No aspect of baseball through its history has changed more than pitching. Underhand to overhand. Soft toss to max velocity. Adding a mound and rubber. The introduction of players who were pitching specialists. Then relievers. Relievers used for fewer than three outs. For exactly three outs. Firemen and the disappearance of firemen. Measuring pitch speed and exit velocity with radar.

Yet another revolution in pitching practice began a couple years ago. It’s occurring right before our eyes. We’ve had a front row seat.

The Waning of Starting Pitching

Reds fans cheered for one of the last traditional pitching staffs: A five-man rotation, every starter expected to pitch deep into games, plus a couple relief specialists who followed for one-inning appearances primarily in games the team was ahead.

In 2012, the Reds rotation of Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake made 161 of the team’s 162 regular season starts. Four of those pitchers threw 200+ innings. Leake tossed 179. Sean Marshall pitched the eighth and Aroldis Chapman the ninth. Manager Dusty Baker and his pitching coach Bryan Price presided over a pitching staff considered ideal at the time.

Six years later, that structure has been increasingly abandoned.

Starting pitchers are assigned fewer innings. Last year, only 58 pitchers qualified for the ERA title (162 innings). The last time so few pitchers met that threshold, there were 16 professional teams playing 154-game schedules.

The average length of a major league start remained around 5.9 innings for 21 seasons (1995-2015). Innings per game started dropped to an all-time low of 5.6 innings in 2016, followed by 5.5 innings in 2017 and remain there in 2018. The average starter in 2018 faces just 23 battersthe lowest total ever. 

In 2016, the number of starts where the pitcher didn’t make it through five innings was 985 — the highest ever. But the 2017 season obliterated the 2016 record. That would be 1,100 starts — an 11.7 percent jump over 2016 and a 57 percent increase over 2012 — that failed to go five innings.

Innings are being spread to more pitchers. In 1941, Joe DiMaggio faced just 55 different pitchers during his 56-game hitting streak. Joey Votto faced 59 in his last 23 games. In each of the past five seasons, a new record has been set for total pitchers used, increasing from 662 to 755.

What lies behind the sudden shift in innings pitched from starters to a ever-growing bullpen?

The Third Time Penalty

One factor behind the decline in innings pitched by starters is an over-reaction by managers to the unexpected spike in home runs and run scoring that began after the All-Star break in 2015.

But the second cause is practice catching up to knowledge.

In The Book: Playing The Percentages In Baseball (2007), authors Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin presented data that starting pitchers became significantly less effective the third time they faced batters in a game. The Third Time Through Penalty (TTTP) has existed a long time, maybe since the introduction of overhand pitching.

The Book’s data went back to 1999 and included nearly a half-million plate appearances. The authors found that wOBA (weighted on base average) rose from .345 to .354 to .362 through the first three times of the batting order. Data from subsequent seasons has confirmed the gap between the first and third at bats has remained large and steady. 

Lichtman’s (2013) comprehensive follow-up on the TTTP found the greater success for hitters the third time through the lineup wasn’t due to pitcher fatigue. It was due to familiarity. The batter’s edge grew the more times he saw what the pitcher threw. Later research showed a longer first at-bat pays off later in the game in fewer strikeouts, more walks, more hits and greater power.

What’s more, pitchers that rely primarily on one pitch face a larger TTTP. Additional research by Lichtman (2013) demonstrated that pitchers who are primarily fastball pitchers, defined as throwing at least 75 percent fastballs, have more than double the third-time penalty than those with much lower fastball frequency. The fewer pitches a starter has in his repertoire, the more quickly a batter becomes familiar and adjusts successfully.

In 2017, the wOBA for starting pitchers the third time through the lineup was .340. For relievers the first time through, it was .309. The first-to-third at bat gap is now about thirty points, or roughly the difference between Joey Votto and Scott Schebler this year. 

Data is Changing Practice

Teams are taking the third-time through penalty seriously. Here are a few quotes about it, including one that might surprise you.

