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ALEX SPEIER

Having a starter surpass 200 innings is not necessarily a good thing

jim davis/globe staff file

Chris Sale didn’t have a lot left in the tank for the playoffs last year.

By Globe Staff 

Chris Sale has a vision for the Red Sox’ rotation in 2018.

“I think it would be awesome to have five guys in the same rotation throw 200 innings in the same year,” said the ace lefthander. “I think that would be huge. That’s what our job is as starters, taking up the bulk of the game, eating up innings, and throwing quality innings.”

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Setting aside the fact that having five starters throw 200 innings each will be all but impossible with Steven Wright and Eduardo Rodriguez on the disabled list to open the year, it’s worth asking: Is the job of a starter to throw 200 innings?

That once was a gold standard for pitchers. But increasingly, by design, it’s no longer an expectation, or even in some cases a desired goal.

In 1998, the year that baseball expanded to 30 teams, there were 56 pitchers who reached 200 innings, an average of nearly two per team. Ten clubs — or one-third of all teams — received at least 1,000 innings of work from their rotations.

That has changed in dramatic fashion. In both 2016 and 2017, there were just 15 pitchers who reached 200 innings — easily the fewest in any non-strike year in major league history. And for the second straight season, no team in 2017 received 1,000 innings from its rotation.

Since 1998, the number of 200-inning starters has dropped by 73 percent. Just three teams — the Red Sox (Sale, Rick Porcello), Nationals (Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez), and Indians (Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco) — had multiple pitchers hit the milestone last year.

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In other words, what was standard fare in 1998 has become an extreme outlier.

There were roughly as many pitchers with 162 innings in 2017 (58) as there were 200-inning throwers in 1998. Given that sea change, the idea of a rotation with five 200-inning contributors represents either a historical relic or sci-fi fantasy.

The last team to feature five 200-inning pitchers was the 1980 Athletics. Matt Keough, Brian Kingman, Rick Langford, Steve McCatty, and Mike Norris — all between the ages of 24 and 28 — each took the ball 30-plus times, often finishing what they started. As a group, that quintet produced just two more seasons of 200 innings in their careers.

This century, there have been six teams with four 200-inning contributors, most recently the 2012 Reds (Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos). The 2018 Red Sox seem an unlikely group to join them.

The Sox do have Sale (three straight 200-inning seasons, four in his career), Porcello (two straight, three for his career), and David Price (six career). But under manager Alex Cora and pitching coach Dana LeVangie this spring, the Sox have outlined a consistent marathon-not-sprint vision for the coming season.

Sale has acknowledged on a number of occasions that he came out of the gates too aggressively last year, trying to impress in his new environment. At the end of his season, he was running on fumes, resulting in inconsistency over the final two months and postseason.

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Price led the majors in innings (230) in 2016, but like Sale, he seemed to have a near-empty tank by the end of his first season with the Red Sox. Given that past and the elbow injury from which he’s returning, it seems unlikely that he’ll reach the same volume of innings that he did two seasons ago.

Drew Pomeranz has been cleared to resume throwing after forearm discomfort led to a curtailed start Friday, but in some ways, Pomeranz offers some indication of why a rotation filled with nothing but 200-inning pitchers is unfathomable in the current game.

In a terrific 2017 season, Pomeranz recorded just 13 outs after the sixth inning. He was pulled before working through a lineup for a fourth time in all but four of his outings.

Pomeranz is a reflection of the growing acceptance in the game of the “times through the order” penalty, in which a pitcher’s effectiveness is expected to decline with each subsequent tour of a batting order.

Across the majors, hitters posted a .731 OPS against starters in their first time through a lineup, a .779 OPS in their second time, and an .801 mark in their third time. Meanwhile, relievers held opponents to a .720 OPS in their first time through a lineup. As a group, starters had a 4.49 ERA last year, while relievers had a 4.15 mark.

Bullpens now are armed with wave after wave of power arms ready to unleash comets in the middle and late innings. For teams with capable late-innings groups, the likelihood of stifling opponents and preserving leads goes up when pivoting from a starter whose effectiveness is declining to a reliever who need not hold back.

Those trends help to explain why, in 2017, roughly 10 percent of starts ended before a pitcher faced an opposing lineup for a third time and nearly 80 percent of starts concluded before a fourth time. Bullpens have become too good to ask all but the most elite starters to absorb the workload that would get them to 200 innings. As a result, rotations accounted for just 61.9 percent of innings last year — their smallest slice of the pie in big league history.

Moreover, the demands on pitchers in October have also changed radically in the last quarter-century. The introduction of a third round of playoffs in 1995 (and a fourth with the wild-card game in 2012) has reshaped postseason workloads.

There have been 25 pitchers in big league history who logged 35 or more innings in a single postseason; 18 of those have come since the introduction of the Division Series in 1995. Given those October workloads, teams have wanted their pitchers to keep more in the tank through the end of the regular season.

Aside from Justin Verlander, who worked 206 innings between the Tigers and Astros, last year’s championship Houston team didn’t have a pitcher who qualified for the ERA title. Charlie Morton, whom Cora has identified as Houston’s most dominant pitcher at the end of last year, worked 146 innings in 26 regular-season starts.

In 2016, a championship Cubs team that had five healthy starters all season was led in regular-season innings by Jon Lester (202). He was Chicago’s only pitcher to surpass 200 innings.

In 2015, the Royals were led in innings by Edinson Volquez (201), though midyear pickup Johnny Cueto had 212 innings between Cincinnati and Kansas City.

For recent championship teams that have wanted their starters to be fresh at the end of the year, 200 innings has more often seemed a cap than a baseline. As much as the Red Sox and other teams surely love to hear pitchers aspire to such a workload, the likelihood is that they have little desire to see them fulfill such visions.


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com
Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.