I have mentioned that MLB is in an era of elite pitching. The offense is down, and strikeouts are up, causing rule changes (banning the shift) and, on the field, adjustments (such as lower the height fences or moving them in) to aid the batters and run scoring. The casual fan needs to be aware of how good the pitching is. Here is a great way to understand how hard it is to put balls into play. The average velocity on MLB fastballs in 2008 was below 91.5 MPH. In 2014, the velocity was just under 92.5 MPH. The 2018 season had 92.8 MPH., so we can see an increase in velocity. Last season, the average fastball was 95.3 MPH! It was not long ago that 95.3 MPH was the top end. Last season saw 3,356 pitches of 100+ MPH! In 2021 and 2019, there were only 1,056 pitches at that mark. Last season had three pitchers, MIN Jhoan Duran, SEA Andres Munoz, and STL Jordan Hicks, averaging 100+ MPH! Home Runs dropped to 5,215 last year, down from 5,944 in 2021 and sown from the record year (2019) 6,776. Perspective. Bob Gibson had an ERA of 1.12 in 1968 (the year of the pitcher) with 268 strikeouts, 13 shutouts, and a Cy Young award. His velocity that season was 91.9 MPH! Maybe he could compete, but he would not be able to match the level of today’s pitchers! He would likely be the lowest-velocity thrower in a rotation! Let’s take this further. In the Gibson days of complete games, pitchers threw deep into games. Bob Gibson threw 28 complete games in 1968, and Juan Marichal 30. They each threw more than 300+ innings. The average starter in MLB last season threw 5.2 innings per start! There were 35 complete games for the entire league! Gibson and Marichal had 58 for just the two of them.
This brings the next level of elite pitching most don’t look at. It is popular that we know the names Jacob DeGrom, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, and Sandy Alcantara, but these are very few. We might have a list of nearly 15 pitchers we classify as the best starters. Most starters are out of the game by the 6th inning, and the bullpen takes over. We must start understanding how relief pitchers have become vital to winning games. The best of this group can dominate games more than the starters do. ATL manager Brian Snitker said, “Every time that bullpen door swings open, it’s velocity.” “The guys, they weren’t like that. The closers weren’t throwing like they are now. But it’s kind of the way they are growing up and now are trained. Amazing to me”. 2022 saw starting pitchers average 8.00 K/9. The relievers averaged 9.00 K/9. Remember that they are throwing 3.1 innings per game, or 35%. The best has an unbelievable K/9. Let’s look. NYM Edwin Diaz 17.13, SDP Josh Hader 14.58, CLE James Karinchak 14.31, PHI Jose Alvarado 14.29, MIL Devin Williams 14.24, and Andres Munoz 13.29!
Only five bullpens out of the thirty teams were 10% or worse than an average bullpen (measured by ERA-). Only ARI 112, BOS 112, KCR 116, PIT 117, and OAK 117 fit that bill (MLB average is 100). The league batting average was .243, and eight bullpens were worse. The starters averaged 1.18 HR/9, and the relievers’ less than one at 0.96. Bullpens have also mastered the slider. It is the pitch that is the toughest on hitters. Only five bullpens were below average when throwing this pitch (CIN, BAL, PIT, WSN, and ARI). The slider seems to hand in hand with fastball usage. These are thrown at velocities never thought of previously. There are enormous numbers of elbow issues with pitchers, and now you can see why. The human body likely is not built to withstand this much torque, so it gives out or breaks.
When handicapping games, we should look at bullpen usage. On average, a relief pitcher will throw 18 pitches during an outing. The MLB average for a team that used relief pitchers in consecutive games was 87. This suggests that half of the games played saw a relief pitcher used the previous night. We want to know if the pitcher is available for the game we are betting on tonight. An excellent way to look at this is to see how many pitches he threw and when his last outing was. If he were to throw more than 18 pitches, and it was last night, he would likely not be available tonight. It is essential to know who is available too. There is a rotation of sorts to a bullpen. The main guy comes into the game in the ninth inning (closer). He usually has the most dominant weapon and can get outs with limited contact. Then, there are the 7th and 8th inning guys whose job is to get the ball to the closer. They should have shut down innings, handing it off to the team’s best. As bettors, we want to know if this rotation is intact or if there must be some other plan. It will help you not lose games at the back end because the bullpen gave it up. The bullpen is a weapon for managers. Bullpens can get over-leveraged and tired, so we need to keep an eye on how it is used. Overall, we need to be betting on good bullpens to close out games and against the few who are not.