“If the numbers are telling you that guys shouldn’t be out there the third time of the lineup, then they shouldn’t be out there. This has always existed, it’s just that we have data now that is irrefutable.” — Sandy Alderson, GM, NY Mets

“I don’t argue with the numbers, certainly. I think the real trick is trying to figure out every other decision that’s impacted by that decision. The first pitching decision you make in a game lays out a whole other tree of decisions that might come the rest of the game. It’s certainly something we’ve talked about. We talked about it yesterday for quite a while, and it’s something we’ll continue to talk about. You’re definitely cognizant of it, and for every team, I think more and more they’ll be cognizant of it.” — Craig Counsell, manager, Milwaukee Brewers

“It’s becoming more an more evident throughout the league the sixth inning is a heck of a time. It’s really a tough one in the modern day for people to get through. We’ve experienced it many times. We don’t have that analytics department not to use it. They’ve been right on this third time through the lineup. We’ve gotten some teams in the sixth inning. But we’ve been particularly challenged in the sixth. It’s sinking into me the information that’s been put in my head. You see it happen. It’s hard to deny it.” — Jim Riggleman, manager, Cincinnati Reds

In the past couple weeks, the Reds have been in several games that fit this pattern. On June 9 (Carlos Martinez), June 12 (Jason Hammel), June 19 (Michael Fulmer) and June 21 (Kyle Hendricks) the Reds were held in check until the third time through the batting order. Most examples of the TTTP aren’t that extreme, but the data shows it’s a common occurrence.

Implications of the TTTP for the Reds

Accepting the data on third-time penalties leads to profound changes in the way major league pitching staffs should be constructed and managed. It also implicates strategic thinking for trades, free agency and the draft. 

The Starter Role From the start, don’t plan on getting 1,000 innings pitched from five starters. Reducing per-game workload for starters will make them better and healthier. Research on the cause of pitching injuries is frustrating. But in general, throwing is nowhere near as dangerous to a pitcher’s arm as throwing while tired. Starters can throw harder if they know they are expected to attempt fewer pitches. Look no further than Amir Garrett’s fastball velocity this season. Relievers are much more effective facing a batter for the first time than starters are facing batters for the third time.

In-game Managing Managing the fifth and sixth innings is crucial. Pitching changes must become proactive instead of reactive. The manager should use times-through-the-lineup as a major factor in the decision of when to pull the starting pitcher, with the presumption against allowing a third time. Managers must trust the data and not what they see, in this sense: When a pitcher looks great the second time through the bottom of the order, it doesn’t at all mean he’ll handle the top of the order for the third time the next inning.

Four-pitcher Rotation The TTTP doesn’t foreshadow the end of the starting pitcher, although some analysts predict that. It calls for a reformulation of what starters do. Pitchers with 3-4 successful pitches have huge value in working regularly through two times in the order. In fact, cutting starter roles back this way might allow 4-man rotations, which means concentrating starts among the team’s four best pitchers.

Relievers The TTTP data reinforces the conventional wisdom that pitchers with limited portfolios should be relievers. Relievers should be groomed to throw two or three innings — to face the order one time. Teams must develop six, seven or eight reliable bullpen arms, not just two or three to close out the last three innings of games with leads. [More on how to acquire those relievers in an upcoming post.] Relievers with options so they can be sent back to the minors for short periods of rest to keep their arms fresh are valuable.

Pitcher Acquisition and Contracts Clubs shouldn’t chase veteran 200-IP-style starters in trades or free agency. The number of actual Corey Klubers and Max Scherzers is small and decreasing. Multi-year, big-dollar contracts to top-line starting pitchers aren’t usually worth it. Instead, shop for young starters who can handle five-inning stints at high intensity. Don’t bother looking for or promoting pitchers who have success with third-times through over a small sample size. Lichtman’s research shows that deviations from typical TTTP are not predictive of future performance. It’s better to consider short-term third-time success an indicator of future regression instead of a skill.

Draft Strategy Pursuing pitchers with a high first round pick is probably not worth it. The Reds recent strategy of using the first pick for position players then the next couple on pitchers with big arms seems like a good way to go.

Back to the Reds: Paradigm Shift, Hiring a Manager and a Good Situation

Baseball has undergone radical transformation in many areas since the 19th century. But it’s hard to avoid the sense that the rate of change has sped up during the past ten years. In large part, that’s due to rigorous data collection and intense analysis of the sport. A person who was one of the top minds in baseball 15 years ago could be out of date today.

