MLB: Pitching strategy took a front seat in 2020

MLB managers this season focused more than ever on the strategy of bullpen use

Major League teams periodically go into the market for new managers. But if you look at the strategic moves MLB managers actually made in 2020, that job is increasingly coming closer to being a glorified pitching coach.

More than 70 percent of strategy moves managers engaged in during the 2020 season involved the replacement of a pitcher.  That continues a trend of pitcher-focused decision making that has increasingly occupied field managers since at least 1960.

Of five on-field strategic decisions that are common to baseball, no other managerial move occupied as much as 15 percent of the decision-making spectrum.

These conclusions are based on an analysis of season-long data compiled by Baseball-Reference.com. The data includes managerial use of the stolen base, the sacrifice, the intentional walk, the pinch hitter, and the pitching staff.

Most of those strategies have shrunk to insignificance as the managerial preoccupation with pitching changes has steadily risen. While 72 percent of a 2020 manager’s decisions involved replacing his pitcher, the next highest category – use of a pinch hitter – occupied just 13 percent of a manager’s moves.

Although the extension of the designated hitter may be expected to shift managerial focus in 2020, there is nothing sudden or new about the trend. Pitching moves represented 60 percent of a manager’s decisions in 2010, and 50 percent in 1990.

Conversely, pinch-hitter-related decisions have steadily decreased as a percentage of a field manager’s workload. In 1960, managers used 1.56 pinch hitters per game, and 30 percent of all decisions involved use of a pinch hitter. That percentage fell to 23 percent by 1980, to 20 percent by 2010, and to 13 percent this season, when managers used 0.78 pinch hitters per game. That 0.78 figure is just half the per-game number used in 1960.

Historically, part of the reason for a shift away from pinch-hitting has been the corresponding shift toward larger bullpens, which reduced a manager’s bench flexibility. But that was not the case in 2020, when rosters were inflated to 28 slots as a guard against Covid issues.

Despite the larger rosters, overall, managerial involvement in game strategies actually declined in 2020 from a decade earlier. In 2010, MLB managers averaged 6.57 strategic moves per game, a high since at least 1960. The comparable figure this just-concluded season was 6.22 moves per game.

Use of the stolen base continued a 40-year decline relative to other strategic actions, and a 50-year decline in attempts per game. The average 2020 field manager attempted just 0.63 stolen bases per game, down from 0.83 10 seasons ago and from 1.09 attempts per game in 1980, about the time use of the steal as a strategy peaked.

Steal decisions represented just 10 percent of all managerial decisions in 2020, half their rate in 1980.

The table below shows the percentage role played by each of five common strategic decisions in per-game managerial decision-making for each season ending in zero since 1960. The strategies are stolen bases (sb), sacrifice bunts (sac), intentional walks (IBB), pinch hitters (ph) and pitchers (p). The final column represents the total number of strategic moves per game.

Year       SB           Sac         IBB         PH          P          Moves

1960       11%        5%          6%          30%        47%        5.15

1970       13%        4%          7%          28%        48%        5.54

1980       19%        5%          6%          23%        45%        5.78

1990       16%        4%          5%          24%        50%        6.14

2000       13%        4%          4%          21%        58%        6.26

2010       13%        3%          4%          20%        60%        6.57

2020       10%        2%          2%          13%        72%        6.22

The bottom line: In 2020, MLB continued to move in the direction of being a game where the general term “strategy” was becoming synonymous with bullpen strategy. Every other strategy declined in use and importance.