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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2016 — #8: The Year of the Reliever

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We’re a few short days away from 2017 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2016. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were creatures of social media, fan chatter and the like. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Everyone was shocked when Buck Showalter neglected to use Zach Britton in the AL Wild Card game, choosing to allow Ubaldo Jimenez of all people to face Edwin Encarnacion and watch the latter walk the Blue Jays off and into the ALDS. That shock would’ve been present in any year — who doesn’t use their best available pitcher when the season is on the line? — but it was particularly shocking in 2016. Which may well come to be known as the year of the reliever.

Managers went to their bullpen early and often in 2016. As Jordan Bastian of MLB.com noted in a recent article, relievers set an MLB record with 15,893.2 innings pitched this season. The number of relief outings and specialized relief outings — appearances of one inning or less — have been on the uptick. The number of teams who, at times, have carried eight relievers is on the rise. Innings per start have gone down and strikeouts per nine innings have spiked. Fresher and harder-throwing arms are facing more batters and the batters are fanning at near-record rates.

Heavy reliance on relief pitchers was particularly noticeable in the playoffs, as both World Series managers — Terry Francona and Joe Maddon — relied on their relief aces far more than any managers had in living memory. Francona called on Andrew Miller in the fifth inning of Game 1 of the ALDS and averaged nearly two innings per outing in his ten playoff appearances. Aroldis Chapman, who has averaged less than an inning pitched per outing in his seven year career, pitched 15.2 innings in thirteen outings during the playoffs, and found himself gassed by the time Game 7 rolled around.

This offseason the value teams place on relief pitchers has been abundantly clear. Three closers — Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon – each surpassed the old mark for highest-paid reliever in the game, with Chapman signing a five-year $86 million contract. The previous high: Jonathan Papelbon‘s four-year, $50 million deal.

All of this has been fantastic for the relievers and the teams which employ the good ones. It’s not all been great news, however.

Despite Major League Baseball’s efforts to reduce the length of games, game times went up in 2016, no doubt due to there being more pitching changes than ever. Pace-of-play is slow as well, as max-effort relievers take their sweet time gearing up for every pitch. Strikeouts, of which there are more than ever, take more time than at bats which end with contact and, of course, with more strikeouts likewise come more walks. During the recent Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, there was a proposal to add a roster spot to each team. It was ultimately shelved amidst criticism that most teams would simply give the job to yet another relief pitcher.

In the meantime, though, look for the pattern to continue and teams’ reliance on relievers to be even more pronounced. Success breeds imitators, and between the 2015 World Series champ Kansas City Royals and both pennant winning teams this past year sporting dominant bullpens, others will try to copy what they do.

Diamondbacks place Shelby Miller on the 10-day disabled list

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The Diamondbacks announced on Monday that starter Shelby Miller has been placed on the 10-day disabled list with right elbow inflammation. Miller will get a second opinion on his elbow on Tuesday, per MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert. Pitcher Silvino Bracho has been called up from Triple-A Reno to take Miller’s spot on the roster.

Miller, 26, left Sunday’s start with what was described at the time as forearm tightness. Through his first four starts, Miller is carrying a 4.09 ERA with a 20/12 K/BB ratio in 22 innings.

Bracho, 24, has pitched quite well in 6 2/3 innings of relief at Reno. He’s given up just one unearned run on four hits and a walk (intentional) with 12 strikeouts.

Archie Bradley figures to take Miller’s spot in the starting rotation as Bracho will work middle relief.

Eric Thames hit two more homers

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And John Lackey is livid.

The Brewers’ first baseman homered in each of his first two plate appearances against Reds starter Amir Garrett on Monday evening, helping his team to a 6-1 lead after two frames. The first was a solo blast in the first inning, and the second was a two-run shot to the opposite field in the second inning.

According to MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy, Thames has tied the Brewers’ record for home runs in April with 10. Carlos Lee also hit 10 homers in April 2006.

Seven of Thames’ 10 home runs have come against the Reds. Including his first two at-bats on Monday night, Thames is hitting .379/.474/.924 with 17 RBI along with the 10 dingers. Not too shabby from a guy the Brewers signed to a three-year, $16 million contract during the offseason.

Lackey and Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio both recently implied Thames is using performance-enhancing drugs, but Thames was tested immediately after last Monday’s game against the Cubs.