Relief pitchers. Who needs them?Photo: Getty Images
Maybe I’ve rebelled against getting older as long as I can, and I’m coming to accept the hair growing out of my ears combined with the opinions that something in a modern sport isn’t as good as I remember. It’s weird, because I don’t remember having any attachment to relief pitchers of my youth. They mostly made you miserable. I liked Mitch Williams, but not because he was anything close to a sure thing for the 1989 Cubs, the first playoff team I got to enjoy, but because he threw the ball exactly like I did at that age. That was a pitching motion the wonky balance of a child could emulate!
And I’m usually for pretty much any evolution of any game, even if it makes them harder to watch. This is something both baseball and basketball are dealing with at the moment, but I’m generally patient to see how the course corrects. It usually does.
To boot, I’ve been at times fascinated with how managers and front offices decide to use their pitching staffs, especially late in the season and playoffs, and the cool things that sometimes provides. I really liked the idea of an opener, allowing a limited starter to go two times through a lineup while avoiding the best hitters a third time. I thought that was a neat trick. And reloading a starter on his throw day in the playoffs to get you a couple innings out of the pen, that to me is always fun. Maybe it’s just that memory of Randy Johnson moseying out of the pen in the Kingdome in Game 5 against the Yankees, the first time I remember seeing it done. Or the reliever who can go multiple innings when a team is desperate in the middle of a playoff game.
And that’s the last sticking point. Because it’s gotten harder and harder to enjoy that as relievers have become the most coddled parts of a team anywhere in sports. These guys throw 60 pitches a week, maybe. They’re actually at work for like 25 minutes per week. And yet they have to be protected, buffeted by more and more of their kind on the roster so they don’t have to throw 80 pitches a week (the horror…the horror…). And if a team is getting blown out, then teams simply have to put a position player on the mound because if a manager asks one of these precious beings to finish out a game that’s already decided and waste his oh so valuable 60 pitchers per week may he be hung from the nearest bridge by his eyelids/scrotum! What a scoundrel indeed!
MLB nudged them to face three batters minimum, and only sometimes, and these guys threw a fit. My god, four more minutes of work! Think of another sport where the worst players on the roster, and that’s what relievers are, wield so much influence. Hockey likes to pretend that its fourth-line players do, especially when they were goons back in the day. They never did, and we mostly humored them about it. And if you’re in the same neighborhood as hockey, you’re in a bad place.
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My blood ran over yesterday during the Brewers-Braves Game 4 when Josh Hader came into the game. The commentators Don Orsillo and Jeff Francoeur were remarking about bringing Hader in the 8th and how he doesn’t throw two innings anymore and what would the Brewers do should the game continue longer, especially as Hader’s spot in the lineup was due up third in the top of the 9th. Francoeur relayed a conversation he had had with Hader (say that five times fast) earlier in the series, where Hader had told him that he didn’t like throwing multiple innings anymore because he gets all his adrenaline up for that one inning, and to go to the dugout, sit down, and then do it again was just too much of a drain.
Dude, you can’t get it up for another five minutes? I’m turning into Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, “I feel for your wife if you think six minutes is a long time.” If you know anyone who has ever had the misfortune of working with Mike Myers, this is what it’s like. “I can’t simply recreate my genius again on a whim!”
Hader has five to eight teammates at any time who do that for a living. They’re called starting pitchers. And yet this guy can’t be bothered. Again, he works maybe 25 minutes a week.
This was hot on the heels of the Craig Kimbrel-in-the-8th debate that was raging in Chicago after his whoopee-cushion deflation during Game 2 in Houston. Kimbrel has had issues pitching in the 8th ever since he changed parts of town, which made for the hilarious quote from Tony La Russa after Game 2, wherein he said Kimbrel isn’t comfortable in the 8th, indicting himself without realizing it for using him there in a game the Sox really had to have.
I know baseball players are the weirdest and most superstitious on the planet. But as I’ve said before, the difference between the 8th and 9th is, like, 15 minutes. You can’t start your routine 15 minutes earlier? I’ll give some leeway from going to the 8th to the 9th, because the 9th inning is basically “without a net” and there are obviously guys who can’t flourish like that (says anyone who had to live through LaTroy Hawkins). But it’s a begrudging allowance as all fuck.
That’s enough of this. If baseball wants to solve its contact/action problem, one giant foray down that path would be to limit teams to 11 pitchers on the roster. Full stop. Make starters go a third time through, make relievers go through a second time. It’ll be even easier now, as we all know that the DH is coming to the National League in the new CBA. We won’t have to worry about offensive opportunities being wasted because a pitcher is coming up or benches being rifled through with double switches.
Relievers will scream it’ll cost them jobs. But it’ll open up jobs for actual bench players and give managers more flexibility that way. No more seeing your .198-hitting backup catcher being used as a pinch hitter. Relievers, and maybe all pitchers, will scream that it will cause more injuries. Well, 486 pitchers hit the IL this year cumulatively, so what exactly are we holding onto? Combined with a pitch clock and we just might see velocity come down in return for endurance and we might see a few more balls in play than the seven per game we get now or whatever it is.
Sports evolve positions out of the game all the time. Fullbacks in the NFL. Goons in the NHL (though not fast enough). #10s in soccer. It’s time for the 60-pitch per week gas bag to go the way of the dodo.
I’m gonna go trim my ear hair now.