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The Fall and Rise of the Long Reliever

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Reports of its death appears to be greatly exaggerated

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San Francisco Giants v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

On Apr 6, Joe Sheehan wrote for the Washington Post, “In MLB’s new era, long relievers are going extinct.” He stated, “These days, long relief is an accident, happening when a starter leaves the game due to injury or a game drags on past the 11th inning,” and concluded, “Teams don’t need to carry long relievers any longer.”

There’s one problem. His article is two years out of date.

Some might say that’s like a lot of WaPo pieces: stuck in 2015. For Fangraphs had already proclaimed the ‘Death of the Long Man’ in March that year. At that time, they had a point, because long relief stints (defined by Sheehan as 3+ innings) had slumped to new lows. In 1999, the year after the league expanded to 30 teams with the Rays and D-backs, there were 535 such outings. But by 2014, the number had been cut by more than half. The writing seemed to be on the wall for long relievers, as bullpens became more specialized.

Then something strange happened. After reaching that low in 2014, as the chart below shows, long relief has turned in back-to-back seasons of growth for the first time 1996. In just two years, numbers have increased by 29%, and there were more such appearances last season than in 2005. We’re seeing the same thing at every level past an inning, though the effect is most extreme at the ends. But even looking at relief appearances lasting more than three outs, rather than three innings, the number in 2016 was 13.3% up over the figure two years previously, and at its highest level since 2009.

We looked at one reason earlier in the month: recently, starting pitchers have been working less. This leaves extra work for the relief corps, and with no increase in the number of arms available, means pitchers are more likely to be stretched out a bit. But fashion also plays a part: the Royals emphasized the importance of mid-relief with consecutive AL pennants, and the likes of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis + Greg Holland. Then last winter, Andrew Miller was named ALCS MVP. It was well justified, as he tossed 7.2 innings in four appearances with a K:BB of 14:0. But I can’t remember the last time a pitcher won a playoff award, without either starting or being a team’s closer.

Brewers’ GM David Stearns said, “I think we’re seeing the lines between starter and reliever blurred a little bit. We certainly saw that this offseason with the valuations that were placed on premium relievers. They were valuations that were similar to those placed on very good starting pitchers. We’re recognizing the impact that relievers can make on wins and losses.” This is being reflected, both in the kinds of pitchers that are becoming long relievers, and in the work that they’re being asked to do. Traditionally, a long reliever was often a “failed” starter, moved to the bullpen, and used to mop-up after the starter had been torched early.

We see the former if we look at our franchise leaderboard for long relief outings. All seven names with 5 or more appearances were starters earlier in their career, and almost all - the jury’s still out on Patrick Corbin - were largely undistinguished in that role [though I’ll confess surprise at discovering Mike Morgan started over 400 games, before becoming part of our World Series winning bullpen]. Josh Collmenter, Edgar Gonzalez, Stephen Randolph, Andrew Good and Randall Delgado isn’t exactly the rotation of anyone’s dreams. But along with the two previously mentioned, they worked long relief 54 times, with a 2.88 ERA over 184.2 innings in those games.

The new breed of long relievers are a bit different. For example, while Miller was once a starter (a poor one, with a career ERA of 5.70), his last appearance in a rotation was back in 2011. It was several years later, in 2014, that he started stretching, averaging more than an inning per appearance. While reluctant to claim he’s a trailblazer, he thinks other teams will follow suit. “I think we’re going to see the multiple-innings reliever. I don’t know how long it will take, we might be five years away from the 40-appearance, 80-inning reliever or something like that, but I can see it happening.”

There are quite a number of teams looking to find this, and we actually came very close to seeing it happen last year, with the Astros’ Chris Devenski. The rookie made 43 relief appearances, working 83.2 innings - third in the majors - in addition to five starts, and another 24.2 IP. Those basically cost Devenski a month of bullpen work, otherwise we’d quite likely have been looking at the first 100-inning “pure” reliever since Scott Proctor with the 2006 Yankees. Devenski was also a starter for most of his minor-league career and perhaps represents a template for how Archie Bradley could potentially be used this year.

The parallels between Bradley and Miller have already been noticed by neutrals, Michael Baumann describing Archie as looking “like a yeti throwing a javelin,” and continuing:

Like Miller, Bradley struggled to throw strikes as a starter (11.1 BB%) and didn’t strike out as many batters as his stuff would indicate he should have... Bradley could very well become a traditional closer, because teams that begin a season with Fernando Rodney pitching the ninth inning rarely end the season that way, but Bradley is similar enough to Miller that a multi-inning fireman role could allow his stuff to play up while still taking advantage of his starter physicality.

Long relief is no longer necessarily a synonym for “meaningless” either. We can check this if we look at leverage index (LI), which measures the importance of game situations - a figure of 1.00 is average, with late/close games scoring higher. In 2014, only 49 long relief appearances rated above average. Last year, the number of high-leverage, long relief games was over 50% higher, at 74 - and we’re on pace to surpass that in 2017. Bradley’s outing in Los Angeles would be a good example of this, while it fell just short of qualifying under the three inning rule. It was in the top 10 this year though Apr 21 for importance among 8+ out appearances, with a 1.137 LI.

I also note an increase in the number of “long saves”, requiring more than three outs to be recorded. Again, that reached endangered status in 2014, with 77; no one pitcher had even five. For both the past two years, the total was more than 110, led by Cody Allen’s seven for Cleveland in 2015. See also Aroldis Chapman in the 2016 World Series for the Cubs: four of his five appearances there involved more than one inning, including an eight-out save in Game 5. Of course, the stretched-out schedule of the post-season, with additional off-days, makes it easier. Miller ended up throwing 19.1 innings over the Indians’ 15 playoff games, an impossible pace for the regular season.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this trend develops, both in Arizona and across baseball in general. I suspect that Bradley will likely change roles before the end of the season - either returning to the rotation, or replacing Rodney as closer. But we may then see someone else, perhaps even our own Miller (Jared), stepping into a role which looks to be seen as increasingly important around baseball.