When Major League Baseball announced its return-to-play plan in June, it was a foregone conclusion that relief pitchers would play an outsized role in the unprecedented season ahead, at least at the beginning of the campaign. A truncated, three-week training camp wouldn't provide sufficient time for starting pitchers - some of whom may not have been working out during the league's hiatus - to be stretched out. Relievers would have to pick up the slack.
So far, they have. Almost a week into the 2020 season, relievers have accounted for nearly half of all innings pitched. To be sure, not every pitcher currently working out of the bullpen is a reliever in the traditional sense; some are starters working in piggyback schemes, while others are bulk guys who follow openers. But the fact remains that non-starters are logging more innings, proportionately, than ever before. In fact, three teams - the Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants, and Seattle Mariners - still haven't had a starter complete five innings.
This early-season uptick was not unexpected. But considering the success this model of pitcher usage has yielded so far in 2020, the question now is whether this trend will persist once starters are fully stretched out - and possibly beyond.
Offense is down across the league relative to 2019: Teams are averaging 4.54 runs per game, a year-over-year decline of 6%. Home runs have dropped off, too, with only 1.24 balls leaving the yard per nine innings following last year's long-ball bonanza (1.40 per nine). Ultimately, batters just aren't hitting the ball as hard as they did a year ago. The league's average exit velocity of 87.7 mph is a full tick lower than it was last year, according to Baseball Savant. In fact, it's even lower than it was in 2015, the most offense-suppressed season of the Statcast era. Strikeouts, meanwhile, are up slightly from last season, with 23.3% of all plate appearances ending in a sheepish walk back to the dugout. Sustained over a full campaign, that rate would be an all-time record.