How the role of the pitcher has changed from Little League to the MLB
Christy Mathewson is considered the first face of baseball.
The tall, charismatic, kid from Northeast Pennsylvania changed the perception of what it meant to be a ball player.
Over the course of Mathewson’s 17-year career, he won 373 games and accumulated a career earned run average of 2.13. He was one of five players inducted into the Hall of Fame as part of the inaugural class of 1936.
But what made Mathewson, and the other great pitchers of his generation, so special was their ability to perform in a “pinch” –– it’s why his memoir is titled “Pitching in a Pinch; Or, Baseball from the Inside.”
“In most Big League ball games, there comes an inning on which hangs victory or defeat,” Mathewson wrote. “Certain intellectual fans call it the crisis; college professors, interested in the sport, have named it the psychological moment; Big League managers mention it as the ‘break,’ and pitchers speak of the ‘pinch.’”
“This is the time when each team is straining every nerve either to win or to prevent defeat.”
Even though Mathewson’s memoir was published over 100 years ago, that aspect of baseball hasn’t changed. But what’s different about Mathewson’s era, and the game today, is that Mathewson and the other great starters of his time were always on the mound to handle those big moments.
Mathewson started all 11 of his career postseason outings. He finished all but one of them.
Now flash forward to the 2019 postseason, when Clayton Kershaw, a man often referred to as the greatest pitcher of his generation, jogged to the mound from the bullpen with the Dodgers clinging to a two-run lead in the eighth inning of Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series against the Nationals.
But that wasn’t the first time a talented starting pitcher came in as a reliever even in that series. It’s a trend that developed throughout the 2010s.
This is the story of how the role of the pitcher has changed over this past decade, from the bottom of the sport to the very top.
Little League Rules
Kyle Carter threw 94 pitches over six innings as he led his team from Columbus, Georgia, to the 2006 Little League World Series title.
But a year later, another team from the state of Georgia was competing for its own Little League crown. Kendall Scott was excellent in relief of starter Keaton Allen, who surrendered two early runs. Kendall had allowed just one hit and struck out 10 in 5 ⅔ innings. But he was at 87 pitches, and the new pitch count rules implemented prior to the 2007 season allowed pitchers to throw a maximum of 85 pitches in one game, unless they reached 85 pitches in the middle of an at-bat, in which case they would be allowed to finish throwing to that batter before being removed.
It was a whole new way of life for Little League teams and coaches. No longer could teams just hand the ball to their ace for the entirety of the game. And that change, away from baseball of the early 20th century and toward the game of the 21st, has dramatically altered the way managers and teams approach the path to Williamsport and what they do at the LLWS.
“I think it adds a real strategy to the game and I’ve noticed how these coaches are very prepared,” ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian said. “I’m really intrigued by how they do this because it actually not only protects our kids, but it helps win games, it helps win championships.”
At the most recent Little League World Series last August, one team took the management of its pitchers to a level that hadn’t been seen before.
It was the second day of the tournament and the game was scoreless in the third inning. Starting pitcher Justin Lee of the team from South Riding, Virginia, was throwing a no-hitter in his team’s first game.
His manager, Alan Bowden, didn’t care. He was pulling Justin from the game in order for him to be eligible to pitch again two days later. Bowden knew the risk he was taking. If his team wound up losing that game to its opponent from Rhode Island, his best pitcher wouldn’t be available in an elimination game the following day.
“I think it adds a real strategy to the game and I’ve noticed how these coaches are very prepared.” ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian
But Bowden removed him anyway. He had a plan, and he was going to stick to it because it’s exactly what got him to Williamsport in the first place.
“In terms of strategy, if you play your cards right with your best two or three pitchers, you can get through your local, regional, and state tournaments with two or three top pitchers,” Bowden said. “You really have to work it like a Rubik’s cube.”
In game one, it worked out for Bowden. He received some criticism for the way he handled the situation at the time, but no one seemed to care when his team plated three runs in the bottom of the fifth inning and won the game,
When it came to deciding who was going to start the next game, there wasn’t even a thought behind it. It was going to be Justin. If he was eligible –– and Bowden made sure he was –– it was always going to be Justin. He proceeded to throw a no-hitter on only 54 pitches as the Virginia Little Leaguers won by a final of 11-0 in four innings over Minnesota.
“Who knows what would’ve happened in the Minnesota game had I not had him available?” Bowden said.
The South Riding, Virginia team would drop its next two games and wind up getting eliminated. But it wasn’t without their best on the mound. Justin started all four games for Virginia and faced a total of 52 batters. None of his teammates pitched to more than 20.
