‘It’s a dying breed. And it sucks’ – The decline of the starting pitcher –

‘It’s a dying breed. And it sucks’ – The decline of the starting pitcher – post thumbnail image

ALEK MANOAH IS a man of many opinions, and one of those is that with a gilded right arm and 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds of mass to buttress it, he should throw the baseball as much as he can. But during spring training in 2021, as the Toronto Blue Jays were mapping out Manoah’s first full season in organized baseball, they approached him to discuss a different plan. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he hadn’t seen game action for almost 18 months, and he had pitched sparingly in the minor leagues during his 2019 debut. They wanted to be cautious — careful even. They wanted to set an innings limit, and they asked Manoah what he thought it should be.

“I don’t think there should be a limit,” Manoah said.

He wasn’t trying to be contrarian. He just doesn’t agree with the arbitrariness of prescribed restrictions that over the past four decades have taken the starting pitcher — baseball’s marquee attraction, the workhorse — and, through a cocktail of fear and math, reduced it to show pony.

“I’m a big f—ing guy,” Manoah, 24, says now. “I’m strong as a horse. I’m built for this stuff. … I can take some hits, man. If you don’t let a pitcher pitch, you’re never building him up. You’re never letting him struggle. I say this all the time: ‘Let me get my ass kicked.’ They understand that dog in me. I want to be out there.”

For most starters in 2022, the dog within is more Pomeranian than pit bull. This season, pitch counts for starters have cratered to an average of 84.4, 10 fewer than the standard that held for decades. The typical start — long, steady, around six innings — has fallen to barely five. Complete games have almost vanished.

And yet efforts to keep pitchers healthier by limiting their workloads have been a failure. Arm injuries remain omnipresent, with upward of $100 million in salary this season lost to time on the injured list. Teams’ purported prudence in lessening pitchers’ workloads simply altered how those pitchers approach the game. They bide their finite time on the mound with maximum-effort throws, despite evidence that those high-effort pitches add stress and strain to the vulnerable joints in the arm. Less, it turns out, is not more.

“Everyone’s here guessing,” one National League farm director says. “Even the doctors don’t know. Pitching is just a hard thing to do.”

Manoah grew up during the last vestiges of the starting pitcher’s heyday, when 200 innings in a season was expectation, not anomaly. He marveled at Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Mike Mussina — at how Justin Verlander‘s fastball would gain velocity as a game lengthened. It’s exactly the kind of career he desires, even if he knows he’s swimming against the stream.

“I think it’s a dying breed. And it sucks,” Manoah says. “That’s just the way baseball is going. It’s more of an analytical game. … If you told Pedro Martinez 15 years ago that they’re gonna pull him because he might give up a run next time around? Good luck with that. You had to kill to get them off that mound. That was something I always wanted to be.”

Perhaps in time. For now, Manoah celebrates the small victories. A few weeks after the initial conversation in 2021, Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins told Manoah he wouldn’t have an innings limit. But, Atkins said, in the absence of one, they needed to be smart, proactive and safe. The Blue Jays’ approach is noble and pragmatic but underscores that Manoah is the exception. And that’s the paradox: In the current baseball universe, there is better training, better infrastructure, better knowledge — a better foundation to support building up the starter. So why is baseball systematically eradicating him?

“Just like the guy with the stapler in ‘Office Space,'” one longtime general manager says, “they’ve been optimized out.”

MANY OF MAJOR League Baseball’s greatest ills — the somnolent pace, the lack of action, the prevalence of an all-or-nothing approach at the plate — can be traced directly to the evolution of the starter. He should be the game’s touchstone — and yet MLB teams operate as if they’re often better off winning without him. And sometimes they are. A baseball franchise, with a mandate to position itself best to win games, strip mines numbers to uncover even the most minuscule advantage. Pitching has proven fertile ground.

The story of the disappearing starter is one in which analytics beat aesthetics. A confluence of factors — small-market teams clawing for survival among their moneyed brethren, the broken youth baseball apparatus, the industry’s general ignorance about arm health — served as accelerants, but at the heart were numbers too compelling for teams to deny.

Efforts to keep pitchers healthy already had degraded the starter. In 1980, Oakland A’s manager Billy Martin rolled out a rotation of five 20-somethings: Rick Langford, Mike Norris, Matt Keough, Steve McCatty and Brian Kingman. They threw complete games in 93 of 159 starts. All suffered career-altering arm injuries within four years. They were soon gone, cavalrymen before a technological boom, and the complete game exited with them. Forty-two years ago, starters finished 20.3% of games. This season, it’s 0.5% — 13 in 2,432 starts.

