CLEARWATER, Fla. – Go to the lockers of the Phillies’ starting pitchers on the first day of spring training and they will all tell you the same thing. Their goal for the 2018 season is to pitch 200 innings. Get there and the likelihood is fairly high that they will have had a solid, if not spectacular season.
Never mind that none of them have ever logged that many innings in a single season before and forget the fact that 200-inning pitchers have become an endangered species. The mind-set, according to the pitchers, their manager and their pitching coach has to remain the same even as the game, especially in the pitching department, has so drastically changed.
Consider this: Twenty seasons ago, a total of 56 pitchers threw at least 200 innings and Curt Schilling led baseball with 15 complete games. A year ago only 15 pitchers worked at least 200 innings and no team in the National League had a starter with more than two complete games.
“It has changed,” new Phillies pitching coach Rick Kranitz said after the first official workout of the Gabe Kapler era as manager. “I think it has changed for the better. I really do.”
That part can be debated on many levels. Much to the chagrin of commissioner Rob Manfred, the average time of a game was a record-long 3 hours, 5 minutes last season and the primary reason is because of more pitching changes. But Kranitz’s point is that teams are more equipped than ever to analyze matchups between pitchers and hitters. The information a pitching coach can give to a pitcher is so voluminous that, in theory, it should make the pitchers better and help them navigate a lineup.
“With all the analytics now, you should know exactly what your strengths and weaknesses are against a hitter,” Kranitz said. “You should know who the guy is in that lineup that can give you trouble. You have to be able to balance that around how you want to approach a lineup. The really good ones have been doing that for years.”
That’s true, but a lot of really good teams no longer rely as heavily on their starting pitchers. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ starting pitchers, for example, had a major-league best 3.39 ERA last season, but their 885 innings ranked just 17th in baseball. For the second straight season, no team in baseball got 1,000 innings out of their starting pitchers.
Kranitz, however, said that remains the goal for the Phillies.
“That’s roughly six innings a start,” he said. “I think collectively we have a goal to do that, but then when the situation comes we have to try to win the ball game. Now that could come from a reliever coming on in the sixth inning. Your starter is doing OK, but you have second and third and you’re up by two, but we have a guy sitting in the bullpen that matches up so well that we’re going to him.”
And they are going to go to him. The Phillies are expected to carry 13 pitchers out of spring training, which is a pretty good indication that Kapler will be more than willing to use his bullpen early and often on a nightly basis. The manager, however, does not want the mind-set of his starting pitchers to change as they prepare for the season.
“The mind-set always has to be I’m going to dominate for nine innings,” Kapler said. “That’s the only mind-set that they can have. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to get to go nine every night. But the vision is the finish line.”
The good news for the manager is that his pitchers are thinking that way even if 200 innings is uncharted territory for all of them. Aaron Nola, Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez all said Wednesday that 200 innings was their goal for 2018 and Jerad Eickhoff fell just 2 2/3 innings short of that goal two seasons ago.
“As starters, we don’t ever want to go five innings and leave the rest to the bullpen,” said Nola, who led the Phillies with 168 innings pitched last season. “I know the game is kind of going that way a little bit – five or six innings – but we want to go nine every time. That’s what we train for.”
Not a single Phillies pitcher went nine innings a year ago, so do not be surprised if it happens again in this new era of getting less from the starters.