Zach Stewart’s start Monday night brought him into unwelcome territory–and I’m not just referring him joining the exclusive club of pitchers who have pitched 30 innings, and are allowing more than three homers every nine innings; a club of which he is the only member.
Instead, I’m referring to Stewart’s start meaning that he has overtaken Matt Thornton in innings pitched. He had already logged more than Addison Reed, Will Ohman, Hector Santiago, and Jesse Crain before the game had started. He’s behind only Nate Jones–who’s been good, but is certainly a surprising choice to have emerged as the most-worked reliever–in innings pitched by non-rotation members.
There are obviously qualifiers to that. Stewart’s 5.2 IP Monday gave a big lift to his total, neither Reed nor Thornton are much for endurance, Crain was hurt, and Ohman and Santiago have their own problems. It’s also not like Stewart has been getting important innings, just a lot of them.
Robin Ventura follows conventional wisdom, and holds off on his best relievers when he’s behind. The win expectancy is already marginal, so the damage his worst pitchers can do is small. Zach Stewart has only faced three batters in ‘high leverage situations’ all year–the least on the team. Fittingly, he’s retired none of them.
While this approach follows a sound chain of priority, it does push a lot of innings that aren’t built-in, or specifically owed to certain pitchers, to the guy at the very back of the pen. We know this because we’ve seen it before. It’s the phenomenon that resulted in Tony Pena throwing over 100 innings in 2010 despite an ERA over 5.00, or D.J. Carrasco leading all relievers on the 2009 club with 93.1.
Carrasco can be considered a happier story, seeing as he lucked and guiled his way to a 3.76 ERA, but still wasn’t thought of as much more than chaff, as he was allowed to walk at the end of the year. There have been instances of ‘super-relievers’ like the Red Sox’ Alfredo Aceves last season, or Keith Foulke’s much-revered 1999 season where he threw 105.1 IP. Both those pitchers received high praise for eating so many innings so well, and were both swiftly promoted to later-inning roles with less work.
This hierarchy is going to continue to push large amounts of innings to the Zach Stewarts of the world, which raises two problems–a very minor one, where Stewart is savaging every comeback attempt (think of the June 10th game vs. Houston), and a larger one where his lack of a marriage to any role results in him being tabbed for something actually important, like a start against Matt Garza.
A case can, and has been made that Stewart should be bounced from his major league roster spot simply because his 6.00 ERA with the peripherals to match isn’t good enough, but that goes double if his seemingly meaningless role has him racking up innings. If it’s inevitable that the long reliever will always be a revolving door, then it should be one that moves quicker.
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