Once, we had a league in which a relief pitchers threw for more than one inning. Now, we have a league where some relief pitchers are only used against single batters of a certain handedness: LOOGYs. Is this an insidious trend? Are players simply softer than they used to be?
Not at all. What we expect from pitchers has changed a great deal since the beginning of baseball. In 2015, a cluster of pitchers tied for the league lead with 4 complete games. A little more than thirty years ago, a handful of starters threw complete games in more than half of their starts. At age 40, in 1979, Gaylord Perry threw 10, and Phil Niekro led the league with 23. Around the same time, relievers were often expected to pitch more than one inning when they entered the game. As pointed out by Dave Cameron at Fangraphs:
[In 2013], only 27.3% of all relief outings have been multi-inning appearances, but 30 years ago, that number was 59.9%. In 1983, Dan Quisenberry finished second in the Cy Young voting by racking up 45 saves and posting a 1.94 ERA, but he threw 139 innings and had 51 multiple inning appearances that year.
There are a number of different theories about why this is, but they all dance around the idea that pitchers are most effective when they exert more effort for fewer innings. Some pitchers remain effective for longer, and they become starters. One pitcher in particular is almost never expected to pitch more than one inning: the closer. He comes in during the last inning in a "close" game, gets three outs, and goes home. Even though a pitcher can record a save simply by "pitching effectively for at least three innings," we've come to understand the save strictly as the last three outs. The role is crystallized, as is the setup man in the eighth and the middle reliever in the seventh and the six inning quality start. We've come to expect it. Players accept it.
This brings us to Cody Allen. Here is a list of every appearance of four or more outs Allen made in 2015:
In every single one of these games, Allen entered during the 8th inning and pitched though the ninth, with the exception of the June 18th game against the Cubs. That twice-delayed game prompted Terry Francona to use his closer to escape a bases-loaded jam with two outs in the fifth inning. A run for the Cubs might have meant an official game, and a loss for the Indians. In each of the eighth-inning-appearance games, it is clear that Cody Allen expected to pitch for more than three outs. He knew as he toed the rubber that he needed to pitch through to the end of the ninth. Only once did he allow a run.
Thursday against the Seattle Mariners, Allen stepped on to the mound in the ninth, as expected in a tie game at home. It is a high-leverage situation; of course you reach for the closer. He did an exemplary job and shut down the Mariners in the ninth. Then, Terry Francona and/or the pitching coaches let him attempt to complete the tenth inning as well. A few baserunners reached, but Allen did record two outs on hard-hit balls. With one out left to record in the top of the tenth, Robinson Cano strode to the plate. How did it go?
Before the home run, Allen threw 29 pitches. In 2015, Allen reached this pitch count only four times. He was credited for a loss and/or a blown save in three of these appearances.
"I've done it before," said Allen after the game in reference to multiple inning appearances. True, but the closer has never once worked the ninth and the tenth inning. He's pitched two or more innings only a handful of times, and usually in extra innings when it's expected due to the uncertainty of the length of the game. I believe he pitched his hardest on Thursday in the ninth expecting to face only three batters. He then went out in the tenth when asked and pitched to the best of his abilities.
Before the Cano home run, pitching coach Mickey Callaway visited the mound. According to Jordan Bastian, he did this to let Cody Allen catch his breath. In other words, the Indians coaching staff let a winded pitcher in an unusual situation face off against one of the best hitting second baseman of all time.
What did they expect?