The Newest Trend Taking over MLB in 2022 and BeyondApril 27, 2022
Major League Baseball's new market inefficiency is the reliable middle reliever.
The art of the complete game has long been in a state of radioactive decay with a half-life of roughly a decade. There were 734 in 1982, 419 in 1992, 214 in 2002, 128 in 2012 and just one thus far in 2022.
Even the pursuit of perfection isn't enough for complete games anymore. Already this season, we have seen both Sean Manaea (no-hitter) and Clayton Kershaw (perfect game) pulled after seven innings.
If you've followed baseball at all over the past quarter century, though, this is nothing new. Pitch count is constantly on display, both in the stadium and on your television screens. And save for a few select workhorses like Madison Bumgarner, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander or Adam Wainwright, you rarely see anyone trot back out to the mound for a new inning of work having already reached triple digits in pitches.
What is new, however, is that the average starting pitcher doesn't even make it through five full innings anymore.
Before we dive into the data, a quick heads up that all references to fractional innings pitched will be expressed a bit differently than usual. Normally, five full innings plus two outs in the sixth inning (five and two-thirds) would be expressed as 5.2 IP, but it will instead be 5.67 for this piece. You'll see why shortly.
As of Tuesday morning, there had been 244 games played in the 2022 season. Double that number to account for each game having a starting pitcher for each team, and you've got 488 starts. Per FanGraphs, those 488 starts yielded 2,302.67 innings pitched, or 4.72 per start.
That is shockingly low, even by recent March/April standards.
One could easily argue that number is artificially low as a result of pitchers not staying in game shape during the lockout and not getting properly stretched out during a truncated spring training. That number will likely increase during the regular season and may well be slightly higher in April 2023.
However, between the increasing use of openers and batters incessantly working the count, Major League Baseball has been trending in this direction for a while.
Going backward in three-year increments, the March/April average was 5.30 innings pitched per start in 2019, 5.68 in 2016 and 5.81 in 2013. And just one decade ago in 2012, it was almost exactly 6.0 innings pitched per start (5.999).
What all that means is middle/long relievers are way more important than ever before.
Not only are the days of complete games essentially gone, but it's also getting increasingly rare to even see a game in which the starter goes seven innings before handing it off to the setup man and then the closer. On average thus far in 2022, each team is using 3.67 relief pitchers per game, which is up substantially from 3.13 in March/April 2017 and 2.84 one decade ago.
What's more, those relief pitchers are making longer appearances. (Thanks at least in part to the three-batter minimum.) It might not seem like a major difference, but the average relief appearance lasts 1.12 innings this year, compared to 1.05 in 2017 and 1.03 in 2012.
As of Tuesday morning, there were already more innings of relief pitched in 2022 (1,996.67) than there were in April 2012 (1987.33)—even though we're comparing 244 games played this year to 338 games played in 2012.
Again, middle/long relievers are way more important than ever before. But the market evidently hasn't figured that out yet.
Per Spotrac's positional salary data, relief pitchers have the lowest average salary in baseball at just under $2 million per pitcher. The next-"cheapest" position is catcher at $2.58 million per player—though that's really $5 million per team for that position when you consider it's more like $3.5 million for the guy who makes around 110 starts and $1.5 million for the "backup" who makes 52 starts.
Oh, and the $1.995 million per relief pitcher figure? That also includes the nearly $5 million the average closer earns. If you take out the $137.8 million going to the 27 pitchers designated as closers, the middle-reliever pool is reduced to $433 million for 269 pitchers, or $1.61 million per middle reliever.
If you'll allow me to also remove former starter David Price's gargantuan $32 million salary, it drops to $401 million for 268 pitchers, or $1.5 million per pitcher.
Max Scherzer earns a little better than $1.3 million per start (assuming he stays healthy and makes 33 starts), but the average middle/long reliever—some of whom will end up logging darn near 100 innings in 2022—earns $1.5 million per season?
Something's not right there.
I'm not suggesting middle relievers are worth their weight in gold, but it doesn't make sense that sixth- and seventh-inning guys are still compensated like they're a dime a dozen while shouldering an annually increasing workload.
To be clear, I'm not a ghostwriter for some sort of "pay the relievers" alliance. I'm just a baseball fan wondering when my favorite team is going to figure out that paying $4 million/year apiece for six above-average middle relievers might be a drastically better investment than throwing $24 million/year at the next Marcus Stroman or Kevin Gausman who becomes available via free agency. (No offense to Stroman or Gausman; just pointing out two starters who made a lot of money this offseason.)
Because even if you got a bit lost in all the numbers, it is abundantly clear from watching recent postseasons just how pivotal those middle/long relievers have become.
Every manager has a quick hook in October. There were six games in the 2021 World Series, and only one instance of a starting pitcher recording an out in the sixth inning or beyond. Atlanta won that series largely because its middle relievers allowed a combined total of three runs in the sixth and seventh innings.
Now that the hook is getting quicker during the regular season, the teams best equipped to win the sixth and seventh innings should be the ones making the postseason.
The Braves are committed to that model again this year, with 13 relievers making a combined $47.3 million. The Dodgers have also dedicated a substantial percentage of their ridiculous payroll to the bullpen with five relievers making at least $6 million. Seven relievers making at least $3 million each are among the biggest reasons why the Padres have been able to stay afloat with Fernando Tatis Jr., Blake Snell and Mike Clevinger all injured.
Fed up with missing the postseason year after year, both the Phillies and the Angels ponied up a lot of dough for relievers in the past few months, each signing three guys to new contracts paying at least $6 million this season alone.
But, again, even with those five teams recognizing the innate value in reliable middle-to-late inning pitchers, the average middle reliever is still making less than 38-year-old back-up catcher Kurt Suzuki ($1.75 million).
If and when the average start length trickles down to the point where relievers are logging more innings per season than starters, maybe the market will start to correct itself and the going rate for middle relievers will at least approach that of closers and back-of-the-rotation starters.