Cubs among teams seeing new pitching math as 200-inning starters fade away
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MESA, Ariz. — Want to get Cubs left-hander Jon Lester riled up?
Just tell him that it’s not a big deal if a starting pitcher doesn’t throw 200 innings in a season anymore. Or that 200-inning men are about to go the way of the woolly mammoth and Myspace.
‘‘I hope not,’’ he said. ‘‘I think it’s terrible for the game.’’
Lester is still chapped he didn’t reach 200 innings last season after getting there in seven of the previous eight years, even if it was a late-season lat injury that caused him to fall short.
‘‘I feel like I let the team down,’’ he said.
If that’s the case, then 90 percent of the pitchers who opened the 2017 season in their teams’ rotations let their clubs down.
Lester admitted he might be a dinosaur in the way he thinks about the subject, but he’s even more of a dinosaur these days in the way reaches 200 innings as often as he does.
Only 15 pitchers did that in each of the last two seasons. Those totals are down from 28 in 2015, 34 in 2014, 45 in 2010 and 50 in 2005.
Teams are adhering to strict pitch counts and responding to analytics that show how significant the drop-off is for many starters the third time through the order. It has changed the rotation-bullpen equation to such a degree that it would be absurd for most teams to set a goal of the traditional 1,000 innings from their starters. No team did that in either of the last two seasons. The last time the Cubs did it was in 2004.
There’s no indication the trend is going to stop, much less reverse itself. A look at the recent free-agent market that was slow for every position group but relievers suggested that much. The Angels even are talking about using a six-man rotation this season, all but assuring no 200-inning starters.
And the Cubs are in the middle of the trend, despite signing right-hander Yu Darvish and putting together what on paper looks like one of the best rotations in the league.
Their decision to carry an eight-man bullpen from the start this season is a direct response to the trend, said general manager Jed Hoyer, whose front office deepened the Cubs’ relief corps by signing free agents Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek.
And it has put an even higher premium on the infield-outfield versatility of Ben Zobrist, Ian Happ and even Kris Bryant as the Cubs’ bench shrinks.
‘‘Teams are putting more emphasis on the bullpen,’’ Hoyer said. ‘‘Teams are trying to avoid pitchers seeing a hitter for the third time. But over the course of the entire season, normally the teams that get the most innings out of the rotation are really successful.
‘‘What’s fair to say is that maybe we’ve lowered the goal from getting 1,000 innings out of your starters to maybe getting over 900.’’
Blame the Royals and other teams that have loaded up on elite bullpen arms and leaned on them hard to win championships in recent years. Nobody thinks that’s a recipe for success in a six-month season, but it likely has helped fuel the trend toward stout bullpens in general. And it has created a new math on distributing the roughly 1,450 innings a team pitches during the season.
‘‘I can’t deny that it probably is a new math,’’ Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. ‘‘But I still want guys to go out there with the intent of throwing 200 innings. I think it does something for you internally. That’s something that can’t be measured: How do you feel about yourself?
‘‘I mean, you become a bad man at that point. And that probably, confidence-wise, puts you in this elite level.’’
Of course, if 900 innings from your rotation is the new benchmark, does that make 180 the new 200? Don’t tell Lester. Or Rick Sutcliffe, who broke in when four-man rotations were common and threw 244 2/3 innings — 150 1/3 in 20 starts for the Cubs — during his Cy Young season in 1984.
Sutcliffe, who talks derisively about the impact the ‘‘quality start’’ has had on starters’ thinking, said the sea change came two decades ago, when then-Yankees manager Joe Torre turned games into six- and seven-inning affairs with a dominating back end of the bullpen and when then-Cardinals manager Tony La Russa resurrected several starters’ careers by turning them into five-inning pitchers and leaning on bigger bullpens.
‘‘I understand it now,’’ Sutcliffe said. ‘‘There’s still those [Clayton] Kershaws and [Max] Scherzers out there.’’
But it’s hard to imagine modern player-development methods regularly producing more classic workhorses, let alone enough to reverse the trend.
‘‘You’ve got prospects that have limits; they can’t do this, they can’t do that,’’ Sutcliffe said. ‘‘It’s something that’s here to stay, whether you like it or not.’’
Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.