HOUSTON — The Red Sox used to prepare for extra fans to jam into Fenway Park on the days Pedro Martinez pitched. His starts were civic holidays, a day to drop everything and go to the game.
Now most starting pitchers are asked to get two times through a batting order and hand it off to the bullpen. Get into the sixth inning and everybody in the dugout pats you on the back.
Successful teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays regularly use “openers” for an inning or two because it’s cheaper, easier, and more effective than building a five-man rotation.
Even the Yankees, a team with unlimited resources, used an opener 20 times during the regular season and once in the playoffs.
The number of innings thrown by starting pitchers has decreased steadily five seasons in a row. Over the same number of games, starters worked 3,834⅓ fewer innings this season than they did in 2014.
Twenty victories, once a magic number for starters, is more like a lotto number now. It’s happened only four times in the last three seasons.
The two starters who won 20 games in 2018, Corey Kluber of the Indians and Blake Snell of the Rays, spent long stretches on the injured list this season.
“We’re a dying breed,” said Justin Verlander, who had 34 starts, 223 innings, 300 strikeouts, and 21 victories this season. “The game has changed around us.”
That makes this World Series a throwback, a rare string of games where the pitching matchups are something to look forward to, not dread.
When the Houston Astros host the Washington Nationals in Game 1 on Tuesday night, they’ll have Gerrit Cole on the mound against Max Scherzer.
Verlander is scheduled for Game 2 against Stephen Strasburg. Zack Greinke is the Game 3 starter for Houston, likely against Patrick Corbin.
Five of those six pitchers were in the top 10 in pitcher bWAR this season with Greinke 14th. All but Scherzer, who missed six starts with injuries, were in the top 14 for innings.
“Starting pitching is always a premium,” Strasburg said. “It costs a lot of money to get that in free agency and it’s hard to grow it in-house. Both of our organizations have obviously put together strong rotations.
“As a pitcher myself, I think it’s great to watch.”
In terms of starting pitching talent, this is the best World Series since 2001, when the Arizona Diamondbacks started Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in five of the seven games to beat the Yankees’ trio of Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, and Andy Pettitte.
Cole, who was 20-5 with a 2.50 earned run average this season, was happy to see the Nationals advance because he relishes the matchups.
“I personally am a big fan of starting pitching. I grew up wanting to become a starting pitcher and I’m a starting pitcher now,” he said. “There are a lot of really good starting pitchers on the other side of the field, guys that kind of emulate the role in terms of longevity, durability, creativeness, tenacity, grit. And so just a pleasure to share the field with them on the greatest stage at this point.”
The Red Sox won the World Series last season by relying on their rotation and using David Price and Chris Sale in relief between their starts.
That’s in play again, Nationals manager Dave Martinez hinting Monday that Corbin could pitch in relief as soon as Tuesday if needed.
“If there’s a situation that we feel like a starter could benefit us capitalizing and winning a game, then so be it,” Martinez said.
Inevitably, the Series will turn on how the respective rotations handle the number of innings both mangers need from them. Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Anthony Rendon, and Juan Soto are superstar hitters, but this is a World Series centered on the aces.
“You’ve got to beat their starters. If you want to do well against the Nats, you’ve got to beat their starters, and then make them make decisions as the game goes on,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said.
“If you sit back and kind of wait for the bullpen or wait for them to make a decision, you’ll look at Strasburg and Scherzer throwing 120, 130 pitches and you’ll be too deep in the game to make up a difference. Those guys getting 21, 24, 27 outs is a real possibility for them. And that makes it tough either way.”
It’s tempting to say that other teams will attempt to copy what the Astros and Nationals did and build strong rotations instead of using a piecemeal approach to pitching.
But that’s unlikely. Cole will be an in-demand free agent after the Series and Strasburg can opt out of his deal. But the rest of the free agent market thins out quickly after that with Madison Bumgarner, Dallas Keuchel, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Zack Wheeler at the second level.
“Every team would love a guy who can make every start and pitch 200 innings. But there just aren’t a lot of guys who can do it,” Corbin said. “That’s why we’re here and why the Astros are here. We had the starters.”
Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.