (though both teams’ totals include position players pressed into relief duty).
Not so long ago, such a thing would have been unheard-of — especially for a quasi-contender such as Seattle (22-25 entering Saturday). In 2010, the 95-loss Kansas City Royals were the only team in the majors to use as many as 20 pitchers in relief — and that was over the course of a full season.
Here, in the heart of the Era of Bullpen Supremacy, teams are cycling through relievers at an unprecedented pace — but the game also has what appears to be an acute shortage of dependable ones. By asking more of their bullpens, teams are getting less.
In other words, it isn’t only the Washington Nationals who are struggling to piece together a capable bullpen. It’s nearly everybody. (Okay, well, it’s mostly the Nationals, as their major league-worst 6.82 bullpen ERA entering Saturday — despite having pitched the fewest innings, 130⅔, of any bullpen — would attest.)
The average length of a start in Major League Baseball has been decreasing for years, and it is down to a record low of about 5⅓ innings in 2019. (Twenty-five years ago, it was more than six innings per start.) But as bullpens have been asked to cover more innings, the collective relief ERA across baseball also has risen, to a 20-year high of 4.29 this season (entering Saturday).
“The fewer innings you get from your starters, the more you have to rely on the bullpen and the greater the chance some of those [relievers] are not going to pan out or are not going to pitch well,” said Dave Dombrowski, Boston Red Sox president of baseball operations. “And then sometimes the more you rely on guys and the more they get used, the bigger the chance they won’t bounce back and pitch as well the next year.”
For much of recent history, the ERA for major league starters has been a half-run to a quarter-run higher than that of relievers. But this year, with relievers handling a larger share of overall innings than ever before, they are converging: Starters have posted an ERA of 4.33 this year, just a tick above that of relievers.
Is it possible that there simply aren’t enough solid arms to populate 30 major league bullpens, especially in this era in which so much is being asked of them?
“As managers are more willing to take starters out in the fifth or sixth innings, you’re asking a lot of those relievers,” Nationals closer Sean Doolittle said. “Very few teams have true workhorses anymore [in their rotation]. We’re lucky here — our starters are so unbelievable. We’ve had to cover fewest innings in league, which makes some of the hiccups even more frustrating.
“But there’s an inherent volatility of relievers. It takes a different kind of toll on your body when night in, night out, you’re asked to [get ready to pitch] at the drop of a hat. Over the course of a season, if your workload isn’t managed properly, you may be able to get away with it for a few months, but at some point those innings are going to jump on your back, and it can lead to ineffectiveness or injury risk that can derail your season or even your career.”
One of the reasons often cited when teams routinely pull their starters in the middle innings of a game is that starters’ effectiveness, across the board, drops precipitously when they face an opposing lineup for a third time. But the same familiarity that makes starting pitchers less effective as a game wears on, it stands to reason, also would come into play when relievers are asked to pitch more frequently and for longer stints.
“With relievers, they tend to have fewer pitches than starters, so the more [frequently] they’re coming in, the easier it is for hitters to hone in,” Red Sox closer Ryan Brasier said. “Starters may try not to use all their weapons early in the game, whereas relievers come in and everyone knows what’s coming.”
It’s not as if teams aren’t trying to piece together elite bullpens. Maybe they’re trying too hard. Even as free agents in other segments of the talent marketplace have seen their values crater, proven free agent relievers continue to cash in. Five of the 16 largest contracts signed this offseason and 10 of the 33 multiyear deals went to relievers. But the list of high-priced relievers who have been either injured or ineffective this year includes Kenley Jansen ($18 million salary), Andrew Miller ($11 million), David Robertson ($10 million), Brandon Morrow ($9 million) and Tommy Hunter ($9 million).
Increasingly, contending teams are rebuilding their bullpens in midseason, once the grind of the season has identified which relievers are pitching well enough to help down the stretch. The past few trade deadlines have seen Aroldis Chapman, Miller, Doolittle, Roberto Osuna and Zack Britton dealt to contenders.
That trend is almost certain to continue this summer, when the list of available arms will include not only the usual assortment of trade targets but also free agent closer Craig Kimbrell, who remains unsigned — and when the list of teams in need of bullpen help has never been longer.
“That’s one of the toughest markets — any executive would tell you — to find the guy that’s consistent,” said Manager Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose front office has had success rebuilding its bullpen at midseason. “It’s very volatile. It’s the usage piece: They’re leaned on a lot. So when you get the [reliever] who can post 70-plus times for three, four years in a row — those are hard to find, and they’re at a premium.”
The relief shortage in 2019 has underscored what an advantage it remains — at least everywhere outside of Washington — to possess a starting rotation capable of going deep into games on a consistent basis, thus limiting what a manager has to ask of his bullpen. And if anything, this season’s bullpen struggles could have the effect of pushing the game back in the other direction.
“I can see the pendulum swinging the other way over time,” Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander said. “As you see starters going shorter and relievers coming in earlier, teams are leaving themselves open to overusing and wearing down their relievers. That’s what [opposing] lineups used to try to do — wearing out a bullpen in the first game of a series, which can help you in later games. It’s become a lost art, but I could see it coming back.”
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