Cubs Den writer Mauricio Rubio brought up a favorite name of mine on twitter last night. He talked about Joe Borowski's first full season with the Cubs which was in 2002. That season Joe Borowski threw 95 quality innings. The reason for this discussion was the fact that in 2002 Joe Borowski was asked to get more than three outs 35 times that season. That number would be 20 more than the highest total on the 2013 Cubs, Hector Rondon's 15. That number would also represent over 30% of the total number of times Cub relievers threw more than one inning.
This trend in bullpen usage has not gone unnoticed as the 12 man pitching staff has become the norm in baseball. Toronto for stretches of last season actually carried 14 pitchers at a time. One of the most cited factors for this trend is the specialization of relievers. The presence of LOOGY in most bullpens and even some ROOGY limit the amount relievers throw. Another factor could be the increased velocity that pitchers, especially relievers, throw at today. The extra torque caused by the velocity and the heavy reliance on sliders might mean that relievers need to pitch in shorter bursts to remain healthy. But that is entirely conjecture.
What isn't conjecture is that major league managers are asking relievers to get more than three outs less than ten years ago and much less than twenty years ago. The chart below shows the average. As you can see from the chart, AL pitchers were asked far more frequently to pitch longer than their NL counterparts. The most obvious explanation for this is the need for pinch hitting typically involved in game situations involving the relievers. Either way the trend has remained fairly consistent throughout the period shown in the chart.
An interesting aspect of this has been a reversal in this trend the past couple of seasons. Closers being called upon to get 4 outs or more jumped in 2013. The trend for more and more relievers in the bullpen might finally be reversing. There are a number of reasons to hope for this fact as teams like Tampa Bay and Oakland show the value in platooning position players. However, there is a problem with just looking at how many times relievers pitching more than one inning. Despite that number increasing, the number of outs relievers get on average has remained at historic low levels in the sample.
The amount increased for the first time in the nearly twenty year sample from 3.0 to 3.1, but it remains well below the nearly 4 (3.7 to be precise) outs relievers recorded on average in 1995-1996. These numbers point to managers still constructing 12, and 13, man pitching staffs in 2014. The Cubs, though, are poised to have a unique opportunity to be a bold and innovative organization. The Cubs have two ready made multi-inning relievers on the pitching staff for 2014 in Alberto Cabrera and Carlos Villanueva. I wrote about the advantage of using these two in that role before.
The advantage that I want to write about here though is that the Cubs could carry an extra position players since they have so many flawed players with one or two excellent skills. Carrying Darwin Barney as a utility player on the roster is a lot easier with the extra slot. This would still allow the Cubs to have a Luis Valbuena-Donnie Murphy platoon to cover second base. The Cubs could carry six outfielders, which might be necessary given the fact that most of the Cubs outfielders would probably be more productive in platoon settings. Also it adds an extra bat on the bench to be used in late inning situations against the multitude of relievers that other teams are carrying.
I doubt that the Cubs will be that innovative with their roster construction though. Theo Epstein was once the center of a bold bullpen experiment when he first came to Boston. They tried to eliminate the closer, and it failed. The Red Sox always had a traditional closer after that failed attempt to destroy modern bullpen construction. I am not certain that Epstein and Hoyer are ready to challenge the conventions of bullpens again, but the Cubs would gain a multitude of roster advantages by using the assets currently on the roster.
One day a team is going to return to a 11 man pitching staff, and if it works all the other teams will follow. Hopefully the Cubs can be that team, but I doubt it will be the 2014 version.