The designated hitter is coming to the National League this season to pump up the offense. That’s the expectation, anyway. But what does it mean for the pitching?
More than I would have assumed.
As Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said this week: “Certainly, we need to add more innings, there’s no question. In the National League, now the DH can add a little more flexibility that way. The multi-inning reliever becomes more of a possibility when you don’t have to worry about pinch hitting or double switching. What form that comes in, I’m not sure, but certainly, innings are going to be key.”
Hoyer is spot on. NL teams must scramble to alter their normal pattern of bullpen usage. Compared to the non-DH years, NL managers and pitching coaches will, in fact, rely more heavily on multiple-inning relievers. Pitchers will no longer take at-bats, and removing them from the game will be based on their stamina and/or performance. They won’t be lifted for pinch hitters and can provide multiple innings in a relief stint.
And we know things will change just by looking at the 2021 season.
American League teams averaged 159 instances of relievers working multiple innings last year, with eight bullpens doing it 160 times or more.
In the National League, bullpens averaged 120 instances of multiple-innings relief – and the Cardinals did it 155 times, the most in the NL. Ten NL teams went with multi-inning relief stints 128 times or less.
We can expect NL teams to use the AL model for organizing bullpens. It becomes more important to add more relievers that can give you more than an inning at a time.
Managers and pitching coaches must be careful about spreading out the multiple-innings assignments out to avoid burning out specific relievers. And with the new rule in place for 2022 — teams can only send a player to the minors five times during the season – it won’t be as easy to frequently swap out arms and summon fresh relievers from the minors.
This will be a consideration in early-season bullpen tactics. As former MLB general manager Jim Bowden wrote for The Athletic:
“This will be a significant rule change, especially in April when GMs are concerned about not overworking pitchers and want to shuttle players back and forth to the minor leagues. Teams won’t want to burn most of their moves early in the season because they’ll prefer to save them for the dog days of summer when pennant races heat up.
“Having more minor-league depth will be important; instead of bringing up the next best minor-league player at a certain position, teams will want to have the second-best player ready to optimize the structure their roster for the long haul.”
The Cardinals have addressed this by extending the contract of lefty T.J. McFarland and signing several veteran relievers to pad the depth – Drew VerHagen, Nick Wittgren, Aaron Brooks and Zach McAllister. I’m not saying these are great pitchers, but they have a chance to improve in this organization because of the St. Louis defense and the overall pitching acumen that’s a big part of what the Cards do. (In other words: make pitchers better.) But clearly the Cardinals had to create more options to lean on during times of pitching-related trauma.
Wittgren and VerHagen are out of options and will be exposed to waivers unless they make the big-league roster coming out of camp. For that reason alone, they’ll have a good shot of opening the season with the Cardinals.
Wittgren gave Cleveland 11 multi-inning relief appearances last season, and did it 18 times in 2019. Before heading to Japan, VerHagen went more than an inning in relief for Detroit eight times in 2019 and 14 times in ‘18. When Brooks wasn’t starting for Baltimore in 2019, he became a regular multi-inning source in relief.
The other possibility is more “piggyback” starts. The starter pitching goes through the other team’s lineup two times, and is replaced by a reliever that can fill the next two or three innings. Alex Reyes would be a key piece in this plan, but he’s having shoulder issues in camp. We don’t know when he’ll be available to pitch. Prospect Matthew Liberatore could be a factor in the piggyback plan.
I’d expect to see the Cardinals add even more bullpen depth before the start of the regular season – or early in the season if decent free-agent relievers are out there.
With the need to have relievers face more than an inning’s worth of batters during an appearance, current Cardinals become more valuable. Guys like Jake Woodford, Johan Oviedo, Junior Fernandez – just to name a few – and possibly Liberatore later in the year.
Last season the Cardinals went with plenty of multi-inning relief, and manager Mike Shildt pushed this more than any NL manager. Here’s a list of the 2021 Cardinals that went more than inning the highest number of times:
– Genesis Cabrera, 23 (third in NL)
– Giovanny Gallegos, 16 (12th in NL)
– McFarland, 13
– Ryan Helsley 12
– Daniel Ponce de Leon, 11
– Woodford, 11
– Alex Reyes, 10
Another positive to the depth is having more pitchers who can start or pitch in relief. That applies to Woodford, VerHagen, Brooks, Oviedo, Liberatore. But the Cards could use more like them.
The Cardinals got the jump on other NL teams by jumping into the multi-inning movement a year early. It should probably help them. They’ve also added new layers to their depth. But from here on out there should be more of an emphasis on adding quality to the bullpen. That’s especially true if Reyes is sidelined for a considerable amount of time.
Thanks for reading …
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Stats in this column were culled from Baseball Reference.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.