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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.

Rockies acquire Zac Rosscup from Cubs

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The Rockies announced a minor swap of relief pitchers on Monday evening. The Cubs sent lefty Zac Rosscup to the Rockies in exchange for right-hander Matt Carasiti.

Rosscup, 29, was designated for assignment by the Cubs last Thursday. He spent only two-thirds of an inning in the majors this year and has a 5.32 career ERA across 47 1/3 innings. Rosscup has spent most of the season with Triple-A Iowa, posting a 2.60 ERA in 27 2/3 innings.

Carasiti, 25, spent 15 2/3 innings in the majors last year, putting up an ugly 9.19 ERA. With Triple-A Albuquerque this season, he compiled a 2.37 ERA and a 43/13 K/BB ratio in 30 1/3 innings.

U.S. Court of Appeals affirms ruling that the minor leagues are exempt from federal antitrust law

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The Associated Press reported that on Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed a district court ruling which holds that the minor leagues are exempt from federal antitrust law, just like the major leagues.

In 2015, four minor leaguers sued Major League Baseball, alleging that MLB violated antitrust laws with its hiring and employment policies. They accused MLB of “restrain[ing] horizontal competition between and among” franchises and “artificially and illegally depressing” the salaries of minor league players.

The U.S. Court of Appeals said the players failed to state an antitrust claim, as the Curt Flood Act of 1998 exempted Minor League Baseball explicitly from antitrust laws.

This case is separate from the Aaron Senne case in which Major League Baseball is accused of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act. That case was recertified as a class action lawsuit in March. In December, Major League Baseball established a political action committee (PAC), which came months after two members of Congress sought to change language in the FLSA so that minor league players could continue to be paid substandard wages.