How many relievers should a team use?  The Mets have used 17 in four games in 2009.  Good thing they got rid of the LOOGYs in the off-season.

One of the most controversial issues in baseball is pitch counts.  Most people hate them.  It is pretty common to hear about how Tom Seaver or Nolan Ryan did not need pitch counts and that clubs are babying pitchers today.  That may be true.  But I do not think it is fair to cite the success stories and not mention the ones who could not handle the load.

Since I mentioned two who did, I think it is fair to mention two who cracked under the weight of heavy workloads.  Denny McLain, the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season, pitched a combined 661 innings between 1968 and 1969 during his age 24 and 25 seasons.  His last year in the majors came three years later and he was washed up before 29.

Gary Nolan pitched 495.1 innings in 1970 and 1971 when he made 72 starts.  The next two seasons he combined to make just 27 starts.  He pitched 450 innings combined in 1975 and 1976 and his baseball career ended after the following season, before he turned 30.

I think pitch counts are a good thing, within reason.  My complaint with pitcher usage comes with the bullpen.  I think it is crazy that relievers cannot go for more than an inning at a time.

Perhaps it is wise not to let a reliever face a lineup a second time, but in that case two innings should not be out of the question for a reliever, especially a non-closer.  Instead what we see, especially on the Mets, is the use of three or more relievers every game.  Here is the bullpen usage through the first four games of the season, with their innings pitched in parentheses:

Game 1 – Sean Green (1.1), J.J. Putz (1), Francisco Rodriguez (1)

Game 2 – Bobby Parnell (1), Pedro Feliciano (0.2), Green (0.1), Putz (1), Rodriguez (1)

Game 3 – Darren O’Day (0.2), Brian Stokes (2), Parnell (0.1), Feliciano (0.2)

Game 4 – Green (1), Parnell (1), Putz (1), Feliciano (0.2), O’Day (2 batters)

That is four games, 17 relievers used and only two who pitched for more than an inning, and one of those was just for a third of an inning more.  Is that really the optimal way to use the bullpen?

Obviously, things are difficult because no starter has finished six innings yet.  Jerry Manuel showed a willingness to use his starters deeper into games when he took over last season.  No one should be criticizing him for being careful with his starters in their first start of the season.

But the relievers are a different story.

Parnell was a starter until this season.  Should he really be finished after one inning?  O’Day pitched 43.1 innings in 30 games for the Angels last year so hopefully he does not get pigeonholed as a one-inning guy.  Stokes should not be the only guy that Manuel feels okay to extend past an inning.

Rodriguez will probably not get many opportunities to pitch more than an inning and that is okay.  Putz probably will not either, given his prior history as a closer.  But the other five member of the pen should be able to pitch more than one inning.  If they cannot, then Manuel needs to re-think their position on the roster.