Front offices are (re)learning how to win games. They have to be smarter and nimbler than ever before in figuring out how to score and prevent runs. The change in thinking required has become a never-ending high-speed ride. New data and strategies are forcing team executives to innovate or fail. 

The implications of the data on third-time through penalty are significant. The past two seasons have witnessed the beginning of a radical departure from the last hundred years in assumptions of how clubs should acquire and use starting pitchers and relievers.

For major league organizations to keep up on TTTP, a paradigm shift must take place in language and expectations. That’s the case not only for front offices and managers, but also players, agents, owners, fans and even the team’s broadcasters. Our minds get anchored to certain numbers we consider meaningful — like starters going 7+ innings or throwing 200+ innings for the year — and we have a hard time adjusting expectations, even when league-wide benchmarks move.

The complexities in adapting to the TTTP data are an example why it’s so important to have a manager now who is not only open to new ideas backed by research, but one eager to implement them. It might be unrealistic to expect old-school pros who have been using one strategy for decades to accept change this fundamental this quick. That’s a reason younger, open-minded candidates, with no previous experience as major league managers, can be the best choice in today’s fast-changing environment. It’s no coincidence the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers — organizations that can hire whomever they want — did just that with their last hiring cycle.

While there’s still work to be done, the good news is the Reds roster is well situated to take advantage of the new pitching formula. The club has young starters who have proven capable of working twice through lineups. Instead of focusing on going seven or more innings, they should work on perfecting the first five or six. Equally important, the Reds have great young pitchers who toggle between starting and relieving. It’s hard to imagine a group better suited to getting an entire opposing lineup out exactly once than Michael Lorenzen, Amir Garrett, Sal Romano and, for that matter, Raisel Iglesias and Homer Bailey.

23 Responses

  1. Dewey Roberts

    Very informative article. One thing that stood out to me is the idea of not drafting starting pitchers in the first round. The Big Red Machine was assembled using that philosophy of drafting position players first and then adding pitchers. I discussed that with my brother back in the 1980’s. The Reds have seen a lot of first round draft choices used on pitchers become wasted. I especially think of Chris Gruler, but there are several other more recent examples. Bob Howsam was ahead of his time. He drafted great position players first. Sparky Anderson was ahead of his time with the use of relief pitchers. His players called him Captain Hook but he did the right thing by getting pitchers out of the game in the 6th and 7th innings.

    • Dewey Roberts

      I am keeping my fingers crossed on Greene. I have always preferred great position players in drafts or trades.

  2. Dewey Roberts

    This article is also an argument for keeping Iglesias and our other relievers. If players are traded, the Reds need to get position players in return at positions of need and young starting pitchers.
    I think Desclafani was left in one inning too long last night. Also, Garrett’s control indicates to me that his leg is still bothering him.

  3. Sliotar

    Regarding a 4-man rotation, the next MLB collective bargaining agreement, starting in 2022, may help spur it into existence.

    Several sources have indicated that it will feature a 154-game schedule, which means more off days than now, as well as a 26-man roster, which could mean an additional pitcher to spread out the burden of additional reliever innings.

  4. Sliotar

    Additionally, one tip off that the paradigm shift regarding starting pitchers will have become commonplace….when starting pitchers start not to receive major deals in free agency that cover their decline years.

    Example – David Price getting 7 years, $217 million, including $32 million a year for his age 34, 35 and 36 seasons.

    Even with the Red Sox budget, currently they will feel compelled to keep running him out for as many innings as possible. They will want to fight off the impression they signed a horrible deal, and to try and squeeze every bit of value possible.

    The Reds face their own perception problem regarding what to do with Homer Bailey next season in the last non-option year of his contract.

  5. redsfan06

    It’s a little surprising to see Rigglemen’s comment about the starter pitching the 3rd time through an order. Seems he needs to remind himself about that during the games because he has been pushing the starters to go farther all along. Last night’s game being another example. He sent DeSclafani out for the 7th and it cost the Reds the game.

    • big5ed

      As a practical matter, taking a guy out for the 3rd time through the order would result in most starters going about 4.2 IP. As the game is now played, that will burn out bullpens by early June. It may come to that in about 5 years, but for now, and probably in 5 years, the managers need to at least try to get beyond 5-6 innings.