“(Managing pitch counts is) most managers’ number one priority, other than practicing and getting your teams ready,” Bowden said. “If you get cast down in the loser’s bracket, like I did, then it becomes even more in play. We’re looking four or five days ahead.”
But it wasn’t just Bowden and his team that were keeping a watchful eye over their kids’ pitch counts.
Even Scott Frazier, the laidback coach of the champion Louisiana team, had to make a full-scale change of his pitching plan after his team dropped their opening game of the tournament.
“In Little League, you’ve got to be on top of the pitch counts in tournaments like this,” Frazier said after the opening round loss. “I don’t know even know how many games we have to win at this point. But we have the pitching to do it.”
He was right. They won six games in eight days to give Louisiana its first ever LLWS title –– and every step of his plan went the way it was supposed to. And it was hard to find to a coach who spoke more matter of factly about his pitching plans.
“We’re throwing Marshall Louque,” Frazier said after eliminating the team from New Jersey. “So don’t ask the questions, we are throwing Marshall Louque and he is going 85 [pitches]. Period. That’s his game tomorrow and that will get us to the U.S. Championship game.”
In that same press conference, he told the media that Egan Prather, the winning pitcher from that game against New Jersey, would be the one on the mound when they made it to the championship game on Sunday. The thing is, at the time Frazier said that, it was Wednesday and he needed two more wins just to make the title game.
But once again, Frazier was right. Managing the rest of his pitching staff carefully, the club from just outside New Orleans reached the championship. And when they got there, Egan threw a two-hit shutout to capture the first LLWS title for the boys’ home state.
It’s hard to find someone not in favor of the current pitch counts established in Little League.
The rules have been in place for over 12 years now and have created an entirely new generation of Little League coaches, like Bowden, who only know what it’s like to coach under the new pitch count limits.
These pitch count limits, which don’t allow Little League pitchers to throw more than 85 pitches a day, have made coaches more aware about arm issues and have even infiltrated their coaching philosophies in travel ball tournaments where there are no rules on pitch counts.
“We institute arm-care programs for our travel teams and most of us that are pretty conservative, we’ll go ahead and use the Little League rules on our travel teams, or at least within five or 10 pitches of it,” Bowden said. “We’re always very keen on arm care and making sure our kids don’t have arm issues. I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve never had arm issues with my travel kids and my Little League kids.”
But the rules aren’t perfect. Bowden knows that.
“The bigger issue is the management of their arms and whether or not the pitch counts are actually a reasonable measure of where the kids should be stopping and resting,” Bowden said. “For example, you let a kid catch an entire game one day and then he can throw 85 pitches the next. Does that make sense given the juxtaposition to a pitcher who can throw no more than 20 pitches and throw again the next day?”
“Take into account all of the warmups these kids do. Sometimes these numbers seem to be arbitrary.”
Big League Arms
Christy Mathewson threw over 300 innings 11 times in a career that began in 1900.
In 2019, Justin Verlander led the MLB with 223 innings pitched. The last time a pitcher threw over 300 innings in a season was nearly 40 years ago, when Hall of Fame Phillies southpaw Steve Carlton tossed 304 innings in 1980 as Philadelphia won the World Series.
Pitchers are conditioned differently in the 21st century.
“I think the way we treat our pitchers in the major leagues now is, five innings, 100 pitches in the minor leagues –– maybe less than that –– and you’re out of the game,” Kurkjian of ESPN said. “We are not grooming pitchers to go seven innings.
“I grew up in a time where pitchers finished what they started. None of that happens today. The devaluation of the starting pitcher is not a good thing for the game. It’s one reason the games take so long, and it’s one reason why we just don’t have as many great starting pitchers than we used to.”
The sheer number of typical starting pitchers has decreased over the last 10 years as well. In 2010, 92 starting pitchers qualified for the ERA title –– to qualify for the ERA title, a pitcher must throw one inning for each game his team plays –– but as the decade came to a close in 2019, there were only 61 qualified starting pitchers. That was actually an increase from the 58 qualified starters the year before. There were a total of nine teams during the 2019 season that didn’t have a complete game, which set an MLB record.
“Most teams don’t say, ‘Hey we need five starting pitchers to start a season.’ They’re saying, ‘We need 10 starting pitchers,’” Kurkjian said, “because, somebody’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to get tired and someone’s going to need to go on the injured reserve. The days are over when the Orioles broke camp with eight pitchers (total) one year in the ‘70s. This is just the way the game works right now.”
Small market teams, like the Tampa Bay Rays, have been especially experimental in its usage of pitchers in recent years with bullpen games and openers. To those involved in the sport, the driving force behind the change is evident.
“The biggest thing that’s changed is analytics and providing data,” Pirates bullpen coach Justin Meccage said.
