This time, Paul Molitor’s optimistic plans didn’t even survive April.
The Twins manager opened the 2016 season with a 12-man pitching staff, just as he did last season (when he held out until May 22), just as Ron Gardenhire did in 2014. And for the third straight year, only a few weeks had passed before the manager decided he needed more pitchers.
It’s not just a Twins thing, of course. Three major league teams opened the season with a 13-man staff, and the Twins are among six teams now carrying seven relievers. But Molitor’s difficulty in holding the line illustrates how much MLB rosters have changed. During Molitor’s rookie season of 1978, the Brewers carried only nine pitchers and 16 position players until rosters expanded in September.
Younger fans might not realize what’s been lost, but baseball games used to include far more strategy in the late innings, with managers trying to maneuver their teams into advantageous matchups using a half-dozen extra players on the bench. Managers would occasionally platoon at certain positions to beef up their lineup, and veterans who could still play semi-regularly were around to provide late-inning offense. The Twins could carry players like Randy Bush, who started just 467 games in a 12-year career but regularly contributed big hits off the bench.
Today? With no bench, there’s little choice but to stick with bottom-of-the-order hitters who are increasingly overmatched by relievers bred to throw 98-mph pitches an inning at a time. Late-inning rallies of more than one run seem increasingly hopeless. Molitor has pinch-hit for a position player only six times this season; last year’s total of 75 pinch-hit plate appearances was the second fewest in franchise history.
Now Molitor gets by with four bench players, and for a couple of games last week he had only two. And since one of them is a backup catcher, that bench is even slimmer, because Molitor, like most MLB managers, is hesitant to use both catchers in the same game, for fear of having no options if one gets hurt. He’s done it just once this year, and only 16 times in 2015 before September added a third catcher. That means, for instance, though Kurt Suzuki is batting .224 and John Ryan Murphy .094, they have combined to receive 23 plate appearances in the late innings of close games, largely against elite relievers. They have three hits between them.
“Our circumstances, with close games and extra innings, have necessitated the addition of additional pitching depth,” Molitor said. “Your bench is made up of guys who can protect you at multiple positions: A catcher, an infielder, an outfielder. We’ve been fortunate in having some versatile guys.”
Can the pitcher/position player imbalance be addressed? It may take a rule change, and an adoption of a concept that’s used in other pro sports: the healthy scratch. Allow teams to carry an active roster of, say, 28 players, but designate which 25 — with a limit of nine or 10 pitchers — are available that day. Teams could deactivate their surplus starting pitchers, who are essentially useless on the days they don’t pitch, and replace them with pinch hitters, pinch runners, extra defenders.
The Twins saw in the spring that Carlos Quentin is still a dangerous hitter, but they didn’t have a roster spot for a player so limited defensively. Kennys Vargas would be an interesting late-inning challenge for opposing pitchers. Maybe Max Kepler gets some important at-bats while remaining in the big leagues.
NBA rosters have 15 players, but only 12 suit up. NHL teams scratch two or three players a night. Why not create a similar rule and use it to restore the position of “bench player” to baseball, too?
A month into the season, all four AL Central teams have found new leaders in their starting rotation.
Indians: They still have Corey Kluber every fifth day, but the emergence of hard-throwing righty Danny Salazar, 25, is transforming the rotation.
In 23 innings, Salazar has struck out 26 batters, and his ERA is a team-best 2.35.
Royals: They were criticized for overpaying Ian Kennedy (five years, $70 million), but with Jason Vargas lost for the season and Johnny Cueto lost to free agency, the 10-year veteran has been a godsend.
Even at 31, Kennedy is a strikeout pitcher, and his 2.77 ERA has stabilized a rotation that remains KC’s weakness.
Tigers: Even when they agreed to pay $110 million for five years, hoping he would offset Justin Verlander’s slow decline, Detroit couldn’t have expected near-perfection from former Nationals righthander Jordan Zimmermann.
But the 29-year-old Wisconsin native has allowed only one run in four starts, giving him an 0.35 ERA that leads the AL.
White Sox: Signing eight-year NL veteran Mat Latos to a one-year, $3 million deal has looked like a brilliant move for Chicago.
Latos opened the season with four consecutive victories, and has allowed only two runs, giving him an 0.74 ERA. Along with Chris Sale (1.66) and Jose Quintana (1.47), the Sox may have the Central’s best rotation.
Joe Mauer had reached base in all 24 Twins games this season. While he’s a long way from his personal (and franchise) record — 43 consecutive games reaching base, set last year — he is approaching the record for longest streak at the start of a season. Here are the Twins’ longest ever: 33: Kent Hrbek, 1982; 27: Jacque Jones, 2005; 24: Mauer, 2016; 23: Chuck Knoblauch, 1997; and Tom Brunansky, 1985
Brian Dozier is hitting only .200 for the season, but he’s at his best when facing hard-throwing pitchers. His nine hits this season against fastballs timed at 93 mph or better are the most in the major leagues, through Friday.