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Mudville: May 25, 2024 4:46 am PDT

Running of the Bullpens

While our very own Rocco Constantino was off running with the bulls in Spain, the game of baseball fed us yet another full steaming plate of its very own version of bull. We will call it Running with the Bullpens. Before you tell me to take my version of baseball and go directly to the retirement home, let’s talk this out just for a minute.

It seems like a nightly ritual where a team on the back end of a blowout loss is trotting a position player out to the mound for mop up duty and I’m not referring to Ohtani-san.  The Yankees faced two position players in a four-day span in Cleveland then in Pittsburgh. Runs get added on, the game gets even longer and players get to pad their stats. I’m not sure this situation fits into the dialogue around pace of play by any stretch. The bigger issue is how did we get here and why are we stuck here?

As of July 12, there have been 23 position players used as pitchers in MLB games.  That puts the league on pace for 79 – which would be down 16 from 2021 – but we all know it will get worse before it gets better – because that’s the way the game is trending. The Giants’ Luis Gonzalez and the Pirates’ Josh Van Meter both have toed the rubber 3 times already this season. Albert Pujols and Yadi Molina both have had a chance to save the Cardinals pitching staff from overuse. The Rays’ Brett Phillips gives us a Mark “The Bird” Fidrych type show when he’s on the mound.  Why wouldn’t we root for this to happen every game?

Throughout Covid and in the new normal Post Pandemic world of MLB, the league has allowed for roster expansion and most teams carry a staff of 13 pitchers. The Universal DH has given National League teams the opportunity to shorten their position bench as the need to pinch hit for the pitcher’s spot has gone quietly into the night like a 2:46 nine inning game. If a team is carrying 13 pitchers, why is there a need to make a call to Shortstop so Andrelton Simmons can finish out the 9th inning?  Is David Ross saving Rowan Wick for tomorrows’ blow out loss?

Maybe it’s me wanting things the way the used to be and simply rejecting the analytics or the way pitchers are treated today, but if you turn back the clock to a time not so long ago you would see how we might have gotten to this place. Forget the number of teams as an excuse for watered down pitching because the last expansion was in 1998 and that is plenty of time for that correction to have happened.  There is plenty of blame to go around and sadly, some of starts with youth baseball but inevitably in is drowning in analytics.

The number of games kids are playing as young as 10, and the competitive nature of those games, lends itself to kids both pitching too much and more importantly, not learning how to pitch period.  In a time far, far ago kids didn’t specialize in a single sport that was played year-round. They played baseball in the spring and summer then moved on to something else in fall and winter.  They often didn’t pick up a ball until the winter sport season ended so the wear and tear on a developing body was minimized.  Now add the focus on throwing as hard as humanly possible for as long as you can possibly do so – instead of learning to command the strike zone and you can see why Tommy John surgeries have become as routine as getting your teeth cleaned.

ST. LOUIS, MO - MAY 15: Albert Pujols #5 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches during the ninth inning against the San Francisco Giants at Busch Stadium on May 15, 2022 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images)

Now we play that forward and we cram the nerd world into pitching.  I’m not suggesting we have starters throwing 225 pitches but this 100-pitch “hard stop” and micro focus on the third time through the lineup has turned the four-man rotation into, in some cases, a six-man rotation. That six-man rotation leaves seven in the bullpen and depending on how short the outing by starters were the previous two days, a 3 inning start will have Randall Grichuk warming up to pitch the 9th.  Are they going to shorten the definition of a quality start to 100 pitches?  (Bob Gibson just threw a lighting bolt at me for even suggesting this.)

I know, before you tell me I’m the problem because I won’t just accept that’s the way it is in the game now, hear me out just a little bit longer.  Everything that BallNine stands for is about the lost game of baseball that we grew up with. We know we can’t have it all, but we also know that kids aren’t embracing the game the way we did either. I’ll grind through an Aaron Hicks homer off of Josh Van Meter, but my kids certainly will not.  MLB, to give them a sliver of credit, knows it has a pace of play issue as a 3:05 average game time doesn’t help to hold the attention of young fans very well.  Does Frankie Schwindel throwing 54 mph make the inning go quicker?

So, let’s go back to the makeup of today’s pitchers.  We can discuss and debate the death of the complete game forever. We can talk about throwing versus pitching as the root cause of the 100-pitch count magic number, but that horse has been beaten into submission.  As it pertains to the need to have Hanser Alberto toss an inning for the Dodgers, let’s look right at the bullpen. I remember being at a game in Three Rivers Stadium as the Pirates hosted the Astros and Billy Wagner threw a pitch that registered at 100.2 mph. The place went crazy!

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 17: Hanser Alberto #17 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches during the ninth inning in game two of a doubleheader against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium on May 17, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

Now, nearly every arm in every MLB Bullpen is topping out at at least 95 mph. They can give you maybe an inning every other day and the inning has somewhere between 10 and 45 pitches. Throw as hard as you can for as long as you can.  Not pitch.  Throw. Now you’ve got a six-man rotation with a bullpen that is available every other day and it’s starting to make sense why Jackie Bradley gets to show that he can pitch at 90 mph doesn’t it?

I feel like I just talked myself into liking Chris Owings and his 9.00 ERA. To be clear, it’s a joke. It’s a slap in the face of the game and its fans but like most other things in the game, there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it. Instead, we do what we do.  We keep watching and wishing for changes to bring the game back to the fans. Changes that will get kids to fall in love with baseball and carry that love affair throughout their lives. Changes that will encourage them to pass that love affair down to their own children and grandchildren.  At the end of the day, it’s not about how we hate today’s game, it’s about how much we love it and want it to be better to us.

That’s it for now. Enjoy the All-Star game. I’ve got to finish my strongly worded letter to Rob Manfred about why every team didn’t play on July 4th.

Mike Nelson is a Director of Sales by day but at night is a boomer baseball ranter who assumes the persona of Joe Blow from Mudville. His biggest baseball claim to fame was hitting for a double cycle in a sandlot game. Dick Allen was mean to him when he was 12 years old

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