With finishing games no longer paramount, front offices began looking at pitchers differently. The sixth inning became the game’s first real turning point, the eye test — are hitters getting good swings on a guy? — informing managers’ decision-making. Then came an article Nov. 5, 2013, from Mitchel Lichtman, who expanded on a topic he had explored in his seminal baseball strategy treatise, “The Book.” On Baseball Prospectus, Lichtman wrote about what he deemed the “times-through-the-order penalty.” The premise was straightforward: The more times a batter sees a pitcher, the better he performs.

Over the previous 40 years, hitters gained an average of 27 on-base-plus-slugging points between their first and second plate appearances against a starter and 24 more between the second and third. Baseball people felt it — the sixth inning and third time through the order regularly coincide — but Lichtman’s analysis spelled it out more clearly than ever before. For some teams, it was the impetus for change. Why concede such an obvious advantage at a time when a new breed of reliever — the high-velocity, high-strikeout behemoth — began roaming the land?

“It’s math. It’s real,” says Theo Epstein, the World Series-winning executive who now works as a consultant for MLB. “If you’re looking to just optimize for one game, of course you’d rather have a fresh reliever than a starter third time through. But when every team takes that approach there’s a real cost to the industry. We lose the identity of the starting pitcher as a prominent character in the drama day in and day out.”

Soon after Lichtman’s piece, innings-per-start numbers tumbled, from 5.97 in 2014 to 5.81 to 5.65 to 5.51 to 5.36 to 5.18 in the last season before the COVID-19 pandemic. The figures ran inverse to average fastball velocity, which had continued its steady climb from under 89 mph at the turn of the 21st century to 93 mph by 2019. Teams were pivoting away from pitchers who could pitch deep into games and focusing on other skills: velocity, strength and pitch design. Ultimately, that philosophy birthed a cottage industry that inside pitch labs created a new strain of swing-and-miss pitches.

A generation of super relievers emerged, buoyed by a better understanding of how to throw a baseball more efficiently, more effectively. Even a back-of-the-bullpen reliever was better than a third-time-through starter. Youth baseball followed the lead, emphasizing velocity above all. Going deep in games? Pitching to contact? Old thinking. Velocity ruled.

“The data shows we’re not keeping pitchers any healthier,” Epstein says. “All we’re doing is limiting how much they work.”

In 2022, MLB starters average 5.15 innings per start. Only one pitcher, Miami’s Sandy Alcantara, posts more than seven innings a start. Just 20 pitchers are above six. Alcantara and Milwaukee‘s Corbin Burnes are the lone two who log at least 100 pitches per game. Alcantara is at 101, Burnes at 100.

“Guys like [Manoah], like Alcantara, they’re the outliers,” says Kevin Gausman, Manoah’s teammate and fellow frontline starter in Toronto. “Those guys: You put them in any generation and they’re gonna be dudes. They’re gonna go deep into games. They’re just bulldogs. But you think about like the majority of other young starting pitchers — I could speak for myself, too. You didn’t really know what you were gonna get. I’m through five with 50 pitches, one hit and I’m cruising, but, you know, that third time through.”

Starters laugh about the third time through, acquiescing because there is no choice. The numbers are the numbers. The game is the game. Comply or be replaced. It’s a simple calculus, really: Pitchers crave strikeouts because front offices crave strikeouts. Hitters chase home runs because max-effort pitching is so difficult to hit that the idea of manufacturing runs is anachronistic. Defenses shift because outs, in the spin-to-win and elevate-and-celebrate era, are difficult to come by.

Across the game, there is belief that without rules changes to protect the sanctity of the starter, he will vanish. Arizona Diamondbacks pitching coach Brent Strom, among the first mainstream pitching coaches to apply analytics to his teaching, says: “Five to six innings will be considered premium.” A veteran player-development executive concurs: “Every failure of a dumb team to develop a starting pitcher puts another nail in the coffin of the starting pitcher as analysts for smart teams cite these failures.”

This is a seminal moment in baseball history. And though he’s just one man, Manoah is doing his best to help his kind from going extinct.

