A World Series reminder that openers make baseball worse

PHOENIX — Joe Mantiply is probably a nice fella and is obviously a good story. Grew up in rural Virginia, closer to the North Carolina border than to the bustle of civilization. Went to Virginia Tech. Drafted in the 28th round as a junior, so he returned to school — which helped him get selected in the 27th round the next year. He missed a season after Tommy John surgery and finally found some measure of stability in the majors in 2021, by which time he was 30. The following year, he became an all-star.

Quite a ride. And he had zero business getting the ball to start Game 4 of the World Series.

In the last year, Major League Baseball has implemented so many positive changes that have made the games palpably more appealing. That culminated in the first three games of this World Series — one classic comeback, one clear blowout and one tight and clean affair.

Then came Tuesday, when the Arizona Diamondbacks — needing a victory to even the series and ensure it goes back to Texas over the weekend — sent Mantiply to the mound to start. Or, rather, to open.

This is not a rant about what resulted, an 11-7 rout by the Texas Rangers that puts them on the cusp of their first World Series title with a commanding three-games-to-one lead. It is certainly nothing against Mantiply, a 32-year-old native of Danville, Va., who is a reliever by trade, a starter only when there’s no other option.

But Mantiply’s appearance is a reminder that for all of baseball’s steps forward — a pitch clock that has improved the pace of play, limits on pickoff moves that have dramatically increased stolen base attempts and a banning of defensive shifts that has restored the game’s traditional aesthetic — it has further to go.

The Diamondbacks, in their latest biggest game of the season, sent out a pitcher who had completed more than two innings once in 37 appearances in the regular season and playoffs this year. That’s okay for Arizona, because his job Tuesday wasn’t to complete even three innings. It was to face the first six Texas hitters — which he did, and was removed.

His job was only to hand the baton to Miguel Castro. That Castro dropped it — allowing a walk, a single, and Marcus Semien’s two-run triple — isn’t Mantiply’s fault. It is, however, emblematic of the risks.

“I think the biggest challenge is, sometimes when you have a starter, and they’re feeling good, I feel like they can ride that out for innings,” Mantiply said. “In a bullpen game you kind of need everybody to be locked in and feeling their best.”

The Diamondbacks aren’t the first team to decide a bullpen game is the best approach to win a specific game on a given day. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays both employed the strategy in the 2020 World Series. The Atlanta Braves won Game 4 of the 2021 World Series after allowing their starting pitcher to face four batters. Shoot, Arizona even pulled it off in the National League Championship Series. This is hardly unprecedented.

For individual clubs, the strategy is defensible. Their job isn’t to save the sport. It’s to win a game. But for the sport, it’s a scourge.

“If you asked me, I’d rather have five starters that go seven or eight innings,” Rangers Manager Bruce Bochy said. “I think any manager would tell you that.”

Indeed, they would. So some proof this isn’t just about Game 4 this year and really isn’t about Joe Mantiply: none other than Commissioner Rob Manfred, weighing in on the issue to a group of reporters before the World Series even began.

“Historically, starting pitchers have been some of the biggest stars in the game,” Manfred said. “And the way that pitching is being used right now has caused a diminution of the star quality of some of our starters. … I think that there’s a lot of fans who feel like the change from, ‘Let’s see what today’s pitching matchup is,’ to, ‘Who’s the opener today?’ has not been positive.”

Think about the discussion around the matchup for Game 5 — Arizona’s Zac Gallen against Texas’s Nathan Eovaldi. Either, or both, could pitch in — and even complete — the seventh. The buzz, then, is more meaningful and more interesting than wondering how Mantiply would handle Texas’s Marcus Semien and Corey Seager, because he was only going to get one shot anyway.

There’s the problem: Even the Diamondbacks know what’s more appealing, yet what can they do when they have no more appealing option? The preference is to have enough healthy and effective starting pitching.

“Drysdale, Gibson, Koufax, Gooden — you name it,” Arizona Manager Torey Lovullo said before Game 4. “Let’s start right there. Starting pitching is at a premium. We know that. And if you’ve got quality arms, we’re going to use them.

“We just feel like there’s a balance there where there might be a drop-off with some of the starters that we do have or potentially could use here. And we think that the changing, the matching up, is going to be a much better way for us to navigate through their lineup at this point in time of the year.”

Related: By the middle of the third inning, Lovullo had used four pitchers to get nine outs — and allow 10 runs.

Oh, and the fifth pitcher: That would be Ryne Nelson, who started 27 games for Arizona this season. His production in a blowout: three hits, six strikeouts and one run over 5⅓ innings. What might that have looked like from the first through the sixth as opposed to the fourth through the ninth?

“It’s not traditional at all if you’re looking at baseball through the 2005 lens, through the 1995 lens,” Lovullo said. “But I think when you have to make adjustments and you’ve got to be creative — this is one of those situations.”

Adolis García, Max Scherzer removed from Rangers’ World Series roster

Starting pitchers in the 2023 regular season averaged 5.14 innings pitched, down from 5.21 innings the previous year. This isn’t a straight line with no blips, but the trajectory is obvious enough that MLB has tried to put guardrails up. As front offices have become loathe to send out even some established starters to face an opposing lineup for the third time, and as franchises have fetishized velocity and pitchers have aggressively trained for it, MLB put a limit on how many pitchers a team could carry: 13.

The change: negligible. Relievers continue to pick up a higher percentage of innings, and the role of the starter — once so prominent — is further diminished.

“I don’t think it’s had the desired effect,” Manfred said of the roster limit, and he smiled. “There are a few numbers smaller than 13.”

There is also a limit to what can be expected of a 12-man pitching staff. But at least there’s some potentially creative thinking going on.

Which is what got the sport to present a more appealing product anyway. The use of the 15-second pitch clock — 20 seconds with runners on base — has led to one question: How the heck did we endure the modern game without it? Entering the World Series, the average 2023 postseason game lasted 3 hours 2 minutes — down a full 20 minutes from last fall.

Since the turn of the century, there had been 131 World Series games before this October. Exactly 15 had been played in under three hours. This series? Game 2 lasted 2:59. Game 3 lasted 2:51.

“I love the pace of the game right now, to be honest,” Bochy said. “I enjoy how it’s been going as far as baseball in general during the season. It’s what I’m used to.”

What baseball is used to — what it had been used to for generations — is a starting pitcher in the World Series whose job was to get as many outs as possible. The game is so much better than it was a year ago. But it would be better still if there was a way to both incentivize and emphasize the starting pitcher, not only over the course of six months but in October, when a journeyman reliever shouldn’t be handed a baseball bearing a World Series logo and told, “See what you can do against the first six guys.”

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