There was a time in baseball, long ago and far away, when managers handed the ball to the starting pitcher at the beginning of the game and expected to get it back from him nine innings later.
That was called the complete game and it is a fossil today, a dinosauer in baseball’s brave new world. No pitcher in the major leagues had more than two complete games last season.
The complete game included no restrictions, no innings limit and no pitch count limit. Check out some of the game’s best pitchers. Bob Gibson started 35 games in 1969 and finished 28 of them. Warren Spahn led the league in complete games nine times including seven in a row. Robin Roberts had 28 consecutive complete games over the 1952-53 seasons and Rick Langford threw 22 consecutive complete games in 1980.
In those days, major league bullpens were populated by broken down starting pitchers, hurlers who might be able to get an out or two but not much beyond that. On a good day, they might get through an inning if everything fell their way.
Then things changed and starters were no longer required to pitch deeper than five or six innings. Not only did we have better relievers, we had specialists. A seventh inning man would not be exposed to the eighth. The closer was for the ninth inning and nothing else.
These individuals became high value pitchers in today’s game. Without a strong bullpen, teams are looking for trouble. That explains why the market for them is vibrant. Consider that Craig Kimbrel and his distracting spider-like motion opened his free agent conversation last month at $100 million, far too rich for most team’s tastes.
And relief pitchers do not come with guarantees. The Mets signed Anthony Swarzak coming off a 2.33 earned run average in 2017. The number ballooned to 6.35 last season and they cut bait, trading him to Seattle. This came after they traded for AJ Ramos, who posted a 2.78 ERA in six seasons with the Marlins. In two seasons with the Mets, that number became 5.59.
Looking to patch a leaky bullpen this month, the Mets renewed acquaintances with old pal Jeurys Familia to be their setup man for Edwin Diaz, who came over in the trade with Seattle. The price was $30 million for three years.
But which Familia are they getting? The one who had 94 saves in 2015-16 including a league leading 51 for the Mets in 2016 or the one who blew six saves in the first half of 2018, prompting his trade to Oakland? That remains to be seen.
What we know is with Diaz in the Mets bullpen, Familia will no longer be the closer. Instead he will be the setup man, owner of the eighth inning, turning the more glamorous closer job over to Diaz, who led the majors with 57 saves last season.
We also know that Familia’s new deal for that somewhat diminished role, will earn him $2 million more than he made in his shaky 2018 season.
Ain’t free agency grand?