CHICAGO — A word, if you will, on MLB’s 13-pitcher roster cap. A pre-pandemic concept, the league has repeatedly delayed its implementation due to condensed seasons and spring training until Monday, when it finally went into effect, shortening bullpens in the majors.
In theory, the restriction is meant to increase offense, decrease shooting changes and speed up the pace of play. If managers have one less bullpen arm to use, maybe they’ll leave their starter a bit more. Perhaps then hitters generated more runs with the additional opportunity to face that fatigued player. And maybe that means one less mound visit and one reliever warmup for the fans to sit down. Maybe it’s two birds with one stone.
But aren’t the intended purposes of the rule in direct opposition to each other? What if MLB gets the result it’s looking for and that starter who sticks around longer allows more damage? Is your manager just going to sit back and let you get bombarded? That manger will likely make a pitching change. And it will probably be for some optional reliever at the bottom of the roster who will be fined triple-A after the game to make way for a new replacement.
And that guy is probably an optional reliever at the bottom of the roster because he’s not very good. So let’s say he starts giving up rockets too. Now the game is getting extended because of all that run scoring. And now it’s time for another pitching change, another lever arm trotting down from the bullpen. And now a team is up for, like, a dozen bakers. And soon there will be a position player on the mound.
We’ll see. Perhaps this is the push teams need to reluctantly extend their starters deeper into the starts; and perhaps those headlines rise to the occasion more often than not. But perhaps today’s teams are much more conscious of pitching health and long-term arm preservation, which means they’ll continue to be cautious about pushing pitch counts. And maybe they’re right; maybe we’ll see a wave of pitching injuries by athletes that haven’t spread like this in a long time.
Which is to say nothing of the competitive disadvantage analytical-minded clubs would be reluctant to assume by allowing a non-ace starter to face a lineup for the third time. Nor how cunningly they design their 40-man rosters, building a lot of optional relief depth that can be carried up and down from the minors with little consequence. MLB teams are really smart. They will find the loopholes.
Which brings us to the Toronto Blue Jays, a team that entered Monday’s game against the Chicago White Sox, their 11th in as many days amid a 37-for-38 streak, with a skinny bullpen and a pretty dire need. of a long departure from its start. Fast-forward to just after sundown and David Phelps was running from the right-field bullpen to start the bottom of the fifth, which tells you everything he needs to know about how Jose Berrios’ night went.
Allowing 10 balls in play at 99 mph or higher, and three home runs that traveled more than 400 feet, Berríos had a miserable time handling contact and was tagged for six runs on nine hits and one walk in what ended an 8- 7 Blue Loss of Jay. Two-run homers by Raimel Tapia and Cavan Biggio, plus a two-run double off the bat by Teoscar Hernandez, were all to no avail.
Much of the hard contact came against Berríos’ fastball; but two of the home runs came off curveballs, as well as an Andrew Vaughn double that came off the designated hitter’s bat at 109 mph. And even more troubling was that Berrios got just two swinging strikes on a night in which he generated 10 swings with 15 curveballs. That has been the 28-year-old’s best scent generation pitch throughout his career. But for one reason or another, the White Sox hitters were seeing it well.
“I couldn’t throw breaking balls in the places we wanted. We want it more on the glove side and tonight I needed more on the arm side,” said Berríos. “We try to make an adjustment. But I couldn’t finish and get that pitch there.”
It was a disappointing setback after Berríos appeared to correct his early-season inconsistency with a series of solid starts earlier this month. Berríos’ curveball was a major weapon during that stretch and his most used pitch in each of the three outings prior to Monday’s.
He got eight puffs in 11 changes with him on June 4 against Minnesota; he used it to generate seven outs on softballs in the June 10 game against Detroit; and he did both on June 15 against Baltimore, scoring 11 swinging strikes and five light-contact outs on his curveball on a day he threw it more often than any other start this season. But on Monday, he wasn’t doing what he needed to.
Montoyo. “His fastball was good, but his breaking pitches weren’t. They weren’t really good.
