Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler has a lot of pride in reaching 200 innings pitched this season, especially considering he’s battled injuries through parts of his career, including Tommy John surgery.
Considering the current state of big-league pitching, it’s even more impressive.
“I’ve never done it before and it’s weird because it used to be the norm,” Buehler said. “It’s been a goal of mine for a long time. It’s hard to put into words because you’re doing it over 32, 33 starts.”
It appears that just four pitchers will reach the 200-inning mark this season, including Buehler, Phillies right-hander Zack Wheeler, Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright and Marlins righty Sandy Alcantara. That would be the fewest in a full season in modern MLB history.
Buehler’s durability has been a bonus for the Dodgers, who have won 102 games.
“It’s great, certainly considering what we’ve been through with pitching,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “To really be able to bank six or six-plus [innings] every time he takes the mound is huge.”
It wasn’t long ago that 200 innings pitched in a season was a common occurrence in the big leagues – a sign of a solid, healthy season but nothing special. Just two years ago, 15 pitchers topped the mark. In 2011, there were 39, led by Justin Verlander’s 251 innings.
No one will get close to touching 250 this season. Wheeler could top 220 depending on how many innings he throws in his final start for the Phillies.
There are myriad reasons the 200-inning starter is becoming so rare. Among them:
⋅ The COVID-19 effect: The workload for starting pitchers had been trending downward for years, but it really accelerated during the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season. When pitchers returned for the abbreviated summer camp, teams were ultracautious with their starters. It’s an approach that has largely continued into 2021.
⋅ Pitch counts: The concept of limiting a starter’s pitches in an outing is far from new, but managers are sticking to lower limits, even for ace pitchers. In 2019, starters were allowed to throw at least 100 pitches 1,167 times. Two years later, that number might not even reach 700.
⋅ Openers: Also not a new concept, but the idea of starting the game with a reliever or having “bullpen” games has become more commonplace throughout both leagues. The Tampa Bay Rays – who made the World Series in 2020 and could win 100 games this season – have been one of the biggest proponents of the trend. Their starting pitchers have thrown fewer than 80 pitches 84 times this season, which leads the majors.
⋅ Twenty-six man rosters: MLB has historically allowed 25 players on the active roster, but that number was bumped to 28 in the altered 2020 season. Starting in 2021, the number was reduced to 26, but it still allowed many teams to carry another pitcher in the bullpen.
The 31-year-old Wheeler has evolved into one of MLB’s best pitchers, but even with his team locked in a playoff race, manager Joe Girardi has had a close eye on the right-hander’s pitch counts. He’s topped 100 pitches just once in his past six starts.
“They’re just looking out for me,” Wheeler said. “I communicate with them between starts on how I feel. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing. I want to keep pitching for the rest of the season and hopefully into the playoffs.”
Wainwright might be the most unlikely member of this year’s club. The 40-year-old has been one of the game’s top pitchers for a long time but this is his first 200-inning season since 2014. He led the National League with 241⅔ innings pitched in 2013.
The 26-year-old Alcantara is the least famous of the bunch, quietly leading the Marlins pitching staff. Miami manager Don Mattingly said pitchers still relish taking the mound every fifth day and going deep into games.
“When he’s out there, he’s thinking nine [innings] all the time,” Mattingly said. “He doesn’t like coming out of games. It’s just a continuation of his growth. It’s a mark for guys just being out there for your club.”