AP (NEW)

MLB wants to make starting pitching more prominent, but it’s a tough task in today’s game

Feb 28, 2024, 7:57 AM

FILE- Texas Rangers' Max Scherzer flips the ball in the air as he paces the dugout during the seven...

FILE- Texas Rangers' Max Scherzer flips the ball in the air as he paces the dugout during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023, in Phoenix. Scherzer logged at least 179 innings in 10 of his first 16 years in the majors. And the three-time Cy Young Award winner learned some tough lessons on the road to pitching deep into games. That's one reason why the Rangers right-hander thinks Major League Baseball needs to look a lot deeper than a roster limit if it wants to return starting pitching to prominence. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

SURPRISE, Ariz. (AP) — Max Scherzer logged at least 179 innings in 10 of his first 16 years in the majors. And the three-time Cy Young Award winner learned some tough lessons on the road to pitching deep into games.

That’s one reason why the Texas Rangers right-hander thinks Major League Baseball needs to look a lot deeper than a roster limit if it wants to return starting pitching to prominence.

“I became a better pitcher once I went through three times in the lineup and was failing on that third time through the lineup,” the 39-year-old Scherzer said. “That’s every young pitcher’s struggle, is learning how to pitch three times through a lineup. … We’re so scared now to let guys fail.”

The state of starting pitching has the attention of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who said in October the league is considering lowering the maximum of 13 pitchers per team to 12 possibly as soon as the 2025 season — with the goal of placing a greater emphasis on starting pitchers.

Big league starters averaged 15.4 outs and 85.1 pitches last year, according to Sportradar, and 15.6 outs and 84.9 pitches in 2022. But the numbers were 17.4 and 93.1 as late as 2015, and 17.8 and 98.6 in 2000.

“I grew up a fan of the game, and me and my dad used to pick Astros games based on when Roy Oswalt was pitching,” Chicago Cubs right-hander Jameson Taillon said. “We would look at pitching matchups, that’s what we would do. Nowadays, I feel like that allure is gone a little bit.”

MLB wants to put that allure back in the game, but it’s a tricky, multifaceted issue.

Pitching prospects are closely monitored on their way to the majors, and deviating from the organization’s plan could put the careers of minor league managers and coaches at risk. There is more arm talent in big league bullpens than ever before, and reams of data that illustrate the danger of leaving a pitcher in for too long.

“From a fan perspective, yeah, to see a guy in there to go seven, eight innings, I absolutely get it,” Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Doesn’t necessarily help you win baseball games, and I’m in the business of winning games.”

While a 12-pitcher limit could incentivize teams to let starting pitchers go deeper into games, it would add more stress to bullpens. It also could prompt teams to shuttle their middle relievers from the majors to the minor leagues even more — regardless of their performance.

The long-term answer most likely lies in the lower levels of the minors and how baseball develops its next generation of starters.

“It starts with training in the minor leagues,” Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said. “That’s where it all begins. It’s hard to do it when guys are coming up. They’re not trained to do that. Now you’re going to ask them to get you deeper in the games and now you’re risking injury. So you got to be smart about that.”

The focus in the minors is more on stuff, Taillon said, and trying “to raise guys’ ceiling at a young age.”

“You see guys nowadays get called up who’ve never thrown five innings in their life,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

Pitch counts, especially for baseball’s top prospects, prevent pitchers from working deep into games in the minors.

Scherzer, who threw at least 95 pitches in 15 starts last year, thinks more latitude in the minors would help.

“I’ve been developed to throw, call it 105, 110 pitches on a five-day rotation,” he said. “It’s the rest. It’s more about the pitch count and then getting the appropriate amount of the rest. I don’t understand why we keep cutting that pitch count lower and lower, especially for the guys who are being developed.”

Scherzer called a 12-pitcher roster limit “a terrible idea,” but he agreed that it would take some sort of action to reverse the current trend with starting pitching.

“We need to incentivize keeping the starter in the game longer,” he said. “We’re going to have to come up with rules to do this. It’s not going to self-correct.”

Once pitchers make it to the majors, they are often pulled before the lineup turns over a third time because of statistics that show hitters typically have more success in their third plate appearance against the same pitcher.

It could be an ace right-hander rolling along with a low pitch count — with no sign of trouble — and the manager makes the move because it’s easier to address why he took him out than why he left him in for too long. That’s an attitude that would be difficult for Major League Baseball to take out of the game.

“Trusting what you’re seeing, trusting your eyes and knowing when those times are to be able to let them go, I think you might start to see that come back a little bit more,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “There’s no refuting the numbers. It’s just like being able to recognize when it’s time to let them let them go.”

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MLB wants to make starting pitching more prominent, but it’s a tough task in today’s game