Increased innings for Dodger bullpen: Oddity or trend?
By Cary Osborne
The Dodgers took relief to an extreme in 2016, with their bullpen pitching the sixth-most innings in baseball history. They were also the rare team that was successful while so reliant on their relievers.
During the Dodgers’ season-ending press conference October 24, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said the bullpen usage was a result of a number of factors, including innings limits on some pitchers and an exorbitant amount of injuries. Basically the Dodgers’ 606 pitching changes were made out of necessity.
“I think our bullpen was a strength,” Friedman said. “It was really deep, and we had some things going on in the rotation — it was all about Doc (Dave Roberts) and Honey (Rick Honeycutt) just trying to win games. … We weren’t trying to start a trend, but we’ve seen (bullpen usage) evolve a little bit over the last 20 years, obviously that ties in some to starting pitching.
“Is it possible 10-15-20 years from now it will look dramatically different than now? Sure, but we’re not trying to set that trend right now. We’re just trying to win.”
The Dodgers’ experience reflects one happening throughout Major League Baseball — something we’re seeing even right now with how the Cleveland Indians have used their bullpen in the postseason. Cleveland’s starters are averaging 4.82 innings per start, and the Indians have made 39 pitching changes in 12 postseason games. And as you see in the chart below, starters saw a significant drop in innings pitched per game in the 2016 regular season and postseason in comparison to the four years prior.
Major League teams used 590 relievers in 2016, up from 565 in 2015. In 2014 that number was 538. Ten years ago the number was 495, and in 1996 it was 434.
In addition, this season saw the most innings out of bullpens in MLB history (15,893 2/3). Last season was third most, and there’s a sizable difference in how much longer bullpens were going per game this year compared to last: 3.33 innings in 2016 compared to 3.19 in 2015. The Dodgers’ jump was massive — from 3.00 innings to 3.71 innings.
In the past, teams that relied so heavily on their bullpen during the regular season struggle. But in 2016, the Dodgers became the only team that ranks in the top 20 of most innings from a bullpen in a single season to reach the postseason. The way baseball is evolving, they might be far from the last.