The Alameda County Arm Killings
Between his second and third stints as manager of the New York Yankees, Billy Martin spent three seasons at the helm of the Oakland Athletics. In his two seasons in the Bay Area, Martin rode his starting pitchers to the max. In 1980, his rotation completed an unbelievable 94 of their 162 starts (the major league average was 33). In the strike-shortened 1981 season, his pitchers went start to finish in 60 of the team’s 109 games (well above the ML average of 20). The wear-and-tear on his starters’ arms left the pitchers never the same.
After a terrible 1979 season under Jim Marshall, which saw the team go 54-108, the Athletics brought in recently-fired Billy Martin to manage the team. Despite inexperience the year before, Martin inherited a young group of starting pitchers that had tons of potential. At 27 years of age, Rick Langford was the most experienced and had the best numbers of the group, going 12-16 in 1979. The other four starters were: Steve McCatty (25 years old, 11-12, 4.22 ERA), Matt Keough (23, 2-17, 5.04), Mike Norris (24, 5-8, 4.80), and Brian Kingman (24, 8-7, 4.31).
Up to that point, Martin had managed seven complete major league seasons himself and in six of those years, his team was above the American League average in complete games. However, not once did one of his teams lead that category and Martin had managed pitchers like Ferguson Jenkins and Mickey Lolich who routinely went the distance in games, with or without Martin. So up to the point he came to Oakland, Martin managed his pitchers no differently than half of the managers in the major leagues.
However, upon arriving in Oakland, Martin implemented tactical changes across the team. Later dubbed ‘BillyBall’ by Oakland Tribune writer Ralph Wiley, the Athletics began to play aggressively on offense and he allowed his players to simply play the game. As one of his former players, Rickey Henderson, would later say, â€œHe might not say anything until the sixth inning. He’d let you play until then. Then he would start managing.” Allowing his players to play also meant allowing his starting pitchers to pitch. The new pitching coach in Oakland was longtime Martin sidekick Art Fowler, who had served under Billy in the same capacity during every one of Martin’s stops.
In his first season in charge, ‘BillyBall’ was successful for the Athletics. The team had improved by 29 victories from the previous year and finished second in the AL West. Martin’s new outfield of Henderson, Dwayne Murphy, and Tony Armas led his club offensively (Henderson swiped 100 bags.) However, most of the weight was literally on the shoulders of his starting pitchers, specifically Rick Langford and Mike Norris.
The two pitchers anchored the rotation; Langford going 19-12 with a 3.26 ERA while Norris had himself a career year at 22-9 with an ERA of 2.53. A closer look at their numbers and it’s a wonder that their arms didn’t fall off during that season. Langford (290) and Norris (284.1) were 1-2 in innings pitched across the American League. Langford completed an incredible 28 of his 33 starts while Norris went the distance in 24 of his 33. The two pitchers were the top two in that category as well. Langford also completed a string of 22 consecutive starts that season. Both of them also pitched one, 14-inning complete game.
Matt Keough was no slouch either that year. Coming off a tough ’79 season, the 6’3â€ right-hander rebounded with a 16-13 mark with a drastically reduced ERA of 2.92, winning him the Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year Award for the American League. All of those stats were accomplished in 250 innings, and in his 32 starts, Keough completed 20 of them. That was third in the majors, behind only his two rotation mates.
The other two pitchers, Steve McCatty and Brian Kingman, each logged over 200 innings and 10 complete games apiece. Martin’s refusal to go the the bullpen allowed Kingman to achieve a major league-high 20 losses. Altogether, the five pitchers threw 1256 1/3 innings and completed 93 of their 159 starts. The 94th complete game came from closer Bob Lacey, who made his only start of the year in the second-to-last game of the year.
In 1981, things were going well until, on June 12th, play was halted due to the Players’ Strike. When it ended on July 31st, the MLB decided to split the season into two halves, pre-strike and post-strike, with the winners of the division from each half advancing to the playoffs. This was great news for Oakland as they had the best record in the AL West, 39-22, before the strike was announced which meant ‘BillyBall’ was headed to the post-season.
Langford was again the horse for the 1981 A’s, pitching in 195 innings and again led the major leagues in complete games, this time with 18 (in 24 starts). However, the major force in the rotation was McCatty, who stepped up and had a tremendous year, posting a 14-7 record with a 2.33 ERA. He went start-to-finish in 16 starts and four of those were shutouts. Norris (12) and Keough (10) also appeared on the major league leaderboard for complete games.
Oakland advanced to the 1981 ALCS after sweeping the Kansas City Royals in the opening round. True to his regular season style, Martin used only two relief pitchers the entire series, allowing Norris to go the distance in Game 1 for a 4-0 shutout and McCatty to pitch a complete game in Game 2 in a 2-1 victory. With the win, it meant Oakland would advance to face Martin’s old employer, the New York Yankees. The reunion would be short and sweet, only for the New Yorkers, who sent the Athletics home after a 3-0 sweep of their own.
