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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.

Cardinals beat Brewers, both clinch postseason berths

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
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ST. LOUIS (AP) Harrison Bader tripled and homered to help the St. Louis Cardinals clinch a postseason berth on the final day of the regular season with a 5-2 win over Milwaukee, and the Brewers also earned a playoff spot Sunday via help on the West Coast moments later.

St. Louis (30-28) will be the fifth seed in the NL and open a three-game wild-card series at San Diego on Wednesday. By winning, the Cardinals avoided having to travel to Detroit for two makeup games Monday. St. Louis finished the regular season with 23 games in 18 days as it made up a slew of postponements caused by a coronavirus outbreak in the clubhouse.

“You had to throw some of the expectations out the window not knowing what to expect after taking those couple weeks off and all those doubleheaders and so many new guys,” Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said. “It was very different, very fulfilling to make the playoffs.”

The Brewers (29-31) locked up the eighth seed and a third consecutive postseason berth after the Padres beat San Francisco 5-4 in a game that ended about 15 minutes after St. Louis’ victory. The Giants finished with an identical record as the Brewers but lost out on a tiebreaker due to an inferior intradivision record.

“It’s fitting for 2020 and everything we went through,” Brewers left fielder Christian Yelich said. “It felt just as good as past years. This year’s a unique one. There’s so many challenges we had to go through on a daily basis behind the scenes, things you don’t deal with in a normal year.”

Milwaukee will face the top-seeded Dodgers in Los Angeles in a three-game series that also starts Wednesday.

The Brewers haven’t had a winning record at any point this season. Milwaukee and Houston will be the first teams ever to qualify for the playoffs with a losing mark.

“It’s a celebration,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We’re in the playoffs. That’s how you see it. There’s no reason to apologize for getting into the playoffs.”

Cardinals starter Austin Gomber allowed one run, one hit and two walks and struck out three over four innings.

Giovanny Gallegos (2-0), Genesis Cabrera and Alex Reyes combined to pitch the final five innings. Reyes got his first save.

“We’d have been happy getting in as the eight seed,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “We’d have been happy being the one seed, but people can say we got in if there was no expanded playoffs so that’s even another feather in this group’s cap.”

Brett Anderson (4-4) surrendered a triple to Bader and a walk to Tyler O'Neill to start the third inning before departing with a blister on his left index finger. Anderson opened the season on the injured list with a blister on the same finger and did not make his debut until Aug. 3.

Freddy Peralta replaced him a day after being activated from the paternity list, and O’Neill promptly stole second. Kolten Wong then hit a line drive off Peralta’s leg that Peralta threw into right field to score Bader and O’Neill.

Paul Goldschmidt and Paul DeJong each added RBI singles to push the St. Louis lead to 4-0.

After Milwaukee scored in the top of the fifth, Bader hit his fifth home run of the season.

“That was a big counterpunch,” Shildt said of Bader. “Got them on their heels again.”

THREE TIMES THE FUN

Yadier Molina grounded into a triple play in the eighth inning when he hit a one hop grounder to Jace Peterson at third base in the eighth inning. It was Milwaukee’s first triple play since Sept. 23, 2016, when Cincinnati’s Joey Votto lined out to first base. Molina was also the last Cardinals player to hit into a triple play when he grounded out to third base at Boston on Aug. 15, 2017.

TRAINING ROOM

Brewers: Counsell said it was too early to prognosticate Anderson’s status after departing with the blister.

Cardinals: St. Louis president of baseball operations John Mozeliak announced that RHP Dakota Hudson will have Tommy John surgery on his right elbow Monday. Hudson went 3-2 with a 2.77 ERA in eight starts before leaving his start on Sept. 17 at Pittsburgh with right elbow discomfort after two innings.

UP NEXT

Brewers: The Brewers head to Los Angeles and will likely be without two of their top starters in Anderson and Corbin Burnes, who sustained a left oblique injury on Thursday.

Cardinals: This will be the fourth postseason series between St. Louis and San Diego, who faced each other in 1996, 2005, and 2006 in the Division Series.