DURING THE OFFSEASON, Alek Manoah spends his days at a 1,300-square-foot warehouse tucked in a strip mall off SW 128th St. in Miami, across from a print shop and a custom car joint. His older brother, Erik, a minor league pitcher, opened Manoah Driven in 2020 so he and others could work out during the pandemic. Rare is the day they turn on the air conditioner, even in the sweltering Miami summer.

“It’s a choice to keep it off,” Erik says. “That type of grit, being able to survive that kind of workout, especially in front of other professional athletes — it tests not only his physicality but his mental strength as well.”

Manoah grew up in the amateur baseball hotbed of Miami and quickly distinguished himself because of his size. He subsisted on a steady diet of fastballs and arrived as a project at West Virginia University, where his first two seasons he moved between the rotation and bullpen.

In the summer between his sophomore and junior years, he played with Chatham in the Cape Cod Baseball League. He knew the Cape could make or break his draft status the next year — and that a fastball-heavy arsenal would be a ticket straight to the bullpen. So a 20-year-old Manoah went to the internet for help. He followed Rob Friedman, better known as the “Pitching Ninja,” and saw a video of Dellin Betances, an All-Star reliever for the New York Yankees, displaying his cutter grip. Manoah tried it. He ripped off a 91-mph pitch with good bite, but it wasn’t what he wanted. He found another video of then-Chicago White Sox star Chris Sale talking about how he manipulates his thumb position on a slider to produce different variations. Manoah used the Betances grip, the Sale thumb and birthed the slider he still uses today. Switching from a four-seam to two-seam grip turned his changeup from hittable slop into a usable third pitch. And thus an ace was born.

Manoah dominated as a junior at West Virginia, regularly throwing more than 100 pitches and striking out 144 in 108⅓ innings. Toronto stole him with the 11th pick in the 2019 draft, promoted him last season after 35 minor league innings and delighted in its good fortune. Not only was Manoah instantaneously an elite starting pitcher, his makeup was off the charts: smart, funny and, above all, hungry for knowledge and excellence.

In his first full spring training in 2020, Manoah went to dinner with Anthony Dye, his travel-ball coach with the Atlanta Blue Jays. Dye wanted to introduce him to his friend, Dave Stewart. Manoah didn’t know who Stewart was until he looked up Stewart’s bio. He was blown away, particularly by the stretch from 1987 to 1990. Over that four-year period, Stewart threw 1,061⅔ innings, won at least 20 games each season and completed 41. He wasn’t the last great starting pitcher. But Stewart, as an archetype, no longer exists.

“What I took away from completing a game: It meant I outsmarted guys 27 times,” Stewart says. “I outsmarted their ass just enough that I could finish this game. I was one step ahead of you every at-bat, brother. For me, it was all about one more inning, one more inning, one more inning.”

The conversation with Stewart inspired Manoah. He didn’t want to be a throwback. He aspired to be a standard bearer — a reminder to front offices that completing games and staying healthy are not necessarily mutually exclusive, that the pendulum had swung too far in the other direction.

Even Manoah isn’t immune. He has exceeded 100 pitches in just nine of his 36 big league starts. He still doesn’t have a complete game, though his 100⅓ innings over 16 starts rank third in the American League this year. “They’re looking out for me,” Manoah says, simultaneously resigned and understanding. It’s tough for him to argue; his ERA is 2.33.

Still, he sees the fear in how front offices handle pitching prospects and the consequences wrought by that fear. Fewer innings leads inevitably to more max-effort pitches, which arm experts agree create more injuries. Teams remain at the mercy of a self-created beast; max effort is more effective, and the system — from youth baseball onward — prioritizes little else. No one seems inclined to interrupt the faulty feedback loop. The average minor league start this season lasts 4.23 innings. Only six of the 120 teams in the minor leagues use their starters for more than five innings per start. One team, the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ Single-A affiliate Rancho Cucamonga, leaves its starters in for an average of 2.9 innings. A minor league pitcher reaching 100 pitches is blue lobster rare.

“When they get to the big leagues,” Gausman asks, “how do you expect them to be in the seventh inning with 98 pitches and know how to dig deep and get through an at-bat?”

Last week, Tom House, a longtime pitching coach whose work studying the arm dates to his time as a big leaguer in the 1970s, tweeted:

As dystopian as House’s analysis sounds, he understands the game’s progression. Once baseball reconsidered the starter’s importance, new strategies became fair game. Three weeks after Lichtman’s piece in 2013, Bryan Grosnick, on Beyond the Box Score, posited the notion of an “opener” — a relief pitcher who could start a game and potentially allow the scheduled starter to delay his third time through the order to a later inning. On May 19, 2018, the Tampa Bay Rays started longtime closer Sergio Romo and pulled him after one scoreless inning. Today, the opener is a widely embraced strategy.

