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## More on pitchers used per game

Posted by Andy on August 16, 2007

So previously we looked at the number of pitchers used in wins vs losses in 2006. Here, we look at something slightly different. This graph shows the average number of pitchers used (in any game, not specifically wins or losses) in 2006, vs several decades earlier. Here, the trends moving away from complete games are alarmingly apparent:

Note that I used curved lines on the graph to make it easier to read, but realize that only the actual data points are meaningful.

You can see that in 2006, almost 4 pitchers are used per team, per game. In 1996, the average was a little over 3. As recently as 1986, it was most common to use 3 pitchers, and the average was even less than 3.

Interestingly, if you compare 1966 vs 1976, you can see that use of 1 or 2 pitchers in a game was actually more common in 1976 than it was in 1966.

This is clearer from the plot below:

Here you can see that 1976 actually saw fewer average pitchers used per game than 1966 or 1986. Since 1986, the number of pitchers has been increasing pretty linearly. Of course, this can't continue. In 1986, most every team carried 9 or 10 pitchers per staff. By 1996, most teams had 11, and these days all teams have 12 or 13. But, it can't go much higher than that, unless teams are willing to give up one of just 3 or 4 bench player positions.

It would be interesting to look at the average number of pitchers used per game normalized to the average number of pitchers per roster. I am guessing that the rate is pretty constant since 1966.

### 3 Responses to “More on pitchers used per game”

1. bdhumbert Says:

What mystifies me is why some manager has not said
if we are going to go with more pitchers a game
then we need to think about how to go back to a
four man rotation - limiting starters to 90 to
100 pitchers and freeing up the fifth starter to
pitch long relief - also a lost art...

bruce

2. blackStar Says:

This trend toward using a battalion of pitchers each game disturbs me a lot more than the 'steroids era' stuff, since in my own cynical view the use of steroids in professional sports demonstrates the effects of advances in technology on sports (and sports governing bodies subsequent need to keep abreast of the modern technologies which may enhance players' performances), ie, the steroids era exists because baseball never bothered to test for it, and since the pros of using steroids seemingly outweigh the cons (at least if you're not being tested), eventually use reaches a critical mass through its spread by word-of-mouth and its (seeming) near-ubiquity.

It's not like I'm a fan of steroid use--I just don't think of it as some horrific breach in trust. More like something that was pretty much inevitable given the conditions.

However, the pitching trends... I don't think they were inevitable, although I suppose one could make a very strong case about the negative effects of the 'steroid era' on pitching (even if some believe pitchers were as likely to use as position players). Your data, however, tends to support the idea that the trend toward using more and more pitchers was increasing linearly prior to and during the steroids era, so I'll attribute these pitching trends to the increased specialization of modern pitchers.

Specialization makes for poor pitchers, in my opinion. You train a guy to pitch 100 pitches or 6 innings and that's pretty much all he is worth to you. I remember a time when (and I'm not that old--first WS was '87) a reliever was often a failed starter. Now you have your long relievers and your middle relievers and your setup men and your closers and your left-handed specialists and in the end I feel like I'm watching a couple extra roster spots wasted on a reliever corps whose collective talents should be existent with a quarter less personnel. Starters who get credited for a 'quality start' by the broadcast team because they pitched 2/3rds of a game, starters who turn it over to the bullpen near the end of a game in which they were commanding and dominant because it is hot that day, or because they already threw their allotted number of pitches. That stuff--along with the ever present reminder of a guy's pitch count--really bugs me.

You know, I'm really new to the Stat of the Day site and new to extensive statistical analysis of baseball in general, so if data out there exists to show unanimous support for such specialization, I haven't seen it. And even if I did see statistics to support the idea of using 4 pitchers to win a game, I'm not sure I'd put much stock in it, because many of the pitchers in the bigs now have been trained to be of limited use, and thus can be expected to perform as poorly in the rare case that their use is extended because they have no experience or confidence in their ability to continue beyond that stated limit.

And that's the heart of the matter right there. In the modern era, a pitcher, no matter how talented, is of limited use. There are no workhorses, no guys who go out there and finish what they start. There's just the five guys who have slightly better stuff or stamina than the other seven guys. The five guys who can give you 100 pitches every five days and the seven guys who are good for 10 pitches 3 times a week.

I really don't want to be watching baseball a few years from now and find that you have your five-inning starter followed by your two-inning bridgeman (or, if you don't have as 'robust' a bullpen as other teams, two one-inning bridgemen), followed by your setup man, followed by your closer. I mean, okay, that already happens a lot. But I don't want that to be the 'conventional wisdom'. Ever. Please.

3. Andy Says:

Whoa, blackStar, we seemed to have touched a nerve with you!

I agree with your sentiments. Certainly I agree that the majority of the fault for the steroid/PED issue lies with MLB's governance itself (although one cannot ignore that the players themselves may have been breaking federal substance control laws.)

Regarding specialization of pitchers, I think there are two things at work here. The first is that as late as the 50s and 60s, workhorse pitchers were experiencing serious injuries that either cut short their careers or caused them pain or limited motion later in life. Because of unions and our legal systems, teams can no longer put pitchers in a situation where they have a good chance of long-term (i.e. permanent) injury, which is probably the main reason why workhorses no longer exist. Then, second, we are in the middle of a cycle leaning towards pitching specialization. Bill James has pointed out these very long cycles that have existed before. My guess is that eventually some teams will find a stable scenario with starters, multiple-inning relievers, and a closer, and a bench that once again contains 5-6 guys instead of 3 or 4. Keep in mind that when pitchers formed just 9 or 10 of the players on the roster, that roster also usually contained 1 or 2 poor-hitting middle infielders, possibly an outfielder who was used primarily as a pinch-runner, and possibly a 3rd catcher. Are those players more valuable to the game than specialized pitchers? It's not clear to me that either case is better, we just seem to be in a swing toward one extreme.

No joke--I personally feel that developing relievers who can play the outfield is the answer. Lots of players, such as Pat Burrell and Alfonso Soriano, have learned to play the outfield with little training. Taking a reliever out and putting him in RL or LF so that you can bring him back to face future batters makes a lot of sense to me, as long as his defensive liability is no larger in magnitude than the leeway gained from the extra roster spot. Seems to me that this is truly a smart way to go.

I'll tell you what about pitching specialization really bothers me...the lack of game flow and the overall clock length of games. It used to be that pitching changes in the middle of an inning were fairly rare. Now they are commonplace. Virtually every exciting moment in a game these days is guaranteed to be delayed by a commercial break. Watching a close game is excruciating with all the commercials, and the fact that the game is guaranteed to take 3.5 hrs or more. I find that I no longer have the patience I used to have to watch a game on TV, and now I almost exclusively listen on the radio so that I can be doing some other work at the same time. I pause when something actually happens in the game, but otherwise I remain productive during all the breaks. Today, I barely recognize the faces of players because I almost never watch on TV and don't collect baseball cards any more. Is THIS really what MLB wants? I doubt it..it's just another case of greed. More commercial breaks is more revenue for them, and they are so fat on greed already that the idea of shortening games and losing a bit of that revenue is too painful to them. Of course--what do I know--with attendance at an all-time high, my opinions cannot be too prevalent.