“I was throwing deep inside. And now you have the hitters looking inward. But now the breaking pitches stay over the heart of the plate inside. And that is where they are already looking,” added Montoyo. “If you’re just throwing a fastball, it’s hard to get it right. And that’s what happened today. The breaking pitches weren’t there.”
Berríos’ short outing forced Montoyo to dig deep into his bullpen once again: It was the fourth time in the past five days that the Blue Jays got four or fewer innings from their starter, after asking for 15 outs in Berríos’ comeback victory. Sunday over the New York Yankees.
“It’s about the starters, whether they go deep or not,” Montoyo said before Monday’s game. “If they don’t dig deep, it’s hard to cover four or five innings of baseball against good teams.”
Last Thursday, Toronto’s relief corps was in as strong a position as it had been all season after a soft schedule against Kansas City, Detroit and Baltimore. Things were going so well that Montoyo was looking for places to spread the lever arms, leading Jordan Romano to a pair of ninth-inning spots against the Royals and Tigers with his team leading by a touchdown.
A weekend series against the Yankees later, and the high-influence winger of the club’s bullpen is suddenly exhausted. Romano threw 28 pitches in his second career five-out save Sunday, going beyond an inning for the first time this season, while Adam Cimber (26 pitches) and Yimi Garcia (18 pitches) went to great lengths to set him up. . Tim Mayza was also used, his second appearance in as many days and his fourth in a span of six days.
Of course, the pressure is also being felt at the bottom end of the bullpen, from some of those optional relievers at the bottom of the list we talked about earlier. The Blue Jays spent the weekend scouring Jeremy Beasley, Casey Lawrence, Matt Gage and Máximo Castillo, making sure there was always someone available fresh enough to eat a few innings if needed.
On Monday, it was Trent Thornton’s turn, working behind Phelps, who gave up two runs in his inning of work. Thornton played his part, getting six outs on just 17 pitches despite allowing a hard contact pool (only one of the seven balls in play against Thornton was hit below 94.5 mph). And Gage did his thing, working a clean eighth. That allowed Montoyo to stay away from any of his trusty high-leverage arms, saving them to fight another day.
Of course, you can only save those arms if you’re not winning, and that’s not what you want. At some point, Montoyo will need more options, so the bullpen is an obvious area the Blue Jays will look to address. between now and the August trade deadline when a group of veteran relievers on expiring contracts is sure to change uniforms. Whether the club could achieve anything before then, however, is another question.
We know it is possible. Last season, Adam Cimber was acquired in late June, followed by Trevor Richards in early July, to bolster a bullpen that needed his help about two weeks earlier. But the difference between then and now is the addition of an extra playoff spot in each league, reducing the pool of clubs willing to sell so early in the season.
Two relievers we know the Blue Jays can bid on right now are Sergio Romo and Roenis Elias, who were designated for assignment by the Seattle Mariners on Monday. Romo has had all kinds of trouble keeping the ball in the yard, allowing six home runs in nine appearances this month. But last season produced the lowest hard hitting rate among relievers and this year has continued to force hitters to expand at a high rate, posting a 35.5 percent chase rate in line with his career norm. .
Elias also gets his fair share of awkward swings, with a high-spin fastball/curveball combination and a changeup that produced a 32.5 percent hit rate during his final full season in 2019. The 33-year-old missed 2020 and 2021 due to Tommy John surgery, but he returned this season with the same speed as before and had a 2.80 xERA when the Mariners pulled the plug. The club obviously had its reasons for doing so, but there’s also every reason to believe Elias could still be a useful part of the MLB bullpen.
Of course, if the Blue Jays are going to add relievers, they’ll need room for them. Which brings us back to MLB’s 13-pitcher limit. It will only serve to further limit a club already feeling the weight of their relentless schedule. A club with four relievers currently on its disabled list; a club that has made four moves on the bullpen roster since Friday. A club that could use the help of a reliever, but also needs to commit at least one bullpen spot (currently two) to bulky arms capable of chewing up low-leverage innings.
MLB’s new roster cap may keep starters in games a bit longer. It will certainly give managers one less lever to pull. But can you have a world with more offense and shorter games? Monday’s 15-race event that took nearly three hours to complete suggests it will be challenging.