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The MLB Playoffs have been a starting pitchers renaissance

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This is supposed to be the age of relief pitchers in MLB, but the first round of the 2019 playoffs belonged to the aces.

Reliever usage is at an all-time high in this baseball age, which made the division series round a renaissance of sorts for starting pitchers. Teams relied on their starters more in the first round, some a little too much.

Teams are going to win whatever way they can, and if that means a quick hook and relying more on the bullpen, more power to them. But letting starting pitchers go deeper into games makes for more compelling stories. It’s better than tracking a manager’s Fitbit after several trips between the dugout and mound, at least.

MLB has no better way to combat all the “baseball is dying” rhetoric than to market its stars, and in any single game there is no position more suited for star status than a starting pitcher.

Just ask Gerrit Cole, the pending free agent who will make gobs of money this winter. The Astros star pitched into the eighth inning in both of his ALDS starts, walking off the mound to a hero’s welcome each time while striking out a division series-record 25 batters in the process. Cole is 18-0 since late May, and has recorded double-digit strikeouts in 11 straight starts.

I’ve fallen completely in love with starting pitching this postseason. I don’t even think it’s too soon in our relationship to push for a wedding. After all, we had:

  • Something old: 38-year-old Adam Wainwright pitching scoreless baseball into the eighth inning in Game 3 against the Braves.
  • Something new: 22-year-old rookie Mike Soroka, pitching against Wainwright in that very same game, allowing just a single run on two hits with seven strikeouts in seven innings during his first playoff start. For the Cardinals, 23-year-old Jack Flaherty continued his sublime second-half run by posting a 2.77 ERA in his first two postseason outings.
  • Something borrowed: This category was rough, with Astros trade deadline acquisition Zack Greinke and Braves June signee Dallas Keuchel both allowing three home runs in their starts. So let’s just celebrate that Houston’s three wins in the ALDS came from a pair of former trade acquisitions: Cole and Justin Verlander.
  • Something blue: Walker Buehler solidified his status as a big-game pitcher in only his second season, striking out eight in six scoreless innings for the Dodgers in Game 1 against the Nationals. He also allowed just one run while pitching into the seventh in Game 5, only to see his bullpen blow it.

“The reason why we are here — I said it all year — is our starting pitchers kept us afloat. They pitched really well all year,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said before Game 1 of the NLDS. “So we depend a lot on our starting pitching.”

Martinez had little choice but to rely on his rotation. The Nationals’ relievers posted the second-worst ERA (5.68) and fifth-worst FIP (4.94) in the majors this season. They added several folks to their bullpen throughout the year — newcomers Daniel Hudson, Fernando Rodney, and Hunter Strickland made Washington’s NLDS roster — but their 5.16 relief ERA after the trade deadline was still quite bad.

Washington used starter Stephen Strasburg in relief for three innings in the must-win wild card game, then used wild card starter Max Scherzer for a dominant, three-strikeout inning in relief in Game 2 of the NLDS, after Strasburg had carved up the Dodgers as a starter on two days rest. Scherzer followed up that relief appearance by shutting down the Dodgers in Game 4, setting up Strasburg for six more innings in Game 5.

The Nationals have played six playoff games so far, and Strasburg and Scherzer have accounted for 28 of 54 innings (51.9 percent). No wonder they are moving on to their first NLCS as a franchise in 38 years.

That reliance on starting pitchers was more prevalent in this year’s divisional round than in years past. Starters lasted at least six innings in 15 of 36 opportunities in the first round, after going that long just five times in 28 tries in 2018. Starters in the division series threw 100 or more pitches 10 times, after just four such starts last postseason.

Division series starter usage

Year Starters ERA Starters % of IP IP per start 6-inning starts
Year Starters ERA Starters % of IP IP per start 6-inning starts
2015 4.27 60.84% 5.49 20 out of 38
2016 5.38 54.03% 4.91 9 out of 30
2017 4.16 52.15% 4.65 10 out of 34
2018 3.79 52.97% 4.67 5 out of 28
2019 3.04 56.87% 5.02 15 out of 36

Starting pitchers in the divisional series posted a 3.04 ERA, while relievers were much worse at 5.19.

Managers have fallen so in love with their starting pitchers this postseason, that they are leaning on them to the extreme. In addition to Strasburg and Scherzer starting on short rest after relief appearances, both Keuchel and Verlander were used on three days rest after starts. Neither got out of the fourth inning, combining to allow seven runs in seven innings.

During the first round, starters were used seven times in relief after making a start earlier in the series. In addition to Scherzer’s dominant three-strikeout inning against the Dodgers, we saw Blake Snell get a save in Game 4 for the Rays, and Mile Mikolas get a win thanks to a scoreless relief inning in Game 4 for the Cardinals.

We also saw a pair of disaster outings by starters in relief that drove home just how difficult and unusual a relief role can be. Both came in the Nationals-Dodgers NLDS. The Nats’ Patrick Corbin allowed six runs while only recording two outs in a Game 3 loss, and Clayton Kershaw allowed home runs on back-to-back pitches in the eighth inning of Game 5, beginning the unraveling of the 106-win Dodgers.

But why are starting pitchers getting used more this postseason than in the previous two? Could it be that bullpens are worse?

Perhaps. With more and more relievers being used — 831 different players threw a pitch in 2019, and there were 16,573 different relief appearances, up four percent and 15 percent, respectively, from 2014 — and so many starters throwing fewer innings, the gap between reliever ERA and starter ERA is getting narrower.

Starters vs. Relievers

Stat 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
Stat 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
Starter ERA 4.10 4.34 4.49 4.19 4.54
Reliever ERA 3.71 3.93 4.15 4.08 4.46
ERA difference 0.39 0.41 0.34 0.11 0.08
Starter inning% 65.0% 63.3% 61.9% 59.9% 57.9%
Regular season numbers Source: Baseball-Reference

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the division series had so many exceptional starting performances.