If you follow the Cincinnati Reds official social media accounts, you know fans like to complain that manager David Bell taking his starters out of the game too early. I know some of these complaints are coming because the Reds bullpen is blowing leads late in games while the starters pitch excellently. However, that’s on the bullpen. The relievers have to do their job. The starters can’t pitch all nine innings, especially in this era of baseball. Starting pitchers are pitching less innings, and Bell isn’t the only major league manager pulling starters early.
The Reds’ Starting Pitchers
First, let’s look at the number of innings and pitches the Reds rotation has thrown. Trevor Bauer has the longest outing, a complete game seven inning shut out as part of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers. Bauer has thrown over 100 pitches in each of his three starts.
Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo have both pitched more than 90 pitches in each of their starts, and both have recently thrown over 100 pitches. Gray has only pitched into the seventh once, while Castillo has yet to get there. Tejay Antone pitched 4.1 innings in both of his starts, but has only thrown around 70-80 pitches.
Tyler Mahle’s longest outing was against the Indians on August 4. Here’s what he said about being taken out after six innings despite giving up only one hit:
— Lance McAlister (@LanceMcAlister) August 5, 2020
Anthony DeSclafani and Wade Miley are still returning from injuries and building up arm strength, so I didn’t factor them into the situation.
Starting Pitchers Around MLB
I decided to look at the game logs of known pitchers around MLB this season to see how they compared to Reds starters. Mets starter Jacob deGrom has made four starts and hasn’t pitched more than six innings, including Opening Day when he threw only 72 pitches in five shut-out innings. deGrom only started throwing up to 100 pitches a start within the last week.
Yankees starter Gerrit Cole hasn’t pitched more than 6.2 innings in four starts. The Rangers’ Lance Lynn has thrown over 100 pitches in all four starts, but has yet to pitch into the 7th inning. Shane Bieber of the Indians has pitched into the eighth inning twice, but has also only made it through the sixth twice. He’s been around 100 pitches in all four of his outings as well. In Nationals’ starter Max Scherzer’s first appearance, he threw 98 pitches but didn’t make it through six innings.
What Does All of This Mean?
On Friday, Fangraphs writer Jay Jaffe posted an article about starting pitcher workloads being reduced in 2020. Managers all across MLB are pulling their starters earlier right now. IP/GS has been dropping each year since 2017, and according the article, this year would be the biggest year-to-year drop in five years.
A number of reasons factor into this drop, and the article provides much more detail than I have written here. However, I want to highlight a couple of those reasons. The pitchers mentioned above all have one thing in common. They strike out a lot of batters. Bieber already has 43 strikeouts, while deGrom, Cole and Lynn are all close to 30 strikeouts. This, in turn, will increase their pitch totals.
The Reds have a 12.24 K/9, good for first in MLB. The Reds are also second in MLB in pitches per plate appearance at 4.15. Bauer, Castillo, and Gray are all in the top five in MLB in K/9. Leading in numerous strikeout categories and pitches per PA equals a lot of pitches thrown to batters.
Pitchers also might be more susceptible to injuries right now, due to the short summer camp. We’ve already seen this with DeSclafani, Miley, Justin Verlander, Shohei Ohtani, and even Max Scherzer (although he’s expected to be back tonight). Madison Bumgarner also just went on the injured list Monday. It prompted this tweet from an ESPN reporter:
I have Madison Bumgarner as the sixth pitcher to go on the injured list today. That’s 56 pitchers on the IL for non-COVID reasons through the first 18 days of this season, according to the fine folks of ESPN Stats & Info.
First 18 days of 2019: 24
First 18 days of 2018: 19
— Alden Gonzalez (@Alden_Gonzalez) August 10, 2020
While it’s entirely possible these injuries could have happened in a regular 162-game season, limited opportunities to work out over the three-month shut down and a short time to build back up to full arm strength heightened the injury chances for so many pitchers. This could all just be temporary until pitchers get to full strength or the trends for shorter outings could keep moving downward. Only time will tell.
As for the Reds, Bell has the right idea. Between increased risk for injuries and high pitch counts due to increased strikeouts, the starters are going to be taken out earlier than fans want. It’s a shift within the game that has happened, and although Bell has played it this way, he’s also given his pitchers longer opportunities than a lot of other managers have. And that’s why I’m going to give him grace for now.