      The Rays’ “opener” concept is pretty nifty, though, because it makes it more likely that the hitters whom the “starter” or “main” pitcher would face 3 times are not the 1-2-3-4 hitters, but instead the hitters at the bottom of the order.

      I could therefore see the Reds start a guy like Lorenzen for about 4-5 outs, and then go to a Romano or Stephenson for the next 5 innings or so. And let the teams that overpaid for traditional starters keep trotting them out there every 5 days.

      • lost11found

        The problem I see with the opener concept is related to Councel’s comment in the article. In that you’ve committed yourself to a certain move around a certain time, but that limits your options down the line.

        Not dismissing it but a team has to consider this aspect and its impact on the staff.

    • big5ed

      It’s a little harsh to say “Riggleman will never change.” And I want them to hire David Ross, not Riggleman, but it is it really fair to think that Riggleman is too dense/crusty to understand TTTP?

      Yesterday, DeSclafani retired the first 6 guys in his 3rd time through the order, with only one guy hitting it out of the infield. He then walked a guy on 4 pitches and gave up a 2nd-pitch single to a guy with a .497 OPS. He started facing hitters for the third time with one out in the 5th; not letting starters go further would overtax the bullpen over just a few weeks. Applying a mechanical rule for taking a starter out after 18 hitters seems a lot more rigid than anything Riggleman does.

      The Reds do have a problem with innings falling apart in a hurry. Castillo went from a perfect game to perfect mush in one inning, and others have done the same. You could certainly make a case for anticipating “fast-collapse” better than they do, particularly with the younger starters.

      • lost11found

        But against the bottom third of the lineup. Not much proof either way it seems.

        The last thing we need in Starter/bullpen management is another ‘bookish’ reflex like the save situation. IE. ‘well its the third time through the lineup, so yeah we took him out.”

        I agree with your reply above about being pro-active and getting relievers up sooner perhaps, but warming guys up without getting them in the game could be a negative in the long run as well.

        It’s a tough call on when to take someone out, especially when they are pitching well. Not an easy nut to crack. nor one where the right descision will always be made.

      • big5ed

        I believe it is a “pick your poison” issue. Taking the starter out after the second time through the order exposes a team to having an exhausted, overused bullpen. Trying to get a starter through at least part of the third trip through the order exposes a team to TTTP. And since the dilemma usually happens about the 6th inning, it pretty much is a “6th inning problem.” To me, the rigid rule you espouse does not take into account the cumulative effect on the exhausted bullpen.

        I would rather have Danny Darwin, with 20+ years in the majors, evaluating how much a starter has in the tank during the third time through the order, than adhering to a rigid rule. Reasonable men can differ.

  6. Mason Red

    Good grief. All the stats these days when it comes to baseball. I liked it a lot better when it was batting average,HRs,RBIs and ERA.

    • Ghettotrout1

      I agree with Mason Red. I think analytics ruin everything stop thinking so much and just enjoy the game. I think its ridiculous that they get that long to decide to challenge a play too. It should be eye test only not call upstairs to see what they think wait 20 seconds and then decide.

    • Mason Red

      I was an excellent typist in school and without question could type a post via typewriter much faster as opposed to pecking one letter at a time on a cellphone.

  7. SultanofSwaff

    Good article. Good timing as well considering the Reds are playing the Brewers. Boy, you look at the Milwaukee starting pitchers and stuff wise none of them stand out in the least, but then you look at their stats and to a man they all suppress hits to the same degree. Their analytics department has seemingly cracked the code on pitch selection/sequencing. I mentioned after attending a game in Milwaukee in April how much their pitchers go soft-softer with runners on base. I’d be curious to know the ends to which they employ this philosophy, but time only allows for one team in my life. What I do know from tracking home runs allowed by Reds starters is that they come on fastballs far and away more than any other pitch. I don’t think the development of our young pitchers is advancing as quickly as it should due to sequencing mistakes.

