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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.

Bryce Harper is really just a tiny bit better Adam Lind when you think about it

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Tom Boswell of the Washington Post writes about an important matter facing the Washington Nationals over the next year: what to do about Bryce Harper, who is entering his walk year and will be a free agent a little over 12 months from now.

That’s a fine and important question. The Nats do need to decide whether to offer Harper a long term deal, when to offer it and, above all else, how big that deal should be. Should it be $300 million? $400 million? Should it be conventional or unconventional, with opt-outs and such? It’s not every day that a generational talent comes along and it’s even more rare that the generational talent hits free agency at the age of 26, so the decisions facing the Nationals are not easy ones.

Boswell acknowledges that bit of trickiness, but he also, strangely, spends a whole lot of time trying to portray Harper as an ordinary talent. He starts with health, comparing him poorly with Stephen Strasburg, who is ranked 30th in games started over the past five years. In contrast . . .

In those same five years, Harper ranks 90th in games played, just 126 a season, and now he says he should have skipped quite a few more games in 2016 when he had a balky shoulder. That’s almost six weeks out per season.

Nowhere in the column is it mentioned that the several weeks he missed in 2017 was the result of a freak injury in wet conditions and that, despite that, Harper worked his tail off to come back and be ready for the postseason. Not that Boswell doesn’t mention the postseason of course . . .

Harper, for the fourth time, failed to lead his team out of the first round and has career playoff batting average and OPS marks of .215 and .801. By the high standards of right fielders, he’s Mr. Average in October.

I suppose it’s not Boswell’s job to refrain from insulting a player on the team he covers, but he certainly seems hellbent on insulting not only Harper, but our own intelligence via comparisons like this:

In the past five years, in those 126 games, Harper averaged 26 homers, 72 RBI and a .288 average. Over the last nine years, Adam Lind averaged 128 games, 20 homers, 70 RBI and hit .273. That’s selective stat mining. Harper is much better, in part because he walks so much. But Harper and Lind in the same sentence?

“A person can eat delicious chocolate cake or lead paint chips. The chocolate cake is much better, but chocolate cake and lead paint in the same sentence?” I guess Boswell gets points for acknowledging that it was a misleading comparison, but if he thinks it is, why make it in the first place? If you want to eliminate this one as an outlier, cool, because he makes a lot of other comparisons like that in the piece.

This is not necessarily new for Boswell. Here’s something he wrote about Harper in 2014:

Harper has not driven in 60 runs in either of his two seasons. He has only five RBI this year. He’s never had more than 157 runs-plus-RBI. Ryan Zimmerman has had between 163 and 216 six times. Adam LaRoche, no big star, has had 175 or more three times. Fourth outfielder Nate McLouth once had 207. Can we get a grip? Counting their three top starting pitchers, Harper may be the Nats’ seventh-best player. If forced to choose whether Harper or Anthony Rendon would have the better career, I’d think twice. Harper is in a self-conscious, fierce scowl-off with baseball. Rendon dances with it and grins. Baseball loves relaxed.

That was written 16 games into his age-22 season.

I’m not sure what Boswell’s beef with Harper is. I’m not sure why he’s contorting himself to portray him as an ordinary player when he is fairly extraordinary and, most certainly, a special case when it comes to his impending free agency. In his career he already has 26.1 career bWAR, 150 homers, an MVP Award under his belt and, if it wasn’t for that freak injury in August, would have a strong case for a second one. Guy has a career line of .285/.386/.515 and he turned 26 four days ago. He’s younger than Aaron Judge.

My view of things is that players should ignore the media for the most part, but they don’t always do that. Sometimes the hostility or criticism of the local press — especially from the most respected portions of the local press who have the ability to shape fan sentiment — gets to them.

Which is to say that, if this kind of noise keeps up, I wouldn’t be shocked if Harper puts up a line of .340/.480/.650 in 2018 and then walked the hell out of D.C. for New York or Chicago or L.A. or something. Would anyone blame him?