June 19, 2018

Baseball’s Biggest Menace

May 23, 2009 by · 16 Comments 

There is an unspeakable horror at large in today’s baseball world, threatening to capsize everything we hold dear about the game. I’m not talking about steroids, though, or labor agreements, or player contracts larger than some countries’ entire economies. I’m talking about the beast that lurks inside the fabric of every major league contest.

The Pitch Count.

I was watching a DVD of the 1975 World Series recently, and Luis Tiant’s gutty Game 4 performance in Cincinnati. He was in baserunner turmoil virtually the entire game, but when he reached the 120-pitch mark, commentator Tony Kubek mentioned it as offhandedly as if he were pointing out sweat on Tiant’s forehead. El Tiante went on to hurl 156 pitches that night for the complete game—his arm did not subsequently fall off, by the way—and the Boston win kept them from being swept in Cincinnati.

I thought of that effort again this past week, when I opened the morning box score for an Indians game in Kansas City and noticed that Cliff Lee had been yanked from the affair with a 4-0 lead after eight walkless innings and 103 pitches. Kerry Wood came on to “close” the game and promptly gave the Royals five runs in the last of the ninth. Naturally, the short wrap-up of the action from the wire service simply said the Cleveland bullpen blew the game.

This is the common response in the press when incidents like this occur. No one EVER blames the manager. But in my opinion, Eric Wedge deserved to be tarred and feathered for this decision. Cliff Lee was not some kid whose arm needed to be protected, but the reigning Cy Young winner, capable of throwing over 200 innings per year. Last season I counted at least a half dozen games where Jerry Manuel lifted ace Johan Santana late in the game with the Mets in front by a small margin, only to have his awful bullpen lose the game. It’s one thing if you have a deep, talented corps of firemen at the ready, but if your “relief” is no better than a bevy of drunks wandering into a gas station with open cigarette lighters, why bring them in?

Because today’s unwritten rule is that you have to use a closer for the 9th, you have to have your eighth inning guy, and your seventh inning guy, and before long it will be your sixth inning guy. All too often, though, baseball managers kowtow to this mindset without thinking about the situation, or the strength of their starting pitcher, or the worth of their bullpen. Some pitchers may not be able to throw over 100 pitches, particularly the very young ones, but many of them can, and if they’ve been getting a tough lineup out for an entire game, it makes virtually no sense to break that rhythm. Would a hockey coach take out his star goalie with five minutes left in a game, regardless of how many shots he’d faced, and replace him with the backup goalie? Would a football coach swap out his middle linebacker for the final two-minute drive by the opposing team? How did this lunacy ever become policy?

Since the beginning of the 20th century, up until the Age of Anderson and LaRussa, starting pitchers were expected to go the distance whenever possible and most of them did. From 1959 through 1966, Don Drysdale averaged 16 complete games and 289 innings pitched a year. I don’t seem to remember his arm falling off. Let’s try Warren Spahn, who in an even longer time frame, from 1947 to 1963, averaged 21 complete games a year and 278 innings pitched. Obviously not every pitcher has this kind of stamina, but to think that NO hurler is capable of having it is ludicrous. I seem to recall Ozzie Guillen being mocked during the 2005 ALCS for allowing his starters to finish their games against the Angels. Guess who won the World Series that year.

I suspect that skyrocketing contracts are partly responsible for pitch count madness; agents and owners feel they need to protect their investments. The problem is that this pitch count chastity belt has become so tight that young pitchers are now being taught in the minors never to expect to go longer than six innings, and their durability is never given a chance to be developed.

There’s also a dark flip side to this: the Overused Bullpen Syndrome, which we see surfacing every year with many major league teams (hello, Mr. Scioscia) when reliance on the pen to complete every game wears the ensemble down by August. In addition, when you have a 3 or 4-man bullpen-by-committee, isn’t it more likely one of these guys will not have his stuff on a given night? Good, tough relievers can also be overlooked this way. Does anyone remember Mike Marshall, Goose Gossage and Sparky Lyle routinely pitching three innings of relief in key games? Go into box scores for the last ten years and see if you can find more than a handful of pitchers who were allowed to do that.

