CHICAGO — A word, if you will, about MLB’s 13-pitcher roster limit. A pre-pandemic concept, the league has pushed back its implementation again and again due to condensed seasons and spring trainings until Monday when it finally came into effect, shortening bullpens across the majors.
Theoretically, the restriction is meant to increase offense, decrease pitching changes, and hasten pace of play. If managers have one fewer bullpen arm to utilize, perhaps they’ll leave their starter in a little longer. Perhaps then hitters put up more runs with the added opportunity to face that tired stater. And perhaps that means one fewer mound visit and reliever warm-up for fans to sit through. Perhaps it’s two birds with one stone.
But aren’t the rule’s intended purposes in direct opposition of one another? What if MLB gets the outcome it’s seeking, and that starter being left in longer allows more damage? Is his manager just going to sit there and let him get shelled? That manger’s probably going to make a pitching change. And it’ll probably be for some optional, end-of-roster reliever who’ll be ticketed for triple-A after the game to make way for a fresh replacement.
And that guy’s probably an optional, end-of-roster reliever because he’s not very good. So, say he starts giving up rockets, too. Now the game’s getting extended due to all that run scoring. And now it’s time for another pitching change, another low-leverage arm trotting in from the bullpen. And now one team’s up by, like, a baker’s dozen. And soon there’ll be a position player on the mound.
We’ll see. Maybe this is the nudge teams need to begrudgingly extend their starters deeper into outings; and maybe those starters rise to the occasion more often than not. But maybe today’s teams are much more conscious of pitcher health and preserving arms for the long run, meaning they’ll still be cautious pushing pitch counts. And maybe they’re right; maybe we see a rash of pitcher injuries from athletes who haven’t been extended like this in a while.
Which is to say nothing of the competitive disadvantage analytically minded clubs would be reluctant to put themselves at by letting a non-ace starter face a lineup a third time. Nor the craftiness with which they design their 40-man rosters, building in a wealth of optional relief depth that can be shuttled up and down from the minors with little consequence. MLB teams are really smart. They’ll find the loopholes.
Which brings us to the Toronto Blue Jays, a team that entered Monday’s game against the Chicago White Sox — its 11th in as many days amidst a stretch of 37 in 38 — with a thin bullpen and a rather pressing need for a lengthy outing from its starter. Flash forward to just past sunset and David Phelps was jogging in from the right-field bullpen to begin the bottom of the fifth, which tells you all you need to know about how Jose Berrios’ evening went.
Allowing 10 balls in play at 99-mph or harder, and three home runs that traveled over 400 feet, Berrios had a miserable time managing contact and was tagged for six runs on nine hits and a walk in what ended up an 8-7 Blue Jays loss. Two-run homers from Raimel Tapia and Cavan Biggio, plus a two-run double off Teoscar Hernandez’s bat, was all for naught.
Much of the hard contact came against Berrios’ fastball; but two of the homers were off curveballs, as well as an Andrew Vaughn double that came off the DH’s bat at 109-mph. And even more troubling was that Berrios earned only two swinging strikes on a night he generated 10 swings with 15 curveballs. That’s been the 28-year-old’s best whiff-generating pitch throughout his career. But for one reason or another, White Sox hitters were seeing it well.
“I wasn’t able to throw breaking balls in the spots we wanted. We want it more glove side and tonight I was missing more arm side,” Berrios said. “We tried to make an adjustment. But I wasn’t able to finish and get that pitch down in there.”
It was a dispiriting setback after Berrios appeared to correct his early-season inconsistency with a run of strong outings earlier this month. Berrios’ curveball was a significant weapon throughout that stretch and his most-used pitch in each of the three outings preceding Monday’s.
He earned eight whiffs on 11 swings with it on June 4 vs. Minnesota; he used it to generate seven outs on softly-hit balls in play on June 10 vs. Detroit; and he did both on June 15 vs. Baltimore, getting 11 swinging strikes and five weak-contact outs with his curveball on a day he threw it more often than in any other start this season. But on Monday, he wasn’t doing what he needed it to.
Montoyo. “His fastball was good, but his breaking pitches were not. They weren’t really good.
