For the last month or so, St. Louis Cardinals fans have focused much of their hopes and anxiety on starting pitching in the free agent and trade markets. But as ESPN’s Mark Saxon pointed out in his offseason preview of the Los Angeles Dodgers this morning, maybe they shouldn’t.
Heck, maybe no one should. Saxon wrote,
"“There is a line of thinking in baseball, one the Kansas City Royals just made look really good, that you can win with four or five decent but not dominant starters if you have a lockdown bullpen.”"
He’s right. And that line of thinking is right, too. Consider that we have reached a new frontier in baseball, in which the numbers have been sliced and diced so finely that outcomes have never been more predictable (Yet still aren’t completely predictable thanks to human error. Players are people. What are you gonna do?). The last thing for baseball — all sports, really — to figure out is injury prevention.
Tommy John surgeries are
Remember this guy? He pitchers for the St. Louis Cardinals, apparently. Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
now commonplace. While the outcomes are almost always positive, it takes about a full year for those pitchers to meaningfully contribute again. As St. Louis Cardinals fans know very well after losing reliever Jordan Walden and starter Adam Wainwright this year, that’s WAR down the drain.
Why, then, do the St. Louis Cardinals and every other big league team (except the Royals, maybe) throw big dollars at starting pitching? Should the budget and the workload shift more to the bullpen than it already has?
Ten to 20 years down the road, will the piggyback system the St. Louis Cardinals once used in the lower levels of its farm system become a thing in the big leagues? The Colorado Rockies tried it three years ago. It failed, but maybe it wasn’t the system that was the problem.
St. Louis Cardinals A-ball pitchers used to go four innings per appearance, alternating between starting and coming on in the fifth inning. A designated closer would finish the game in the ninth. Jeff Luhnow was the one who installed it, so it’s no surprise his Houston Astros are using that approach now.
Piggybacking is a gallant attempt to prevent injuries, but tendons and rotator cuffs can give at any time, anywhere. The human body simply wasn’t designed to hurl baseballs at 80-plus mph over and over again.
That said, the other and perhaps more significant thing the piggyback system does is devalue the starting pitcher. If he breaks, the impact on the team isn’t as big. Take a look at the top ten injured players from 2015 in terms of overall WAR (scroll to the chart at the bottom). Five of them were starters.
The end of the conventional starting pitcher is nigh, folks. Forget shelling out millions for David Price. The St. Louis Cardinals should fortify their bullpen with one or more of these guys instead.