The trustworthy middle reliever is Major League Baseball’s latest market trend inefficiency.
The aesthetic of the whole game has long been radioactive decaying, with a half-life of around a decade. There were 734 in 1982, 419 in 1992, 214 in 2002, 128 in 2012, and just one in 2022 so far.
Even the quest of perfection is no longer sufficient for full games. This season, both Sean Manaea (no-hitter) and Clayton Kershaw (perfect game) have been lifted after seven innings.
But if you’ve been a baseball fan for the previous quarter-century, this is nothing new. Pitch count is always visible, both at the stadium and on your television displays. And, with the exception of a few chosen workhorses like Madison Bumgarner, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, or Adam Wainwright, you seldom see anybody go on to the mound for a fresh inning of work after having previously thrown triple digits.
What is different is that the typical starting pitcher no longer even makes it through five innings.
Before we get into the numbers, keep in mind that any references to fractional innings pitched will be phrased differently than normal. Normally, five complete innings plus two outs in the sixth inning (five and two-thirds innings) would be reported as 5.2 IP, but for this article, it will be 5.67. You’ll understand why soon.
The 2022 season has 244 games completed as of Tuesday morning. Add 488 starts to that figure to account for each game having a starting pitcher for each club. According to FanGraphs, the 488 starts resulted in 2,302.67 innings thrown, or 4.72 innings pitched per start.
Even by recent March/April norms, it is astonishingly low.
One might easily argue that the figure is artificially low because pitchers did not remain in game form during the lockout and did not get fully stretched out over a shortened spring training. This figure will almost certainly rise over the regular season and may even be somewhat higher in April 2023.
However, with the increased usage of openers and hitters constantly working the count, Major League Baseball has been going in this manner for quite some time.
Going back three years, the average March/April innings thrown per start in 2019 was 5.30, 5.68 in 2016, and 5.81 in 2013. And that was nearly precisely 6.0 innings thrown per start a decade ago, in 2012. (5.999).
All of this implies that middle/long relievers are more vital than ever.
Not only are complete games basically extinct, but it’s becoming more uncommon to watch a game in which the starter pitches seven innings before passing the ball to the setup man and finally the closer. So far in 2022, each club has used 3.67 relief pitchers per game on average, up from 3.13 in March/April 2017 and 2.84 a decade earlier.
Furthermore, such bullpen pitchers are pitching for longer periods of time. (Thanks, in part, to the three-batter requirement.) Although it may not seem to be a significant change, the average relief appearance this year lasts 1.12 innings, compared to 1.05 in 2017 and 1.03 in 2012.
Even though we’re comparing 244 games played this year to 338 games played in 2012, there were already more innings of relief hurled in 2022 (1,996.67) than there were in April 2012 (1987.33) as of Tuesday morning.
Once again, middle/long relievers are more vital than before. However, it seems that the market has not yet realized this.
Trend? Relief pitchers have the lowest average compensation
In baseball, according to Spotrac’s positional wage statistics, at slightly under $2 million per pitcher. The next-cheapest position is catcher, which costs $2.58 million per player—though that’s actually $5 million per club when you realize it’s more like $3.5 million for the man who gets around 110 starts and $1.5 million for the “backup” who makes 52 starts.
Oh, and did I mention the $1.995 million per relief pitcher figure? This includes the roughly $5 million earned by the average closer. When the $137.8 million allotted for the 27 closers is removed, the pool of middle relievers is lowered to $433 million for 269 pitchers, or $1.61 million per middle reliever.
If you let me to deduct former starter David Price’s massive $32 million compensation, the total for 268 pitchers shrinks to $401 million, or $1.5 million per pitcher.
Max Scherzer gets slightly more than $1.3 million per start (assuming he remains healthy and makes 33 starts), while the typical middle/long reliever earns $1.5 million per season (some of whom will wind up logging well over 100 IP in 2022).
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