The New York Yankees should avoid the current trend in MLB of loading up on relief pitchers. Instead, the Yanks should expand the club’s starting pitching rotation in 2021.
It seems that most MLB clubs have decided that it is to their advantage to have more relief pitchers than quality starting pitchers on their roster. There are a few explanations regarding why baseball teams are now approaching the game this way compared to the past.
According to baseball analytics, the more often batters face the same starting pitcher in a game, the higher their batting averages increase, leading to more runs scored.
In other words, the more familiar batters are with how pitchers throw, the easier it becomes for batters to see, time, and hit the ball. Makes sense.
At the same time, increasing fatigue on the part of starters during a game may also explain the higher batting averages in later innings. As pitchers move through a game, they tend to tire, some more than others. This especially occurs during the dog days of summer. Velocity tends to decrease, breaking balls move less, and ball placement is not as sharp.
And then, of course, there is a financial issue. While starting pitchers’ salaries have increased dramatically over time, relief pitchers’ earnings have lagged disproportionately behind, regardless of innings pitched. Therefore, it has become less expensive for MLB teams to hire relief pitchers rather than starting pitchers and rely on them more heavily to win games in a season.
As a result of this trend, starting pitchers tend not to go deep into games, and they tend to pitch fewer innings during the season. In fact, it is no longer unusual for ball clubs to have entire games thrown by relief pitchers. This most likely occurs when several games in a row and/or doubleheaders are scheduled, making it difficult for a club to employ starting pitchers on a normal five-day rest. And following a shortened season in 2020, which resulted in unintentional innings limits on everyone, expect this trend to only increase in magnitude in 2021.
Occasionally, a club will call up a pitcher from the minor leagues to fill a rotation gap. This, too, is a cost-effective move. However, many teams do not have minor league players who can easily step in and pitch as well as a starting pitcher against a major league opponent.
As fans of the Yankees are well aware, the club has had reliever Chad Green open a game on a number of occasions. He usually pitches two or three innings and then hands the baton to another relief pitcher. It is not unusual to have five or six Bronx relievers pitch in these games.
Overall, the Yanks have won their share of games under these circumstances, but at a cost. When the team turns over games to their relievers, they significantly deplete their bullpen, thereby restricting manager Aaron Boone’s relief pitching options for the next game or two.
A better idea for the Yankees and their rotation
I would argue that the Bombers would be much better off spending more money on starting pitchers than in the past. Rather than employing four or five solid starting pitchers, the Yanks should maintain a solid core of six starting pitchers in their rotation throughout the regular season. There are several advantages if the Yankees employ this strategy.
First, Yankee starting pitchers will more frequently get their typical five-day rest and, one would expect, perform a lot better during the regular season.
Second, Yankee starting pitchers will go deeper into games and rack up more innings if they start the game fully rested and with more energy. This will translate into less wear on the bullpen. Like starters, well-rested relief pitchers will be more effective and perform consistently well if they are afforded enough time to rejuvenate between appearances.
Third, when the time between games is longer than usual and the schedule permits, one of the starting pitchers can be assigned to the bullpen and be available for long relief. Having such flexibility is a significant benefit.
Fourth — a critical issue for the Yankees — pitchers who are overworked during the season are more likely to wind up on the IL for extended periods than pitchers who are not overworked and are well-rested. By having a formal six-man starting rotation, both starters and relievers will receive substantial rest and be less likely to seriously injure themselves during the season.
Fifth, during the playoffs, the Bombers can easily transition from a six-man to a four-man rotation. In case a designated starter in a playoff game becomes injured or is roughed up early in a critical contest, the Bombers will have two additional quality pitchers they can call on for long relief as a backup.
Finally, suffice to say that most athletes, especially MLB pitchers, tend to perform better when they can develop their own routine and stick to it. Instituting a six-man rotation will solidify workload expectations and predictability and make it easier for Yankees hurlers to formulate a routine and follow it. This is both a physical and psychological benefit of having a six-man rotation.
At the start of the 2021 season, I expect that five pitchers will be named starters. The list is likely to include Gerrit Cole (as the anchor, of course), Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, Domingo German, and Jordan Montgomery.
If the Yanks follow my advice and adopt my six-man rotation scheme, Devi Garcia and Michael King could compete for the sixth slot in the rotation. Clarke Schmidt could also be a candidate for the sixth spot after his current stint on the IL ends in mid-May.
Of course, Spring Training has only just begun, and a lot can change before the start of the 2021 season. Maybe one of the young Yankee pups (e.g., Nick Nelson) will surprise everyone and pitch extremely well during Spring Training, thereby earning the last place in the starting rotation.