While 1982 appeared to be a promising season for Oakland, the overuse of the starting pitchers by Martin began to show. McCatty and Norris both hit the disabled list in June with arm injuries. Langford never seemed to get it going and Keough reverted to his 1979 form, finishing with an AL-leading 18 losses and an awful ERA of 5.72. Every starter except newcomer Tom Underwood had an ERA above 4.00. The Athletics as a team won only 68 games and finished a distant 5th in the AL West.
That season was also the end of Martin’s tenure in Oakland. The relationship between him and the owners soured and Martin blamed the owners for interfering with management issues. As for his pitchers, Martin simply said that none of them stayed in shape during the strike, negating the fact that he himself had just pitched them right out. Critics of Martin mocked ‘BillyBall’ by instead calling it ‘Billy Burnout.’ The five starters who had given it their all for their manager would in return have their careers shortened.
Mike Norris had his affected perhaps the most. He signed a five-year, $3.3 million contract after the 1980 season, but his shoulder had began to hurt when he took to the mound the next season. After a DL-filled year in ’83, Norris had surgery to remove a trapped nerve from his shoulder. Doctors advised him not to pitch the entire 1984 season and he wouldn’t. In fact, he wouldn’t pitch again in the majors until 1990, when he appeared in 14 games out of the bullpen for the A’s. While much of his decline was based on Martin’s overuse of his arm, it was also based on Norris’ overuse of his screwball, a pitch that is hard on the arm. In an interview in Sports Illustrated, Norris said to Ron Fimrate, â€œIf I threw 120 pitches in a game, 75 of them were screwballs.â€
Nobody pitched more innings for Billy Martin in Oakland than Rick Langford. In the three years under Martin, Langford completed 69 percent of his starts. But after Martin left, things began spiraling downhill for Langford. He pitched in only 20 innings during the ’83 season before going on the disabled list. He tried rehabbing but the pain didn’t go away and later that year, he opted for surgery on his arm to fix a torn muscle. However, Langford never blamed Martin, saying he never felt overworked or abused under his former manager. When his elbow began to hurt in ’82, Langford alerted Martin who shut him down. Still, he never could recover from his injury and he went 4-15 for the rest of his career until he shut it down for good after the 1986 season.
Matt Keough had his injury before any of his mates did. It happened in May of ’81 against Baltimore, while when throwing a pitch, he experienced a bit of pain in his shoulder. He pitched through it for the remainder of the season and into 1982, and with each start, the pain worsened. He was eventually traded to the Yankees in 1983 when he began experimenting with a knuckleball, but in 1984, he was placed on the DL while in the minors due to shoulder pain. In 1985 through 1986, Keough made brief appearances for the St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros, and Chicago Cubs. He left for Japan in 1987 and pitched for the Hanshin Tigers until 1990. He attempted to get back into the majors with the Anaheim Angels in the early-’90s but never cracked the roster. In 1992, he was nearly killed after a foul ball hit him in the temple and his career was over.
Steve McCatty stayed with Oakland until 1986 and was a starter nearly the entire time. In 1982, McCatty’s shoulder began to hurt but he battled through the pain. After the season, he got his shoulder checked out and the diagnosis was a knot in his rotator cuff, an ailment that required rest and rehab but no surgery. But the injury had a longtime effect on McCatty, who had his velocity disappear. He would joke in 1984 that his new name was ‘Steve McCatty and his traveling junk shop.’ Like his rotation mates, though, McCatty never placed any blame on Martin. â€œBilly didn’t ruin our arms. Our own competitiveness did it. We wouldn’t take ourselves out. I know what I should’ve done when my arm started hurting,â€ McCatty told Sports Illustrated.
If asked who on their staff had the best stuff, many of the A’s pitchers would say Brian Kingman. Yet Kingman’s career lasted the shortest among the five starters. After his 20-loss season in 1980 and a slow start to the ’81 season, he was sent to the bullpen by Martin. He sulked and as a result, was sent to the minors for the 1982 season. When Martin decided to recall him after he had pitched well in Triple-A, Kingman refused to come back and when he did, he and Martin had a few spats with each other, including an argument outside a Kansas City hotel room that nearly turned into fisticuffs. His last MLB appearance was with the San Francisco Giants in June 1983 and, unlike his ex-rotation mates, he didn’t absolve blame off of his manager. “Billy was obsessed with complete games. I think maybe he wanted that record. I’ve heard the burnout theory, and maybe there’s something to it,â€ he would say in the same Sports Illustrated article.
On April 27, 1981, the five pitchers appeared on a Sports Illustrated cover with the title ‘THE AMAZING A’S AND THEIR FIVE ACES.’ Never has the SI cover curse been more evident. By the time the 1984 season rolled around, Martin was gone from Oakland and only two of the five aces (McCatty and Langford) would even pitch that season. As much press as the pitchers got when they were at the top of their game, the same amount was given when their arms gave out. No manager wanted to be the next guy to handle his starters like Billy Martin and no management team wanted their prized young starters to become the next Matt Keough in their 30s. So on came the pitch counts and the specialized bullpen roles that we often see in the majors today. The rules of pitching would never be the same.