Baseball’s Biggest Menace
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 gameâ€”his arm did not subsequently fall off, by the wayâ€”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, isnâ€™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.