Coaches at the college level can see it, too.
“These are things that are absolutes that you can’t argue,” Penn State pitching coach Josh Newman said. “The data, and these stats, you can’t argue.”
Both Meccage and Newman mentioned specific data that shows a pitcher’s stats against teams each time through the order, and how that factors into decisions of whether or not pull players out of the game in certain spots.
“Data that shows that a lot of times, guys in their third and fourth times through the lineups aren’t as effective as a reliever might be,” Meccage said. “So there’s proof to some of the thought processes people might be having.”
“Guys may be at 68 pitches two times through the lineup and they get pulled,” Newman added. “Well, they may have data that says the third time through the lineup, the hitters’ batting average is 50 points higher and the hard hit rate goes up substantially.”
But things have changed from a relief pitching perspective as well.
Teams, both at the collegiate and major league level, are no longer looking to fill specific roles in the bullpen –– a closer, a setup man, a long reliever.
“You’re seeing less of” the traditional reliever roles, Meccage said. Instead, it’s more about, well, what Mathewson would call those “pinch” moments.
It could be with the bases loaded in the sixth, with two outs and one runner on in the seventh or just the entire ninth inning itself in a close game. Those high-leverage moments vary from game to game and it’s causing teams to search more for a few high-quality relievers that can handle pitching in those big moments, rather than spending on a closer who only wants to pitch in the ninth inning. Teams have begun to figure out the challenge is often getting to the ninth inning.
“We don’t have a true closer,” Newman said. “Our best reliever is going to come in in the toughest spots. That could be the third inning. You can look at Mason Mellot last year. He was our best reliever and he pitched in various situations out of the ‘pen, in the third and fourth inning and sometimes finishing the game.”
The Future on the Mound
While the 2010s may be known in the baseball world as the decade that devalued the starting pitcher, the 2020s may just have the reverse effect, if the last few months of 2019 suggest anything.
The Washington Nationals won the franchise’s first World Series in October on the back of its strong pitching, but only half of the staff. The Nats used six pitchers –– Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle –– for 127 ⅔ of the team’s 153 innings. That’s four starters and two relievers for over 83 percent of the team’s postseason innings.
“What I think the Nationals did was, they proved the value of starting pitching is still really, really high,” Kurkjian said. “Granted, they have three great starting pitchers and they’re paying over $100 million for the three of them in one season, but when you have a horse like that –– Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin –– you have to use it. I think it’s a good thing for baseball. Maybe this postseason will show everybody there is still great value in great starting pitching, if you have it.”
The way Nats manager Dave Martinez went about utilizing his pitchers reminded Kurkjian of what he sees in Williamsport each year.
“It was a very risky thing, bringing out their starting pitchers to pitch that early out of the bullpen,” Kurkjian said. “But it was the case where Dave Martinez simply didn’t trust the 11, 12 guys he had down there. He really only truly trusted half of them. So he said, ‘If we’re going to win, we’re going to use my six best pitchers.’ Which is kinda how it works in Little League. Nobody has 12 pitchers, but they all have two, three, four, sometimes five and there’s a real strategy to using them at the right time.”
The Nationals used all six of those pitchers in unconventional ways. Corbin, who signed with the team for over $120 million the previous offseason, made just three starts in the postseason. He came on in relief five times, including twice during the World Series. Both Scherzer and Strasburg were used once in relief as well. Strasburg’s appearance was a little more notable as he came in to replace Scherzer in the sixth inning of the NL Wild Card game. But Washington’s plan was clear –– use its best pitchers when they were available.
“In the playoffs, you want your best pitchers pitching meaningful innings,” Meccage said. “With the time off that’s built in, you can go three starters so you can get away with throwing a starter or two in relief, especially if you have depth like the Nationals did with Corbin.”
But the key phrase, mentioned by both Meccage and Kurkjian is, “if you have depth.”
Not all 30 MLB teams have a three-headed monster at the top of the rotation like the Nationals. In fact, there might not be another team in baseball with that much firepower in its rotation.
But the Nationals did prove that there is still plenty of value in elite starting pitching and it created a race to sign some of the big name free agents this offseason. Gerrit Cole’s nine-year, $324 million contract with the New York Yankees is proof enough that starting pitching is still worth top dollar, and may define the next decade of baseball.
“I think what you’re seeing this offseason is the value of starting pitching is going back up, where as it kind of disappeared the last couple years and they were devalued a little bit,” Meccage said. “That’s an encouraging thing because over the long haul, starting pitching is something that wins. When you’ve got good starting pitching, your team is going to do really well.”
And baseball people believe that from Williamsport to the Bronx.