“What’s right is what gets people to show up to the ballpark and love the game,” House says. “[What’s reality] is what’s easiest. It’s the path of least resistance for teams, budgets and pitchers. So I tend to bet on those paths, especially when the numbers are already trending in that direction.”

THE ENTIRETY OF the starting pitcher debate comes down to a very simple disconnect: logic vs. emotion. As long as the mystery over pitcher health remains, it’s almost impossible to criticize front offices for what they’ve done to the starter. Certainly they could build up starters in hopes that they’re impervious to the third-time-through penalty, but that’s a moon shot. It would take years to retrain pitchers with no guarantee of success. Instead, they default to their North Star of efficiency. It is logical. It is tried and true. It works.

The argument in favor of the starting pitcher is substantively emotional. Sports loves nothing more than tidy games within the game, easy-to-digest narratives, matchups, conflict — stories of grit and tenacity, of individual greatness in the contest’s final moments. Eleven percent of the time, baseball will luck into the best hitter at the plate with two outs in the ninth inning of a close game. For decades, the starting pitcher grinding through one final batter, arm tired, legs shot, provided the unforgettable.

The starting pitcher is the perfect hero. He dictates everything. The action runs through him. He is the guy on the marquee. Even now, when we’re gifted Verlander vs. Cole, deGrom vs. Burnes, Scherzer vs. Kershaw, McClanahan vs. Manoah, it’s an event. A world in which every starting pitcher titillates is fantasy, of course, but just as MLB teams exist on an arc bending toward optimization, they too can swivel toward one in which the starting pitcher is made to be important.

That is how baseball finds itself here, at the cusp of grand changes. The pitch clock will arrive in 2023. Extreme shifts will be outlawed. Robot umpires coming to the major leagues aren’t far behind. How much more commissioner Rob Manfred is willing to play puppeteer is unclear, but Epstein might be the greatest advocate of infusing action back into the game — a recalibration, he believes, that necessitates a newfound emphasis on starting pitching.

“Fans have indicated through survey data and anecdotally that they really like when the starting pitcher is a protagonist in the game,” Epstein says. “The starting pitcher is the one player on the field enough over the course of the game that you can really get to know. You can follow his ups and downs, his triumphs and frustrations. You see the outcome of every pitch on his face — how he reacts and grows and suffers and overcomes. The starting pitcher is the main character. You can buy your tickets on the day he’s pitching and know he’s gonna be out there for a couple hours and experience that performance. Now, if you blink, there’s someone up in the pen in the fifth inning because you’re getting close to third time through.”

The tenuous balance between efficiency and entertainment is the story of modern sports, and striking it takes immense rigor. Baseball has tilted too far toward pure dopamine hits: strikeouts, home runs, velocity, spin. A few palate-cleansing groundballs to second base surely would make the sugar bombs taste better — and make the game move faster.

There’s an elegant solution to fix it, one that Epstein espouses to anyone in the commissioner’s office, ownership circles and front offices who will listen: limit pitchers on the active roster to 11. The upshot is clear. Starters would be duty-bound to go deeper into games. Organizations would require starters to throw more pitches in the minors, and even nonstarters would be pushed to throw multiple innings or else find themselves out of luck in a bullpen where it’s obligatory. The max-effort credo would fade away because only the most skilled can marry it with extended outings. Less max-effort pitching would mean easier-to-hit pitches — not to mention a newfound desire to induce contact from pitchers — and that would lead to quicker outs, more balls in play, a better pace and increased action.

Couple an 11-man staff with other rules and it gets even better. Introduce the double hook — when a team removes its starting pitcher, it loses the designated hitter — and it would preclude teams from rostering an array of nine-out pitchers and using three per night. Limit pickoff attempts, as the minor leagues currently do, and stolen-base attempts would jump, prompting teams to use those extra roster spots for speedsters whose late-inning arrival would return some of the strategy lost to a game consumed by home runs, walks and strikeouts. There are more radical ideas percolating — limit the number of pitching changes per game, start relief pitchers with a 1-0 count to disincentivize their use — but they’re not vital with pitcher limits.

