Baseball Prospectus' Effectively Wild podcast, hosted by Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh, interviewed Joe Sheehan recently. In Episode 857, Sheehan discussed "some trends and some pitfalls of modern roster construction." While uncertain of whether his proposals would actually fix baseball, Sheehan was blunt in identifying what needs to be fixed.
Now, this isn't to dismiss Sheehan entirely. However, this interview revolved around Sheehan highlighting one particular difference of opening day rosters:
"If you look at the opening day rosters this year, you have 26 teams of 13/12 -- 13 hitters and 12 pitchers -- you have three [teams] actually carrying 13 pitchers, and just one -- Billy Beane's A's -- carrying 11. If you look at the rosters right now, 48 percent of major league rosters is pitchers."
By itself, this quote may not seem particularly damning of modern roster construction. But Sheehan removes all ambiguity later in the same exchange by saying "it makes for a less entertaining game. Comebacks are less likely not just because the relievers are better but because the hitters are worse. And I'd like to see some changes that encourage teams to carry more hitters."
There's an awful lot to parse here. First of all, is the notion that baseball is somehow worse, and a lot of options are given for why by Sheehan. Comebacks are less likely for one.
Comparing the 2015 season just to the 2005 season, there has been a less-than five percent decrease in blown saves. A five percent decrease doesn't necessarily signal a systemic difference though. Perhaps blown saves aren't the completely correct way to dismiss this, though blown saves do represent an exciting part of baseball that at least signals a lead change or close game nearing its conclusion.
So, we can take a look at an article authored by Effectively Wild co-host Sam Miller for Just a Bit Outside, in which he broke down whether the modern game is more or less exciting based on lead changes. He found that, while the score margins are much closer, lead changes happen less frequently. So while tuning into a blow out is much less likely, you are also less likely to see a lead blown.
That feels counter-intuitive, but it also signifies the strength of late inning relief. However, Miller's findings against the modern era are somewhat tepid, as lead changes have dropped less than one percentage point from 1994 to 2014. Over the past 20 years, leads have been blown not even one percentage point less.
Fellow Baseball Prospectusian Russell Carleton also authored an article dispelling the notion that comebacks are down. This article was even brought up in the podcast. In fact, Carleton made it his task to show that games are much closer and, thereby, more exciting. "In the past few years," Carleton says "we’ve seen a sharp drop in how far apart teams are as they enter that critical ninth inning where the magic happens." So, perhaps the chance of scoring one or two runs in the ninth inning has decreased. However, games that end close are on the rise and, frankly, that's what puts fans on the edge of their seats.
Furthermore, that Sheehan wants to see changes that encourage teams to carry more hitters is fine. However, carrying more of something doesn't necessarily strengthen the resource. In fact, the exact inverse is true. It's not as though there are pinch-hit specialists just waiting in free agency for some team to realize that the current roster construction is losing them games.
This type of roster construction has become the norm for a reason. Omitting how we got here is revisionist history. First, pitch counts are more carefully addressed than ever before. If some starters are limited just because of a pitch count, then the strength of a team's relievers becomes significantly more crucial to success. Whether we agree with pitch counts is largely irrelevant in this case; they have affected the game.
Second, baseball has begun leaning toward pitching in general. Following the PED era of Mark McGwire vs. Sammy Sosa -- which certainly had its entertainment value -- there was a sharp correction toward pitchers who could avoid contact. That meant rejuvenating careers of pitchers that couldn't hack it in a rotation because of the workload. Converting failed starters into relievers became a great way for pitchers to re-establish themselves as major league talent, and for teams to hedge against diminished returns. Players like Wade Davis went from giving up 23 home runs as a starter in 2011, to giving up just three as an elite reliever over the past three seasons.
The fact is, Sheehan's cliche that "baseball is never better than when you're 12 years old" is blatantly false. Even Sheehan is weary that his age may be showing; I don't mean to suggest he actually believes the aforementioned cliche. I am 26 and while that still might be young to some, I've never found watching baseball more entertaining than right now.
While it is unfortunate that we won't see Jonny Gomes come off of a major league bench this season, it is fortunate that Brett Cecil has been afforded extra chances at the expense of Gomes-types. And perhaps that's just a matter of personal preference. I would rather see Cecil's curveball than someone who is largely unable to play a position full-time, but is also not good enough to be a full-time designated hitter, swing a bat.
The qualm for Sheehan revolves at least somewhat around the fact that "Will Harris... [isn't] the guy that sells tickets." That is to say, the right-handed, relatively-anonymous relievers that sometimes have to do a mop-up jobs, don't put butts in the seats. While this may be true, this isn't a new problem. I remember when I was a kid -- when I was 12 in fact -- trying to time out when Roy Halladay would start for the Blue Jays so I could see him pitch. Instead, I saw Pete Walker and Brandon Lyon who combined for 30 starts in 2002. Pitchers don't pitch every day, and pitchers don't pitch the whole game anymore. It's on us to adapt and embrace our Harris' and our Lyon's equally.
Sheehan suggests the antidote for baseball as well: expanding rosters by one or two spots. If rosters expanded, I'm fairly convinced that, with the direction we are headed, it would be to accommodate a six-man rotation, which means one more roster spot would be used by a pitcher.
I'm not of the opinion that baseball shouldn't be fixed; it definitely needs some tweaking. But over the past few years, it has been one of the more forward-thinking professional leagues. Baseball introduced video replay, they added netting for increased fan safety, they introduced Statcast to measure amazing new facets of the game, they eliminated collisions at home plate and second-base, they have taken a more hard-lined stance against bench-clearing brawls, they all-but-eliminated the manager/ump argument show, and, finally, they have taken the hardest stance of any league against performance enhancing drugs.
Encouraging more diversity on the field and in the front office is something I'd like to see the commissioner focus on next for instance. But the notion that baseball needs fixing because strikeouts are up and home runs are down and amazing defenders aren't getting to show off their amazing talents less is entirely bogus. Frankly, watching Adam LaRoche strikeout on a 98mph fastball with movement from Gerrit Cole never gets old. Neither does watching Dellin Betances break Jose Bautista's back on a curveball. And as nice of a fielder as Andrelton Simmons is, the scarcity of the resource only makes his highlights more impressive. And baseball is the best it's ever been.