The “relief ace” and the right to say no

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If you remember the World Series just a few weeks ago, you likely remember the controversy surrounding Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who relied on closer Aroldis Chapman for 2 2/3 innings in Game 5 of the World Series followed by 1 1/3 innings in Game 6, throwing a total of 62 pitches. (Chapman also rolled his ankle covering the first base bag. Luckily, it didn’t turn out to be an issue.) The result of all that work was a diminished Chapman. The lefty, who usually hits triple digits in fastball velocity with ease, was only able to muster his fastball into the high-90’s in Game 7. He allowed two runs in 1 1/3 innings in a game the Cubs fought back and won in 10 innings to claim the World Series championship.

Chapman was nothing if not completely willing to go back out and pitch in Game 7. As Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times reported at the time, Chapman said, “All I know is I’m going to be ready tomorrow, and we’ll see what happens. Whatever they ask me to do, I’m going to keep going until I can’t.”

Of course, the Cubs didn’t care all that much about Chapman’s health; they were just trying to win a World Series and the reliever was to become a free agent after the season. It wasn’t as if Chapman was a lifelong Cub to whom the organization had grown fond. Chapman was a mercenary to be discarded after his mission was complete.

The way Maddon used Chapman and the way Indians manager Terry Francona used Andrew Miller leads many to believe bullpen usage is evolving. The ubiquity of statistics has, ironically, led to the save statistic being overvalued. As a result of it being factored into end-of-season awards and arbitration arguments, managers have managed around the statistic rather than what’s best for the team or for the player. That’s where rules such as not using your closer in a tie game on the road come from, and why even brilliant managers like Buck Showalter falter.

Referring to the evolution of closer usage, MLB Network’s Brian Kenny tweeted on Wednesday, “Everybody saying a #ReliefAce option ‘won’t work’ in regular season. Are you sure??”

Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus thoughtfully replied, “It can work in the short term. The long term sustainability/health of each reliever is an open question.”

I’ve been thinking about this ever since Game 6, but more from a labor perspective. The Francona/Maddon style of closer usage is potentially harmful to relievers who don’t really have a choice in the matter. Chapman was clearly fatigued in Game 7, but he couldn’t have told Maddon he’s cooked because it’d reflect poorly on him as a teammate, as an athlete to millions of fans, and as a free agent to 29 other teams. If Chapman says, “I can’t go,” he’s categorized as weak, selfish, and not a good team player. It’s a perspective created by owners, then thoughtlessly adopted and reinforced by decades of sportswriting which has rarely considered labor and class issues. The fans then bought into that perspective. The result is a sports culture in which laborers (the athletes) are essentially forced to work at the expense of their mental and physical health as well as their future earnings. For an example from a different sport, look at how many players in the NFL have willingly played through concussions.

Many fans hearken back to the days when relievers routinely got more than three outs. Lee Smith, in 1983, got four or more outs in 38 of 66 appearances for the Cubs. The game was different then, however. Relievers didn’t need to throw in the high-90’s to succeed because power hitters were not nearly as common. At FanGraphs three years ago, Jeff Sullivan pointed out the growing trend for teams signing relievers throwing 95+ MPH. Since 2005, the strikeout rate in baseball has done nothing but increase each season. Smith, and other relievers of his era, didn’t air out everything he had in one inning because, like a starter, he knew he’d have to come back out for another inning. It was inefficient. Relievers today put everything they have into their one inning since their purpose is to blow hitters away with fastballs.

What if those measly 98 MPH fastballs we saw from Chapman in Game 7 are his new normal? What if his overuse in Game 6 sapped him of his 103 MPH potential? Because there are no penalties and because players have no leverage with which to say no, teams can freely abuse their pending free agents in this manner. That bullpen usage is evolving only means that more and more relievers — who tend not to get multi-year deals beyond three or four years — can be chewed up and discarded. Add them to the list of players whose labor is exploited by their teams.

In 2015, agent Scott Boras famously got involved with client Matt Harvey‘s usage with the Mets. Harvey, coming off of Tommy John surgery, was believed to have an innings limit at 180. However, the Mets were headed to the postseason, so Boras and Harvey relented to public pressure and went past the limit. The right-hander finished the regular season with 189 1/3 innings, then pitched 26 2/3 more innings in the postseason as the Mets were eventually defeated the World Series by the Royals.

Harvey was clearly not the same player in 2016. He made only 17 starts and posted a 4.86 ERA with a significantly diminished strikeout rate and a noticeably higher walk rate. He underwent surgery in July for thoracic outlet syndrome and missed the rest of the season. The Mets expect Harvey to be ready for spring training, but neither they nor the pitcher himself truly know what to expect. Harvey, who won’t become a free agent until after the 2018 season, may have lost the opportunity to land a hefty multi-year contract as a free agent by being pressured to pitch past what was suggested by doctors.

What is the solution? It is multi-faceted. Part of the solution could (but likely won’t) come from the next collective bargaining agreement. The players’ union could try to negotiate penalties for teams who misuse players by going against doctors’ orders (though that feels lackluster). As it stands now, players can file grievances, but it requires their own initiation rather than by a higher governing power. In doing so, the player subjects his reputation to the whims of the media and fans. If Major League Baseball and/or the union took action on a player’s behalf, his reputation (read: future earnings) doesn’t take as much of a hit.

Secondly, the culture needs to change. We define players positively through hypermasculine ideas like playing through pain and pushing past the limit. When players sit out for supposedly minor ailments, they are feminized and degraded. As mentioned, it’s an idea reinforced through media and then consistently adopted and reinforced by fans. Change starts with us, the sportswriters, and follows through with you, the readers. This then gives the players their agency back and they can say “no” even if it’s not specifically against a doctor’s orders. Without these changes, the “relief ace” only figures to continue exploiting players’ labor.