I am not a sabrematician, though I do follow and respect those who practice the math, but I do watch a lot of baseball, and you don’t have to be Einstein or Sherlock Holmes to see how many games are being stupidly lost day in and day out by managers babying their starters. What baffles me is how little attention this issue receives in the daily baseball press. Until it does, the complete game will soon be as rare as a no-hitter, and contending teams will suffer accordingly.

More of Jeff Polman’s work can be found at http://1924andyouarethere.blogspot.com/ where he’s conducting a fascinating replay of the 1924 season.


16 Responses to “Baseball’s Biggest Menace”
  1. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve been working a post sort of on the same theme, but smaller venue.

  2. BaseballSteve says:

    Excellent commentary. Strange to me, they seem to pitch these kids to death in High School, and often in College, then all of a sudden they can’t go deep as Professionals.
    You’re right- it’s strictly a money issue. Coddle those Investments.

  3. Jeff Polman says:

    Did you all just watch the end of that Phillies-Yankees game?

    Chad Durbin was the 7th inning man: lights out.
    Ryan Madson was the 8th inning man: lights out.
    Now let’s bring in Lidge and his 7.95 ERA because he’s apparently our closer. Walk-homer-single-single, and the Yanks win another in their new little league park.

    I rest my case.

  4. Don Drysdale averaged 16 complete games and 289 innings pitched a year. I don’t seem to remember his arm falling off.

    That’s kind of a strange first example, considering Drysdale retired just after his 33rd birthday due to shoulder problems.

  5. Greg Spira says:

    The assertion that “Since the beginning of the 20th century, up until the Age of Anderson and LaRussa, starting pitchers were expected to go the distance whenever possible and most of them did.” is nonsensical. Here are the percentages of complete games pitched by National League pitchers every ten years starting with 1876, when the National League came into being.

    1876: 91%
    1886: 94%
    1896: 82%
    1906: 77%
    1915; 55%
    1926; 49%
    1936: 40%
    1946: 39%
    1956; 29%
    1966: 25%
    1976: 23% (Note: 1977 dropped to 17% because of offensive explosion)
    1986: 12%
    1996: 6%
    2006: 3%

    The number of complete games has been on a steady, downward slide since almost the beginning of the National League itself. The biggest shift away from complete games came in the first 25 years of the 20th century. By the end of the 1920s, most games pitched were not complete games.

    The slide in complete games slowed down a bit in the sixties when the strike zone was widened, hitting 29% in 1968, the year of the pitcher, Two years later, in 1970, with the strike zone shrunk and the mound lowered, the number fell to 21%, and complete game % hovered mostly in the low twenties until the offensive explosion of 1977 sent it down to 17%,

    Tony LaRussa may have changed bullpen arms are utilized, but he had little effect on the disappearance of complete games, a process that has been going on for 120 years.

    (PS – Obviously, I’m using NL data here because in the AL the dh increased the number of complete games, making the cross era comparison impossible)

  6. glen dundas says:

    happended to watch a brilliant 1983 performance (on the baeball network) last week by 24 year-old britt burns…lost on a 10th inning home run after throwing 150+ picthes..mr. polman should check out burns’ career stats after that one…he was pretty well done…
    polman and his like are generous in their acknowlegment of pitchers who regularly threw tons of pitches and suffered no ill affects, but ignore those whose careers ended quickly, probnablt because their names are long forgetten becasue of reduced longevity..

    and WHAT is so important about complete games anyaway?…


  7. greg levi says:

    first of all , the last 3 responders i bet you are all under the age of 35. im 54 yrs old, ive seen alot of baseball. if it aint broke dont fix it. when it comes to pitching baseball is broken but it wasnt before. don drysdale, sandy koufax yea yea sure there are short careers. i can count them on my fingers . but then you have bob gibson. 251 career wins 255 career comlete games. i guess he should be in the cicus guys today afreak of nature today right? you guys might think hes a robot or a space alien. you can use all the statistics in the world but ive seen great pitchers. speaking of injuries, ive never seen so many players today go on the dl, pitchers and position players alike. with advanced surguries, excerces, nutrition, and oh yea steroids, it doesnt help. one other thing the writer of the article missed was that years ago starting pitchers pitched every fourth day. today they start every fifth day. if you believe you can or cannot either way you are right. its in their heads today and oh yea its in your head. they now have pitch counts in little league. hey guys suck it up , have you ever played the game?

