David Price was one of the best pitchers in the majors last year in high-leverage situations. Opponents hit just .169/.219/.225 against him in the situations where the game’s outcome faced the biggest swings – great numbers, all.
But even though Price ranked third in the American League in innings (220 1/3), he didn’t pitch in the most high-leverage situations. Price faced batters in 159 situations characterized as “high leverage” by Baseball-Reference.com, 16 fewer than the A.L. leader: Yankees reliever Dellin Betances.
The most pivotal situations in games – the single at-bats that have the greatest potential to swing a game from a win to a loss – tend to occur in the late innings, a fact increasingly reflected in how teams are constructing their rosters. It’s no longer enough to have two or even three standout late-innings options. Clubs are increasingly trying to identify four or more options with late-innings wipeout stuff, at a time when the widespread increase in power arms is permitting teams to roll out one strikeout arm after another.
In recent years, the Royals and Orioles offered small-market templates of success for building pitching staffs from the back end (where the lion’s share of high-leverage situations are found) to the front with waves of power arms. Now the big-market teams have gotten into the game.
The Yankees did so last year by adding lefthanders Andrew Miller and Justin Wilson to overpowering righthander Dellin Betances. This week, the Yankees acquired Aroldis Chapman as a complement to Miller and Betances (after dealing Wilson to the Tigers earlier in the winter). The Red Sox added a pair of top relief righthanders in Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith to give them options well beyond Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa, the only two bullpen options who offered the team any kind of sustained success last year. As Peter Abraham writes, the Sox feature a radically different look in the late innings now than they did in 2015.
Of course, one can make the case that the stockpiling of an incredible wealth of dominant relievers is akin to the amassing of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons during the Cold War: What’s the point of having enough weapons to destroy the world several times over? Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal examines a world in which teams are building bullpens where there might not be enough high-leverage situations to distribute among the high-leverage relievers. He writes:
“Injury concerns aside, it only makes sense for a team to invest in enough elite relievers to ensure a middling arm isn’t thrust unnecessarily into a high-leverage situation — as happened far too often to the Red Sox last season.”
Of course, it’s impossible to set aside the aforementioned injury concerns, and so the idea of creating layers of high-leverage reinforcements to prevent strength from becoming vulnerability seems significant. Last year, after all, the Royals were able to withstand the loss of closer Greg Holland in no small part because they had built in depth with the addition of Ryan Madson to the Holland-Wade Davis-Kelvin Herrera grouping.
For years, baseball has embraced the idea that starters are by nature more valuable than relievers because a member of a rotation can deliver more than three times the innings load of a bullpen contributor. And that perspective makes all the sense in the world: 75 pitchers last year posted an ERA of 3.00 or lower, but just 12 of those (16 percent) logged enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. There’s a profound scarcity of pitchers who can perform at an elite level as starters, with more than five times more pitchers capable of achieving that sub-3.00 ERA marker of excellence in lesser workloads.
But given the leverage – and thus significance – of those late-innings opportunities, the game is amidst a fascinating reassessment of values, with teams attempting to capitalize on the relative wealth of excellent late-innings options to create a sort of Franken-Cy – multiple pitchers who, collectively, can deliver the kind of workload handled by Price while being used in even higher-leverage situations.
There are all kinds of implications that are already changing the game: How relievers are managed, how they are valued in trades and free agency, how they are developed in the minors, how rosters are constructed to maximize the impact of elite bullpen arms, how rules and strategies may evolve to reflect the growing role (and the seemingly constant waits for a reliever’s entry into the game – bring back the bullpen cart!) . . .
Ultimately, on the cusp of 2016, baseball is amidst something of a reliever revolution that is still in progress, with uncertain final dimensions.