  8. George

    Excellent article. While many are acting as if this a radically new approach to pitching it really is a restatement of what I feel is a well known baseball strategy, turning the batting order over 3 times by the 5th inning. For years I have tried to explain to my kids and grandkids that when a team can do that regularly in a 3 or 4 game series the odds of winning the series increases. The other benefit of this tactic is that most MLB managers will not counter a 5th or 6th inning “high stress” situation with a top reliever and often the much ballyhooed “clutch hit” happens against a pitcher you will never see in a game past the seventh inning.

    One last random thought, Why not give “Thames” the “Bonds” approach, walk the guy whenever he comes to the plate period.

    Once again nice job of writing and educating!!!

  9. Tom Mitsoff

    I really like Steve’s point about the type of pitchers and pitcher contracts to target. It made me think about the game against the Braves the other night when the Reds TV announcers talked about how Foltynewicz is just a five-inning pitcher. There is a new level of value in pitchers like that. The points in this post are very thought-provoking.

  10. SF Reds Fan

    Great article Steve. As my subscription has allowed me to watch nearly every inning of the last 2 weeks of Reds baseball from San Francisco (maybe I’m the good luck charm???), I was thinking to myself that I get so much more uncomfortable with our young starters the 3rd time through. I actually think it starts to crush their confidence when they go from 4-5 great innings into a terrible inning that results in 4+ runs allowed. What could have been a great (but short) day, turns into another 6+ ERA day.

    If you make the assumption that the combination of the Reds not competing financially with large market teams and GREAT pitchers not wanting to sign on to pitching in GABP, it starts to beg the question of “why wouldn’t the Reds look at alternative rotation strategies?”

    After we trade Harvey in a month, I would like to see us explore a 4 man rotation that is asked to go 5-6 innings. My vote would be Mahle, Disco, Castillo and Bob Steve. Move Sal into the pen and combine him with Lorenzen, Amir, Hughes/Hernandez, etc. IF you make this an actual pitching strategy, then you can fill out the pen with guys who are built to go multi innings.

    Trade Iggy to either upgrade the starting rotation or outfield (I would have said SS, but Peraza appears to be on the upswing).
    If you can further upgrade the outfield, SS, or the rotation (relative to the current group) by trading Scooter, then do it. If not, have him start playing a few games in the outfield and give Dilson some time at 2nd. I would keep Duvall as the 4th outfielder and trade Billy for whatever you can get (even if that is a low-level B/C prospect).

    UPDATE: For the love of God, make Lorenzen an outfielder! He just hit another homerun as I’m typing this.

  11. Michael E

    Maybe we should get out in front of the next revolution instead of falling in line to one that already is wide-spread?

    Maybe 3 man rotation with pitching count limits of 75? Can carry two more RPs then?

    I’d rather see best pitchers pitching deep into games (I know, old school). The theory being your best pitcher 3rd time through lineup is still way better than half your relievers the first time through. Obviously your lesser SPs, sure, pull em early. Maybe a 3 man rotation would work? Maybe a 4 man rotation with SP4 pulled more quickly and the expectation of 4 or 5 innings of bullpen usage?

    • Michael E

      Soon, though doesn’t seem quite yet arrived, finding above average bullpen arms will be difficult and very expensive. So maybe that leads to next revolution where bullpens become top heavy, with only 4 or 5 RPs rostered instead of 6 or 7, and all your pitchers, SP and RP average about the same innings per year? maybe your top 3 RPs average 130 innings and your top 3 SPs average 150 innings? You run out RPs for 2, 3 or 4 inning stints 2 or 3 times a week instead of 2 or 3 batters two of every 3 nights?

  12. Dave Bell

    Flipping this around to the offensive side of things, it also argues for targeting position players with a good understanding of the strike zone. For at least two reasons: 1) The Vottos and Winkers of the world see more pitches, thus benefit sooner from familiarity. And 2), a lineup of high OBP hitters uses up fewer outs, thus reaching the third time through the lineup earlier in the game, as opposed to a team constructed of Duvall- and Hamilton-types. This puts added stress on the bench and bullpen resources of the other team, if they choose to follow this strategy, or forces them to keep the starter in through the third time around if they lack the resources to do so all the way to the end of the game.

    • SF Reds Fan

      Completely agree. Isn’t this essentially what Billy Beane’s a’s were doing 15 years ago?