Whenever I hear some literary type go on and on about the timeless, unchanging game of baseball, I think: “Now there’s a guy who doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.”
The game has always been changing and always will.
For example: According to Royals base-running coach Rusty Kuntz, when guys were stealing 100 bases a season, lots of pitchers were taking 1.7 to 1.8 seconds to deliver a pitch to home plate.
Then someone came up with a slide-step delivery and pitchers started getting the ball to the plate in 1.3 seconds or less and it got quite a bit harder to steal 100 bases a season.
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Build a better mousetrap and someone will build a better mouse.
Well, guess which team is changing the way you build a pitching staff. That’s right, it’s your Kansas City Royals.
Royals coach Jason Kendall once told me that the two hardest innings in baseball are the sixth and the seventh. Here’s why:
Most teams have at least two dominant relievers, the eighth inning set-up man and the ninth-inning closer. So if the other team’s offense can get the starting pitcher out of the game after five innings, it exposes the weaker part of most pitching staff: the middle relievers — the guys who pitch in the sixth and seventh innings.
So that’s been the offensive game plan for a quite a while: hitters took pitches to get the starter’s pitch count up and tried to get him pulled from the game before the other manager could hand a lead to his eighth-inning set-up man.
When Seattle Mariners bench coach Tim Bogar was with the Boston Red Sox he told me the Sox didn’t care what the score was as long as they could get the starter out of the game after five innings. That would allow the Red Sox a shot at the middle relievers and they were happy to take their chances.
And since middle relief is often a weakness, teams are willing to pay a boatload of money to starting pitchers capable of throwing seven innings and negotiating a hitting lineup three or four times. A dominant starter — a guy who can go deep in a game — helps a team avoid those middle relievers.
But what if you have three relievers with closer-quality stuff?
Remember H-D-H? Now you only need six innings from your starter before you reach the backend of your bullpen.
And what if you have four relievers with closer-quality stuff? Now getting the starting pitcher out of the game early isn’t such a great plan. You’re jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
The Royals won 11 games in the 2015 post-season. In six of those games the losing pitcher on the other team was a reliever. Because they had so many quality relievers, the Royals had an advantage when the game went to the bullpens — the games shifted in their favor.
The Royals didn’t need their starter to be Cy Young, they just needed him to keep the score close and get the ball to those quality relievers. Those relievers would hold the fort and give the offense a chance.
So Ned Yost didn’t have to send a starting pitcher — running on fumes — out there to try to eke out one more inning (although he still did it more often than seemed necessary). These days, if Ned’s got rested relievers, going to the bullpen early isn’t a weakness; it’s a strength.
On Friday at the Royals FanFest, both Ned Yost and pitching coach Dave Eiland talked about the Royals pitching staff and how it’s been built. The Royals knew they couldn’t afford top-of-the-line free agent starting pitchers like Zack Greinke or Johnny Cueto, so they invested in relievers.
Both Ned and Dave talked about other teams trying to emulate what the Royals have done ... those teams are stocking up on relievers in an attempt to duplicate the Royals’ success.
Dave also talked about how you create a dominant reliever out of struggling starter: take a starter with good stuff, put him in the pen and he goes from throwing 100 pitches a game to 15.
Now the pitcher’s fastball is better because he doesn’t have to pace himself. He can also ditch his third or fourth-best pitch because he doesn’t need it. And now he doesn’t have to worry about getting the same guy out three times.
A guy who was so-so as a starter can become a beast as a reliever.
As Danny Duffy says, being in the pen allows him to “empty out the tank.” (And don’t be overly surprised if Duffy becomes one of those starters who turn into a killer reliever.)
Managers used to say their team would go as far as their starting pitching would take them. Instead of building a pitching staff from front-to-back the Royals have built a pitching staff from back-to-front and now other teams want to do the same thing.
The game has always been changing and always will, and right now the Kansas City Royals are the team that’s changing it.