What happened to starting pitchers? They don’t make ‘em like they used to

Royals pitcher Jakob Junis leads the KC staff in innings pitched this season.
Royals pitcher Jakob Junis leads the KC staff in innings pitched this season.

St. Louis Cardinals great Bob Gibson threw 28 complete games in 1968 but did not lead the National League that year because the San Francisco Giants’ Juan Marichal threw 30.

In 2017, Max Scherzer, Clayton Richard, Ivan Nova and Carlos Martinez tied for most complete games in the National League: two.

In 2001, 44 big-league pitchers threw 200 innings or more; in 2017 there were 15.

In 2002, 58 pitchers threw 3,000 pitches or more; last season it was 33.

Starting pitchers today are throwing fewer pitches, fewer innings and fewer complete games. There are several reasons at play.

Better bullpens

A true Number-One-Top-Of-The-Line starting pitcher is a guy who goes out every fifth day and gives his team a great chance to win. He stops losing streaks, and because he pitches deep into the game, he rests the bullpen and gives his team a great chance to win the next day as well.

Royals manager Ned Yost says there just aren’t enough pitchers like that to go around.

So more teams are trying to do what the Royals did in 2014 and 2015: make up for what their starting pitchers lack with a terrific bullpen. Yost says the game has changed, and if you have a good bullpen, you go to it sooner.

But if a manager does that, his bullpen better be deep; pull the starter too soon and hitters might get to face a so-so middle reliever.

That’s why lots of teams have trouble negotiating the middle innings. They have to let hitters get an extra at bat against their starting pitcher or bring in a middle reliever who wasn’t good enough to be a starter or a set-up man or closer.

Kansas City Royals pitcher Brad Keller has been having a good rookie season, and teammates like playing behind him. Keller got another win on Tuesday September 11, 2018 as the Royals won 6-3 against the Chicago White Sox at Kauffman Stadium.

If a manager pulls the starter early, does he have enough quality relievers to cover the middle innings and get the ball to the back end of his bullpen?

At the time this was written, half the teams in the big leagues had a bullpen with a collective ERA over 4.00, so it looks like there aren’t enough great relievers to go around, either.

As Yost said, starters who can pitch effectively deep into games are hard to find. But are those starters hard to find because today’s pitchers lack that kind of talent, or because today’s teams no longer allow that kind of talent to develop?

Radar guns and pitch counts

Former Royals pitcher Chris Young once said he wished they’d take radar gun readings and pitch counts off the scoreboard.

If a pitcher was getting people out, Young wondered why it mattered that he was doing it with an 88 mph fastball. If a pitcher was throwing well and felt strong, Young wondered why he should come out of the game just because his pitch count was at 100.

Young said radar guns and pitch counts were for people who didn’t understand what they were seeing. A knowledgeable observer should be able to see if hitters are late on the fastball or the pitcher is starting to tire.

But following certain standards can cover your rear end.

Teams protect young pitchers’ arms by setting limits on how many pitches and innings a minor-league prospect is allowed to throw; nobody wants a valuable arm to get hurt on their watch.

After the Kansas City Royals won Tuesday's September 11, 2018 baseball game against the Chicago White Sox, Fox Sports Midwest reporter Erica Weston ended up on the target of Salvador Perez's Salvy Splash at Kauffman Stadium.

But that means young pitchers might not have the opportunity to learn how to get through a batting order three and four times.

Royals pitching coach Cal Eldred talks about the old-school pitching approach of going as far as you can on your fastball.

If a pitcher can get through the order once on nothing but heaters, the second and third time through the order he still has pitches the hitters haven’t seen. But to do that, a pitcher needs to locate his fastball, throw two-seamers and four-seamers and add and subtract velocity … he has to pitch, not throw.

If a young pitcher knows he’s on a pitch count and won’t be expected to face a lineup three or four times, he might be inclined to throw all his pitches right away, and throw his fastball as hard as he can.

He shows everything he has and leaves nothing in reserve.

And if a pitcher looks up and realizes he has 18 pitches to go, he might decide to really cut it loose ... and cutting it loose when you’re already tired is a good way to get hurt.

Some people have speculated that if they took the radar gun readings off the scoreboard, pitchers who can throw 95 mph might be comfortable working in the low 90s and there would be fewer arm injuries.

Other people have wondered what would happen if starting pitchers were expected to throw more pitches.

If pitch counts were higher, starting pitchers would have to quit throwing every pitch as hard as they can. They’d have to stop trying to strike out every hitter they face and learn to manipulate the ball and pitch to contact.

More balls would be put in play and the game — which currently resembles a home run derby punctuated by strikeouts — would become more entertaining. And fans wouldn’t have to sit through five pitching changes.

Then and now

Hitters tend to do better against pitchers the more often they see them, so if a pitcher has a history of trouble getting through an order three times, some people like the idea of yanking the starter early and forcing hitters to face a series of relievers one time apiece.

But there are a couple problems with that approach.

Pitchers do not have their best stuff every time out and if you go to the bullpen often enough, you might find a pitcher who doesn’t have it that night.

And a starter might have to get the same hitter out three times in a game, but a reliever might have to get the same hitter out three times in a series. If a team sees the same reliever often enough, the reliever might not be as effective.

Royals outfielder Alex Gordon said he’d rather face a starter three times than face a starter twice and then see a reliever. But then Gordon laughed and said, “Unless the starter’s Chris Sale.”

There’s a tendency to act as if what’s true on average is true all the time, but .300 hitters don’t hit .300 every night. And a starting pitcher who has a history of scuffling when going through a batting order three times might not be scuffling tonight.

As Chris Young pointed out, pay attention to what’s right in front of you.

If the starting pitcher is dealing and feels good, there are people in the game who think you ought to let him keep pitching. What’s happened in the past is a guideline — pay attention to what’s happening right now. Don’t follow a prearranged plan just because certain numbers have been reached.

The game may have changed, but a starting pitcher who can throw 200 innings and complete games is still a valuable commodity.

And we won’t find out who can do that if we don’t let them try.