Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Charlie Morton got a taste of irregular baseball in Tampa Bay when he played for the Rays. He saw the “run prevention” model at work, and what a revelation it was. A team with a paltry payroll controlling high dollar teams and making it to the World Series in 2020 and giving goose flesh to the lordly Dodgers.
And now here he is part of irregular baseball again, this time with the Braves. There is no way Atlanta should be able to match up the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, not without All-Star outfielder Ronald Acuna, Jr., who is injured, or slugger Marcell Ozuna, who is suspended, or with their best player, Freddie Freeman having a mind-numbingly bad series with seven strikeouts in eight at bats.
But here the Braves are, playing a game only Wall Street could love, a bottom line existence of run prevention using relief pitchers and defense and base running guile and holding a 2 games to none lead over the Dodgers in the NLCS.
It is not about innings pitched and the sacred starter going eight innings. Not anymore. The Braves’ starting pitcher Sunday night, Ian Anderson, went three measly innings, then six relievers held the Dodgers to one hit over six innings in a game the Braves won, 5-4, in the bottom of the ninth.
We have all seen what has happened to innings pitched as a meaningful stat. That era of the starter going seven innings is disappearing for all but the top pitchers.
“The way the game is headed it has made innings pitched arbitrary,” said Morton who will be Tuesday’s Game 3 starter for Atlanta in the National League Championship Series.
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“Teams are not pursuing innings pitched. It is all about run prevention, which is why it is so hard to score runs now. It’s about valuing run prevention. The Rays, for one, don’t care about innings pitched.”
And that is why the Atlanta Braves, with a payroll $100 million less than the Dodgers, lead the NLCS two games to none.
We know what the game is now, Morton said. Run prevention and which teams can master the middle innings with electric arms and slick defense.
How else can you explain the Braves’ 2 games to none lead in the NLCS with Freeman in a hard to describe funk?
Morton’s former team, the Tampa Rays, have led the way with scouting and development of young arms, or scouting other team’s hurlers and acquiring them for the short stint role, which is why they have been so successful with a low payroll.
The Rays built an early lead in the reliever sweepstakes the last several seasons. Now, the rest of baseball is trying to catch up after seeing Tampa win with run prevention.
The Braves are one of those teams that has closed the gap. Player for player Atlanta shouldn’t be scaring the lordly Dodgers like this.
Here is the crux of the scheme, Morton said. How many young arms are out there for teams to collect six or seven dynamic relievers and own the bullpen game and the game itself?
“Once everybody figures out how to do it that certain pool of players is going to shrink,” Morton said.
“You have this elite weapon who can go one or two shutout innings, or the guys with that elite pitch, like Tyler Matzek who can spin it, or Oliver Drake (screwball).”
The race is on, for sure, to win the irregular baseball sweepstakes. The Braves used 25 different relief pitchers this season to get to their six or seven lights out relievers, guys with one electric pitch.
The Rays showed what can happen when you get it right. Their payroll in 2020 (adjusted for the Covid shortened season) was approximately $28 million compared to the Dodgers’ $107 million. The Rays almost took down the Dodgers in the 2020 World Series.
Now here come the Braves with a payroll of $150 million compared to the Dodgers’ $250 million. Atlanta has a two games to none lead in this series because of the run prevention of its bullpen. The Braves pen has allowed two hits in nine innings to Los Angeles. In 23.2 innings pitched this postseason, Atlanta’s bullpen ERA is 1.55.
The Braves bullpen has thrown as many innings as the Braves starters and this irregular baseball, which includes games pitched entirely by the relief staff, is something unsettling to some people.
“Is this something that, do we want the game to go into, do we want to see this in the regular season, my answer is no. No, you don’t,” said Max Scherzer of the Dodgers. “You want to see starting pitchers. You want to see starting pitchers pitch deep. I think that’s best for the fans, best for the players, everybody involved. I think that’s how we all envisioned the games.”
Scherzer pitched all of 4 1/3 innings Sunday night.
The Braves do not have near the firepower offensively of the Dodgers in the NLCS, but the series has been close because of the Atlanta middle relievers, guys like Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Jacob Webb, and Jesse Chavez. The Braves hurlers support a lineup depleted with the loss of lead off hitter Ronald Acuna Jr., and cleanup hitter Marcell Ozuna.
Morton does not have a financial bonus tied to his innings pitched. He has bonuses tied to starts. After the first 15 starts, he could hit bonus thresholds every five starts there after: 20, 25, 30. Morton tied for the Major League lead with six other pitchers for most starts with 33, so he collected some extra coin on top of his $15 million salary for 2021.
Morton has a wicked curve, so perhaps it is appropriate he has been ahead of the curve the last few seasons as innings pitched by starters declined and the bullpen became more of a thing. Morton is 37 years old, a product of that era where innings pitched was a big deal. For instance, in 2014, Dan Haren of the Dodgers hit his magic number of 180 innings pitched and not only received a $500,000 bonus, but triggered a $10 million option for 2015.
The next step is figuring out how to pay these relievers, accordingly. The more leverage they have in a game, the more leverage they have at the bargaining table. Agents might be worried their starting pitcher clients will see a slide in value, but their reliever clients should gain traction.
“The clubs have to ask how much financial risk willing to take on a guy who will be going out there 50-60 games,” Morton said.
Then he added, “I’d love to see those middle guys get paid.”
Do the clubs start to subtract money from the No. 4 and No. 5 starters and pay the relievers it covets? What a switch in baseball doctrine. It used to be teams saved money by decisions it made with its bullpen.
MLB could turn back this reliever tide if it adopted a rule experimented with in the Atlantic League, the “double hook” rule, in which a team would lose its designated hitter when it removed its starting pitcher.
It is not that innings pitch don’t count for something. Morton said he thinks Philadelphia’s Zack Wheeler should be more solidly in the discussion for the National League Cy Young Award with a 14-10 record, 2.78 ERA, and 213.1 innings pitched, which led the NL. The favorite, however, is the Dodgers Julio Urias with a 20-3 record.
But innings pitched as a valuable metric is dead and it is not going to come back. The Rays, and now the Braves, have turned the game inside out.