Sunday, July 17, 2016

MLB Pitching 2016: The “Heavy-Duty” Contingent

Entering the 2016 All-Star Break, the St. Louis Cardinals had used five starting pitchers … the same five, over and over again, for 88 games.

Can you believe it?

The rest of MLB has trotted out a whopping 243 dudes – and three of them have suited up for two separate teams.

A shade shy of 30% of those starting pitchers – 72 non-Cardinals – started 17 or more games for his team(s), the minimal workload for full-timers at this point of the season.

5 Full-timers: Cardinals (5 total starters)

4 Full-timers: Cubs (6), Giants (6), Blue Jays (7), Rays (7), Marlins (8)

3 Full-timers: Mets (6), Astros (7), Nationals (7), Phillies (7), Royals (7), D’backs (8), Red Sox (9), Angels (10), Pirates (11)

2 Full-timers: Orioles (7), Yankees (7(, Brewers (8), Indians (8), Tigers (8), White Sox (8), Rangers (10), Braves (12), Dodgers (12)

1 Full-timer: Mariners (9), Rockies (9), Twins (9), Padres (10), A’s (11), Reds (12)

NOTE: James Shields has split his 18 starting assignments between the Padres and White Sox.

A hundred years ago, it was rare for a starting pitcher worth his salt NOT to work a complete game. In more recent times, crusty competitors like a Roger Clemens, Jack Morris  or Bob Gibson would take umbrage at their removal from any game.

But times do change. A reliable “closer” has been a necessity in MLB for a quarter-century or more. The Bullpen – for decades merely a receptacle for pitchers not capable enough to break into the starting rotation – has become a multi-headed everyday player.

Complete-game performances have been dwindling for years – a mere 43 so far this season, about three per week. Unless the pace quickens, 2016 will be the first time MLB hurlers do not deliver at least 100.

In the structure of today’s game – and on the heels of back-to-back World Series heroics from an old-fashioned Iron Man and a new-fangled bevy of relief specialists – the starting pitcher’s standard for notable performance has become the Seven-Inning Start. (ESPN baseball blogger deluxe David Schoenfield invented an accolade he calls a “Felix,” earned for 7+ innings of work with minimal damage.)

Through 1,331 games, an MLB starting pitcher has induced 21 (or more) opponent outs on 639 occasions – just under one Long Start (LS) for every two games played, seven such outings (on average) on any given day with a full slate of games. Team totals for LS’s range from a low of 13 (3 pitching staffs, including the defending champs) to the 37 each accrued by the 2014 champions and Canada’s team. Six staffs total 30 or more LS’s, another ten have a minimum of 20.

Just for fun, what say we combine the dependability of the guy who has missed no starting assignments with the durability of the guy who can take his game into the late innings on a regular basis? What do you suppose we’ll get?

A list of fourteen pitchers is what we end up with – players who have yet to miss a turn in the rotation, and who have logged seven or more innings of work in at least half their outings.

It’s quite a collection of talent, despite the exclusion of studs Clayton Kershaw and Steven Strasburg, each of whom has insufficient starts at this “midpoint.” The group of arms, which includes five Cy Young recipients, has amassed nearly a quarter (144) of this season’s LS’s and over a third (16) of its CG’s. This 14-headed collective accounts for 254 games started and has posted a record of 127-64; the pitcher’s team holds a 156-98 record in this set of games overall.

Allow me and my abacus, if you will, to perform a little mathematical manipulation on these “statistics.” Let’s award a credit for each LS and additionally for each CG – 144 + 16 = 160 credits. Then we’ll charge a demerit for each Team Loss and additionally for each Losing Decision – 98 + 64 = 162 demerits. Finally subtract the demerits from the credits and divide by the total number of starting assignments – (160 – 162) / 254 = (-2) / 254 = -0.008. [A full discussion of this standard of measure can be found here.]

Negative eight thousandths? Sounds like the evaluation of someone whose job performance is ever so slightly worse than totally incompetent, huh?

In actuality, it’s a score that would rank a starting pitcher among the Top Ten in MLB for either of the past two seasons.

So who, pray tell, are the Elite 14? The list includes four sets of teammates and represents only 10 teams, six of whom reside in the American league.

San Francisco’s Johnny Cueto, with 13 LS’s and an MLB-leading 4 CG’s in 18 starts, is posting an extraordinary score of 0.778. That score is more than double MLB’s best in either of the last two seasons.

More in line with the recent top dogs – Zack Greinke (0.313) and Adam Wainwright (0.324) – is the performance of Chris Sale (0.333) on Chicago’s South Side.

The season’s third-best showing – featuring no CG’s and a little help from the relief corps (10 No-Decisions, Yuck!) – has been provided by the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka (0.111).

Toronto teammates J. A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez join 2015 Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta at 0.056, while fellow Cubbie John Lester presents an even (0.000) ledger.

[Of the 77 full-timers, the top tier of this “metric” is rounded out by Baltimore’s Chris Tillman (0.105), Greinke (0.059), Cole Hamels (0.056) of Texas and Giant ace Madison Bumgarner (0.053).]

This year’s other seven Iron Men, including the other four Cy-guys: David Price (CYA, 2012) and Max Scherzer (2013) at -0.105; Washington’s Tanner Roark at -0.111; Justin Verlander (2011) and Korey Kluber (2014) at -0.167; Jose Quintana of the White Sox at -0.444; and Atlanta’s Julio Teheran at -0.611.

The baseball dictionary has traditionally defined Momentum as “Tomorrow’s Starting Pitcher.”

Despite all the game’s growth, expansion and innovation, this enduring reality might be its most endearing quality.