The 10-day DL and the starting pitcher apocalypse

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 16, 2017

On Oct. 1, 2016, Clayton Kershaw didn't make history. He left his final start of the 2016 season with a WHIP of 0.725, lower than Pedro Martinez's record of 0.737. But Kershaw threw only 149 innings, so he didn't make history.

Major League Baseball tells us what it takes to make history: 162 innings, the threshold laid out in rule 10.22(b) to delineate a "full" season, as opposed to a partial one. I've argued that this threshold is badly outdated, now that starters pitch less often, throw fewer innings per start and spend more time on the disabled list. The percentage of full-time major league starters who reach 162 is plummeting, not because the percentage of failures is rising but because teams have different expectations and make different strategic decisions.

In the past week, the Los Angeles Dodgers made two decisions -- one involving a pitcher who made his scheduled start, one involving a pitcher who didn't -- that demonstrate the further erosion of 162 as a meaningful mark. Recent rule changes and managing trends are redefining what it means to be a starter.

The pitcher who didn't start was Kenta Maeda. His spot in the Dodgers' rotation came up Monday, but he was on the new 10-day disabled list with, uhhhh, well, it says here "tightness in his left hamstring" experienced "a few weeks ago." Maeda was coming off one of the best starts of his career, in which he pitched into the ninth inning to earn a win. It wasn't the most convincing excuse a team has ever come up with.

Maeda's undoubtedly brief stint on the disabled list might best be viewed as strategic use of roster space, allowing the Dodgers "to navigate through the season while shuffling six or seven starting pitchers," including Maeda, who appeared to tire in the second half last year,and the oft-injured Brandon McCarthy, Rich Hill and Hyun-Jin Ryu. It might also be viewed as, essentially, the velociraptors testing the fences.

That's because the league's 10-day DL opens up possibilities for roster creativity -- or, if you prefer, manipulation or even exploitation -- that were less convenient with the 15-day DL. Now a club could look ahead at the schedule, see an off-day and "disable" the fifth starter, skipping his spot in the rotation and using that roster space to call up an extra reliever from Triple-A. By the time the fifth starter is needed again, the 10 days would be up, and the extra reliever could be sent back down.

The Dodgers appear to be using the low, low cost of a DL stint in a different way: To carry 26 qualified major leaguers when roster rules seem to limit teams to 25. (Maeda's disabling coincided with the activation of Ryu, who had just spent exactly 10 days on the DL with a hip bruise.) This lets them hedge against risk by keeping more good players under their control. It lets them schedule regular rest for their starters into the season, reducing injury risks and keeping the starters fresher for the Dodgers' all-but-inevitable postseason appearance. It might also make it possible for Los Angeles to use a six-man rotation for parts of the summer.

So far, teams have only tiptoed around these possibilities. DL stints are up slightly this season -- there were 215 10-day DL transactions from March 31-May 14, and there were 185 15-day DL transactions during the same period last season -- but that would be expected (injuries have been increasing for years) and welcomed (that was the point, after all, of the 10-day DL). There's little doubt, though, that front offices will come to squeeze out these benefits if they can. Exposing and exploiting the vulnerabilities of game play are as much a part of the analytics era as analytics.

See, for example, what happened after 2012, when Major League Baseball instituted new restrictions on signing international prospects. The restrictions were intended to limit how much clubs could pay top-tier international teenagers, with most teams getting around $3 million to spend before invoking penalties. A number of clubs gleefully turned the system of limits and penalties into a logic puzzle to solve, in many cases obliterating their caps. In the 2014-15 signing period, the New York Yankees overspent their bonus pool by a factor of nine, collecting 10 of the top 28 international free agents and essentially killing the premise of the system. This year's rules were changed significantly to prevent such gaming.

There's less reason to expect the league to step in to protect the integrity of the DL because almost everybody benefits from liberal DL rules. As Ben Lindbergh wrote at The Ringer, using the 10-day DL to call up a minor league reliever puts more money into the players' collective pockets, as the "injured" player will continue to receive his major league salary while the newly recalled pitcher will get a huge raise (for the 10 days he's in the majors, at least). Both players will collect service time, pushing them closer to free agency. Using the 10-day DL as a way of carrying 26 or 27 major leaguers "around" the major league roster will, theoretically, increase league-wide demand for veteran free agents. Meanwhile, using roster flexibility to give pitchers rest, preserve their health and keep them fresh for the postseason seems to be a good thing. Who, after all, would argue against preventative health over expensive emergency room visits?

The possible result is this: Starters aren't all going to be expected to make 32 starts per season anymore. Many will, but for others, 25 or 28 or 31 might constitute a full season. If teams can find ways to schedule rest without taking a major hit midseason -- to "shorten the season," as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts put it last week -- they will.

Which brings us to the second decision the Dodgers made, the one involving a pitcher who did start: Alex Wood. On Sunday, Wood threw a masterpiece, striking out 10 batters and shutting out the Colorado Rockiesat Coors Field. But he left the game after six innings and just 88 pitches, with the Dodgers leading 4-0.

We all know that starting pitchers don't work as deep into games as they used to, as teams try (unsuccessfully) to preserve their pitchers' health. What's most notable this year is when starters are increasingly getting the hook: not when they're losing but when they're winning.

This year, starters have averaged 5.96 innings per start in games their teams won. That's down from 6.17 innings at the same point in the season last year and down from 6.36 innings per start one decade ago.

There's much less change in how deep starters go when their teams lose: This year's starters are averaging 5.28 innings in their teams' losses, down from only 5.32 last year and 5.40 in 2007. The gap between innings pitched in "good" and "bad" starts has shrunk by 30 percent.

Teams are more aware of the struggles that almost all pitchers face the third time they go through the opposing lineup, whether because of fatigue or familiarity. They have deep bullpens overflowing with hard-throwing relievers and situational specialists. They are investing in relief aces who will pitch in the seventh and eighth innings, not just the ninth. This all adds up to swifter hooks even when the starting pitcher is, as Wood was, pitching a masterpiece.

No longer does a five- or six-inning outing signify a pitcher who didn't do his job; his job has been redefined. Wood was named NL Pitcher of the Week. He made two starts. He threw 11 innings. At that pace, even 29 starts would not get a pitcher to "qualifying" status in a season.

Last year, Chase Anderson made 30 starts but didn't qualify for the ERA title. He was a league-average pitcher, with a better adjusted ERA than that ofMichael Pineda, Gio Gonzalez orDallas Keuchel. By the "qualifiers" standard, he didn't exist. Kershaw led the majors in WAR -- a counting stat! -- and had by far the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio in history, but by the qualifiers standard, he didn't exist.

Detroit Tigers rookie Michael Fulmer lost the ERA title -- lost the chance to be the first rookie in 40 years to win the ERA title -- because he came up three innings shy of 162. He started 26 times. Only 75 major leaguers -- exactly half of the league's rotation spots -- started more often than Fulmer did. By modern standards, it was a full season, but by MLB Rule 10.22(b)'s standards, it wasn't.

It's only a matter of time before MLB Rule 10.22(b) changes. The question is whether we'll retroactively credit Kershaw and Fulmer with making history.