“He was pitching inside good. And now you get the hitters looking in. But now the breaking pitches are staying over the heart of the plate inside. And that’s where they’re looking already,” Montoyo added. “If you’re only pitching with a fastball, it’s tough to do well. And that’s what happened today. The breaking pitches were not there.”
Berrios’ short outing forced Montoyo to dig deep into his bullpen once again — it was the fourth time in the last five days the Blue Jays have gotten four innings or fewer from their starter — after asking it for 15 outs in Sunday’s comeback win over the New York Yankees.
“It’s all about the starters — if they go deep or not,” Montoyo said before Monday’s game. “If they don’t go deep, it’s tough to cover four, five innings of baseball against good teams.”
Just last Thursday, Toronto’s relief corps was in as strong a position as it’d been all season following a soft schedule stretch against Kansas City, Detroit, and Baltimore. Things were going so well, Montoyo was searching for places to deploy leverage arms, bringing Jordan Romano into a pair of ninth-inning spots against the Royals and Tigers with his team up a touchdown.
One weekend series against the Yankees later, and the high-leverage end of the club’s bullpen is suddenly spent. Romano threw 28 pitches in the second five-out save of his career Sunday, getting extended beyond an inning for the first time this season, while Adam Cimber (26 pitches) and Yimi Garcia (18 pitches) did heavy lifting to set him up. Tim Mayza was used, too, his second appearance in as many days and his fourth in a six-day span.
Of course, the pressure’s felt at the lower-leverage end of the bullpen, as well, by some of those optional, end-of-roster relievers we talked about earlier. The Blue Jays spent the weekend cycling through Jeremy Beasley, Casey Lawrence, Matt Gage, and Maximo Castillo, making sure there was always someone on hand fresh enough to eat a few innings if needed.
Monday, it was Trent Thornton’s turn, working behind Phelps, who allowed two runs in his inning of work. Thornton did his bit, earning six outs with only 17 pitches despite giving up a bevy of hard contact (only one of the seven balls in play against Thornton was hit below 94.5 mph). And Gage did his, working a clean eighth. That allowed Montoyo to stay away from any of his trusted high-leverage arms, saving them to fight another day.
Of course, you can only save those arms if you aren’t winning — and that’s not what you want. At some point, Montoyo will need more options, which is why the bullpen is an obvious area the Blue Jays will look to address between now and August’s trade deadline when a bevy of veteran relievers on expiring deals are sure to change uniforms. Whether the club could pull something off sooner than that, however, is another matter.
We know it’s possible. Last season, Adam Cimber was acquired in late June, followed by Trevor Richards in early July, to bolster a bullpen that needed their help about two weeks earlier. But the difference between then and now is the addition of an extra playoff spot in each league, which shrinks the pool of clubs willing to sell this early in the season
Two relievers we know the Blue Jays can bid on right now are Sergio Romo and Roenis Elias, who were designated for assignment by the Seattle Mariners Monday. Romo’s been having all kinds of trouble keeping the ball in the yard, allowing six home runs over nine appearances this month. But last season he produced the lowest hard-hit rate among relievers and this year he’s continued forcing hitters to expand at a high clip, posting a 35.5 per cent chase rate in line with his career norm.
Elias gets his fair share of uncomfortable swings, too, with a high-spin fastball-curveball combo and a changeup that produced a 32.5 per cent whiff rate during his last full season in 2019. The 33-year-old missed 2020 and 2021 due to Tommy John surgery but returned this season with the same velocity he featured prior and was carrying a 2.80 xERA when the Mariners cut bait. The club obviously had its reasons to — but there’s also plenty of reason to believe Elias could still be serviceable part of an MLB bullpen.
Of course, if the Blue Jays are going to add relievers, they’ll need room for them. Which brings us back to MLB’s 13-pitcher limit. It’ll only serve to further constrain a club already feeling the weight of its relentless schedule. A club with four relievers currently on its injured list; a club that’s made four bullpen roster moves since Friday. A club that could use relief help but that also needs to commit at least one bullpen spot — currently two — to bulk arms capable of chewing up low-leverage innings.
MLB’s new roster limit may keep starters in games a little longer. It’ll certainly give managers one less lever to pull. But can you have a world with both more offense and shorter games? Monday’s 15-run affair that took just shy of three hours to complete suggests it’ll be a challenge.