  8. greg levi says:

    whats so important about complete games anyway? wouldnt you like to have roy halliday on your team?it usually means more wins, strikouts, innings pitched.you must be very young to make that question, and yes im very old. maybe mike marshall has the answers. drmikemarshall.com

  9. rone says:

    It’s a shame that Fire Joe Morgan isn’t around anymore to give your alarmist, cherry-picking jeremiad a through shake. At the core of your article is the fallacy known as “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is ‘data’.”

    Simply put, you don’t understand pitching, and therefore you don’t understand baseball. To you, the game is a black box into which you insert a starting pitcher, push the lever, and out pops a win.

  10. Tracy says:

    To ‘greg levi’:

    First, punctuation is your friend.

    Second, you wrote “don drysdale, sandy koufax yea yea sure there are short careers. i can count them on my fingers . ”

    Since I’m about the same age as you, I’ll throw out some names you may remember:

    Steve Barber (last decent year at 28)
    Steve Busby (won 59 games by age 25, 11 after)
    Larry Dierker (threw 1250 innings by age 23, 1083 in next seven seasons, finished at 30)
    Gary Gentry (41 wins through age 25, 5 after)
    Gary Nolan (76 wins through age 24, missed almost all of next two seasons, finished at 29)

    I can go on all day.

  11. Shawn Weaver says:

    Well, Greg, I’m 45, and I’d like for pitchers like Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax to have stayed healthy enough to pitch until they were 40, rather than blowing out their arms at a much younger age.

    Pitchers in less offense-heavy eras didn’t throw as many pitches, because they didn’t have to; pitchers in other eras didn’t throw as hard as they could on every pitch, because not every hitter in the lineup could hit one out at any time. The game has changed in a lot of ways. Pitchers not completing games is an effect, not a cause.

  12. greg levi says:

    first punctuation was never my friend and dont forget that. there is no question that the game has changed.bob gibson was the reason why the mound was lowered, but explain all the injuries today. pitchers not completing games is an enigma not a cause. anybody want to tackle all the injuries in todays game. ive never seen so many. again dr mike marshall . check it out

  13. Greg Spira says:

    I think we could get more pitching from top pitchers by moving back to a 4-man rotation, but no major league franchise is willing to make the kind of massive commitment willing to try it. While I hate the way today’s bullpen is used and find the use of 100 as a magic pitch count number silly7 – teams should try to do more to figure out how many pitches individual hurlers can safely throw – it could be 85 or 120 in many cases – and not let the magic of a number with two zeros have such an effect. But I am convinced that the biggest risk to pitchers arms in terms of usage is having them pitch when they are tired and more likely to make a mistake in their mechanics which results in injury, and thus the use of pitch counts is a good thing. But I’ve never been convinced that starters can’t pitch more often and that the move to a 5-man rotation was necessary. (I also think that major league teams could probably use their starters as relievers on their throwing days more often without producing any negative effects)

  14. greg levi says:

    now we are getting somewhere. a valid opinion that at least someone believes. dont mint my punctuation please . mike marshall says that the reason pitchers get tired is because they are not conditioned to throw 120 to 130 pitches. if you are yanked all the time around 100 pitches how can you be conditioned to throw 130? mike marshall appeared in 12 straight games. after a day he didnt pitch he would throw batting practice for ten min. by the way that was relief pitching not starting. he also has the correct pitching delivery that will never hurt the arm johan santana threw over 120 tonight. last night levon hernandez threw 128. levon looks like he might have the delivery that mike marshall teaches. but dont tell that to the majors . its like they hate mike marshall.

  15. James Farris says:

    Pitchers from the sixties were soft. 255 complete games? Please. Cy Young had three times that many. . . Someone can always out “in my day” you


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