“Let’s be honest: It’s gonna be a different game next year,” Yankees ace Gerrit Cole says. “Pitch clock and no shift. It is gonna be a completely different baseball game than I’ve played in my 10 years.”

Just those changes — assuming they are implemented next year as is widely expected — might well be enough to satiate the baseball establishment. Owners ultimately decide the game’s rules, and when it comes to on-field regulations, they often listen to their team’s general manager. And by and large, GMs are perfectly content with 13-man staffs and the option rules that allow them to stash and recall relievers as if front offices are day traders and pitchers securities. When a majority of relievers are paid less than $1 million a year and effective, proven starters command 20 times that, there’s a cost-saving element plenty of owners won’t ignore. Tack on the ability of low-revenue teams to compete in a relief-heavy environment — Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Milwaukee’s exceptionalism in developing pitching within the 2022 paradigm keeps them relevant and winning — and the five-inning starter could very well carry the day.

“It starts with standards,” says Adam Wainwright, the St. Louis Cardinals starter whose 241⅔ innings in 2013 are the third-highest single-season total in the past decade. “And it’s not always the pitcher’s standards. It starts with front-office standards. It starts with coaches’ standards. Teammate standards. … If you’re OK with throwing five and you came out of the game and you thought you did your job, then the standard is set — and it’s lower than it needs to be. And if your organization is programming you into believing that you did your job through five, then that’s their fault. There’s just no other way to put it. If you have the standard that you’re gonna try to go out and pitch nine every time you take the ball, then you have the right standard. The best starting pitcher should be the best closer on the team.

“You’re a professional pitch-maker. So just go out and make pitches. Make pitches, change speeds, elevate, take some off, add some, take ’em on a cab ride and you’ll do a lot of cool things.”

Wainwright is proof that life exists after velocity. His fastball lives at 89 mph. He throws a curveball, a cutter and a changeup, nibbles at corners, sees pitching as art more than science. The two can coexist. Epstein’s desire isn’t to rid baseball of goofy breaking balls and triple-digit gas and strikeouts. It’s to drag the pendulum back to the middle where it belongs.

“My hope — and my belief more than my hope — is that things do normalize to some extent,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins says. “There’s a huge value in the ability to do that. I also really believe in the industry’s ability to develop talent, and I think we’re getting better and better at it. And we will find ways to put guys in better positions to do that.”

AT THIS MOMENT, Manoah is preparing for his first All-Star Game, his first postseason, a litany of firsts in what he figures will be a long career. He is also fighting for the sanctity of the starting pitcher, whose survival he believes is essential.

He doesn’t scoff at the third-time-through penalty so much as he sees it as a necessary evil. (His OPS-against first time through is .508, second time .596 and third time .689. The league’s is .697, .719 and .770.) At the risk of sounding like a pitcher from two generations ago, he cares about only two numbers: innings pitched and wins. He sees honor in a great start, in setting a standard of the kind Wainwright describes.

“The biggest thing for me is going deep into games and being a workhorse,” says Manoah, acknowledging that his size does give him a built-in advantage. “If I bully a guy twice, I don’t think he’s due a third time. I think I’m gonna bully him again. The more I throw and see these guys’ swings, I feel more confidence in what to throw. You have more data. I feel comfortable in those later innings. I just feel like the body really moves well, mechanics are in a good rhythm, everything is flowing easily. I can continue to attack. And the pitches mean more.

“They say you’ve got only so many bullets in your arm. If there are only so many bullets, why not maximize the s— out of all of them? That’s how I’m approaching it.”

Manoah sees what he did at West Virginia, throwing 120 and 124 and 125 and 126 pitches among the final eight starts of his college career, and wonders why now, when he’s stronger, smarter, better, he can’t replicate it. As his career has progressed, he has watched baseball continue to ask less of its starting pitchers. Manoah is begging for the game to ask more.

When he does, he is told, kindly, to be patient. The Blue Jays appreciate what they have in Manoah. He is everything a team wants in a pitcher. But all it takes is one pitch, one searing shot of pain in the elbow, for that to go away for a year, maybe forever. As much as teams are guided by sports science, by technology, by all of the genius the world offers, fear carves the path of the modern starter, such that when Manoah asks to stay in a game and get one more hitter or one more inning, his manager, Charlie Montoyo, says, “We’ve got to save you.” Which, ironically, is exactly what could be said for the starting pitcher.

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