I know it’s Sunday morning, and if you’re anything like me (God help you if you are) you’re currently hooked up to a Folgers IV in an attempt to wake up. Nevertheless, we’re going to start the day with some simple arithmetic. (Trust me: This is harder on me than it is on you.)
And away we go…
Let’s say a starting pitcher is going to throw about 100 pitches. If 15 pitches per inning is about average – and I’ve been told it is – after seven innings the starter’s pitch count would be 105. (BTW, my computer is telling me that it should be “15 pitches are average” but this isn’t the first time my computer and I have quarreled.)
So assuming the starting pitcher stays on track, he throws seven innings and gets you to the two best relievers in your bullpen: the eighth-inning set-up man and ninth-inning closer.
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But what if you have three lockdown relievers? What if you have four? Then the starting pitcher doesn’t need to go as deep in the game and the other team’s lineup doesn’t get so many at bats against that starter.
Here’s why that matters:
The first time through the order opponents hit .256 and slug .404 off Royals pitcher Dillon Gee; the third time through the order those numbers are .288 and .468. The more often they see him, the better the hitters hit him.
No runs doesn’t mean no damage
Saturday night Gee was facing the Minnesota Twins and after two trips through the order had given up one run. After the game a reporter described that as “cruising,” and Gee disagreed with that description.
Gee had runners in every inning, and that was chewing up his pitch count and allowed the Twins to have a third trip through the order starting in the fourth inning — too early for Gee to be pulled (more on that in a moment).
Top-of-the-line pitchers might go through the order the first time throwing nothing but fastballs, and if you have a fastball that good more power to you. Lesser pitchers have to use everything they have right away, and Gee threw everything but the kitchen sink at the Minnesota lineup in the first two trips through the order.
So when the Twins started their third trip through the order they’d seen everything Gee had to offer. From that point on, the Twins were six for 13, and three of those six were home runs.
So even though Gee only gave up one run in the first four innings he was using too many pitches to get the job done, showing the Twins all his pitches, and that meant a fairly disastrous third trip through the order.
So why not pull Gee earlier?
You could pull Gee after two trips through the order, but that would require five and a third innings from the bullpen in a game that was tied 1-1 in the fourth inning — far from a sure thing.
Fans can afford to manage one game (throw every reliever you have to win tonight), but actual managers have to manage a season (chew up your pen in a loss on Saturday and you might not have the reliever you need to win on Monday).
And the Royals bullpen isn’t what it used to be.
Starting pitching now matters more
We’ve now finally arrived at the point I intended to make about 672 words ago. In the past two seasons the Royals did everything they could to take pressure off their starting pitching. When the Royals had Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland healthy, six innings from a starter was plenty.
Last season the bullpen was even deeper: Davis, Herrera and Holland were joined by Jason Frasor, Luke Hochevar, Ryan Madson, Chris Young and Franklin Morales. In 2015 the Royals had the best bullpen in the American League and because it was also a deep pen, going to them early was easier – this season, not so much.
Because the bullpen isn’t as strong in 1026 the Royals need more out of their starters, and when they don’t get it they tend to lose. (OK, I know that should read “2016” but I left my mistake in so you know just how tired I am. I’m almost positive the Royals weren’t playing baseball the same year that Henry of Luxemburg, King of Bavaria died, but I’m too tired to look that up.)
The art of the pitching change
Ideally a manager watches his starting pitcher carefully, reads the warning signs (high pitch count, third trips through the order, previous at-bats, elevated pitches, etc.) and pulls his starter just before anything really bad happens.
But if a manager does that and the next pitcher has a bad night the manager is going to get second-guessed to death; why did the manager pull a pitcher that was pitching well?
The real answer is because the warning signs said that pitcher was about to stop pitching well and get lit up like a Christmas tree, but because the manager pulled him early critics are free to speculate that the starter was going to continue pitching at a high level.
So if you read this article and thought Ned Yost should have pulled Dillon Gee after two trips through the order, imagine what people would be saying this morning if Ned pulled Gee after giving up one run in three and two-thirds innings and then a suspect bullpen coughed it up.
A manager can’t win: If he pulls a starter who’s pitching well and his team loses, the manager will get ripped for pulling the starter too soon; if a manager leaves a pitcher in the game until the pitcher pitches poorly and the team loses the manager will get ripped for being slow off the mark.
On Saturday night Dillon Gee was pitching well enough until he took that third trip through the order, but he was nowhere near the back end of a depleted Royals bullpen. And after that third trip through the Twins lineup, Minnesota had a lead they’d never give up.
Twins 5 – Royals 3…and I’m going back to bed.