We are about halfway to the All-Star break in the 2019 season and some baseball has happened. I sat here looking for a way to start this thing and that’s the best I can do.
Feel free to skip it. I’m not sure it is going to get any better.
It is a strange point in the season for Takes. We don’t know enough to say we know much, but there are a few things we can say that are approaching the point at which we can say them. Tomorrow the Reds will play the Cubs in their 50th game of the season (though not against one another). So we have enough of the season under our belts that we can say something things about new Reds’ manager David Bell. He has regularly penciled in Joey Votto to the lead-off or second slot in the lineup, which would be a smart thing if Joey was hitting anything at all. He seems to have a predilection towards knifey/spoonerisms with his bullpen, which is kind of not dumb given the number of arms he has at his disposal but also kind of actual dumb because there isn’t a man nor beast in this life or the next who could hit Amir Garrett’s slider regardless of handedness. But what about how he is managing his staring rotation?
The other day, Tanner Roark got a bit grouchy when Bell relieved him after just five innings and 88 pitches. Bell responded by saying something like “yeah I’d be grouchy, too,” which is low-key tons of fun. But Roark had given up only two hits and showed zero signs of strain or fatigue. It’s not a surprise then that Bell has cultivated a bit of a reputation as a hookmeister, which is something I just made up to describe a manager who isn’t shy about going to his bullpen.
But is this warranted? How does Bell compare to his contemporaries in this regard? I browsed around over at Baseball-Reference for a while and noticed some interesting stuff. The first is that there isn’t a single team in the National League averaging better than six innings per start from their respective rotation. The Nationals and Dodgers lead the league, getting just 5.8 innings per start. The Nationals, of course, employ the chimera blood volcano Max Scherzer (along with classic workhorse starters Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin). And the Dodgers’ numbers are buoyed by the incredible performance of Hyun-Jin Ryu, who has topped seven complete innings in his last five starts (and given up just three runs in that stretch yahoowa).
But where do the Reds rank? Bell is getting 5.3 innings on average from his starters. League average right now is just 5.4. Even more important is the number of pitches a starter throws at a time. The Reds average 89 pitches per start, which again is right around the league average (which is 90). So is David Bell uniquely impatient with his starters? Not at all.
But I think this reveals something bigger about the evolution of Major League Baseball and how the game is managed. Pitchers just don’t throw like they used to, huh? Just ten years ago in 2009, starters averaged 5.8 innings and 95 pitches. In 1999, it was six innings and 96 pitches. In 1989, 6.2 innings and 95 pitches.
It turns out, pitchers aren’t throwing dramatically fewer pitches per start than they used to. But it sure as hell seems like they are because they aren’t lasting nearly as long as they used to. While they are throwing just 4% fewer pitches, they are tallying about 10% fewer outs. Now that is interesting.
Starters aren’t throwing less overall as much as they are throwing more pitches to each hitter they face. And this has a lot more to do with pitching and hitting philosophies than it does managerial philosophy.
Hitters are being more aggressive at the plate, trying to hit for more power. The average slugging percentage this season is .419. In 1989 it was was just .375. Of course, this aggressive approach also produces more strikeouts, as hitters are less inclined to choke up and try to put the ball in play when they are down in the count. Strikeouts are around 8.9 per nine innings in 2019, when they were just 5.6 in 1989. 2019 hitters are seeing 3.93 pitches per plate appearance while in 1989 that number was 3.61. It just takes more pitches to retire a hitter on strikes than it does to get them to ground out to the second baseman.
So summing it all up, David Bell really isn’t managing any differently than his contemporaries. And even more surprisingly, he isn’t managing much differently from his predecessors. Pitchers of the good ol’ days didn’t really throw many more pitches per outing than they do today (though they did make more starts because they used to run four-man rotations rather than five). The difference is in how hitters approach their at bats, which in turn affects how pitchers throw to them. Which in turn affects how managers deploy them.