Pitcher-Heavy Roster Construction Quietly Impacts MLB Product

A silent trend within baseball has eliminated roles for big league hitters

The game of baseball is always changing. Nobody denies it, even when not everybody likes it. Spin rates and exit velocities have replaced wins and RBIs in industry jargon. As the past two winters have shown, teams value young controllable players — often making league-minimum salaries — over veterans on the back end of their careers who typically demand guaranteed contracts and place constraints on roster flexibility.

In-game strategy has undergone significant change, and teams throughout the league are quick to copy pioneering teams who have demonstrated success. Now roster construction has followed suit.

In a league where intellectual property is only as good as tomorrow’s opener, the eight-man bullpen has taken over. As of first pitch of Tuesday’s games, 25 of the 30 teams dedicated 13 roster spots to pitchers.

Such roster construction was unheard of mid-decade, especially for National League teams that rely on pinch hitters more frequently. Only the D-backs and the Mets entered yesterday’s NL games with 13 position players — a five-man bench. (The Orioles, Twins and Rangers were the other teams; use of the designated hitter alters the dynamic of roster construction and needs in the American League.)

Of the 13 pitchers on a 25-man active roster, five of those spots are traditionally earmarked for starting pitchers, while the remaining eight constitute the bullpen. Quite simply, by increasing the amount of pitchers on Major League rosters, the bar for becoming a big league pitcher has been lowered and, conversely, the bar for a position player has been raised. (And while the current baseball is the driving force behind the barrage of home runs this season, the diluted pitching pool doesn’t help matters.)

Additionally, roster spots that were once reserved for late-inning long-ball threats have been reallocated.

Defensive versatility has become more valued in a bench role than game-changing power. Once upon a time, in 2015, managers had to game plan for late-inning pinch-hitters and utilize their bullpens accordingly.

But run prevention is less expensive than run creation, and Major League benches are full of versatile defenders and unestablished players with minor league options who create little worry for opposing managers.

Perhaps the need for a bopper off the bench is tempered in an era when everyone is a home run hitter. Nonetheless, when National League teams are running out of position players before extra innings, it brings into question the need for that 8th pitcher in the pen.

As we approach the singular trade deadline on July 31, teams looking to upgrade their offense just might find the best solutions internally — and by adding a position player to the roster. With shorter benches, the established platoon player or pinch hitter isn’t around at the big league level. There’s a supply shortage.

Of the six division leaders, only the Twins entered play on Wednesday with a 12-man pitching staff. All others had 13. In the postseason, teams are more inclined to carry only 11 pitchers — 12 at most — because a 5th starter is not needed. In the best-of-five division series, some teams will only employ three starters.

Current roster constructions do not at all resemble October lineup cards. Perhaps teams will begin to transition a more playoff-ready roster within the next two weeks. Otherwise, we may be looking at horrifically slow-paced postseason baseball where endless pitching changes replace pinch hitters.

Some teams can upgrade their rosters by admitting that their personnel is not best suited for this copycat roster allocation. Adding a bat — either internally or via trade — at the expense of the last man in the pen is not likely to be painful for anyone — except the last man in the pen!

With as many as 10 teams (generously) in contention for a National League Wild Card spot, any marginal gain could be the difference. Of course, many teams may not be inclined to sacrifice any part of their futures for only a slightly improved chance to compete in a one-game playoff for the chance to travel to Los Angeles and face what’s likely to be a well-rested Dodgers team.

Those clubs might be best heeding the advice of The Shawshank Redemption’s Warden Norton: Salvation lies within.

Former baseball operations staffer (Padres and D-backs) and pro scout (Rays and Twins); wine | @RyanLIsaac

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