Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Modern Pitching is Regressing, Not Advancing


Cy Young competed a whopping 41 of his 43 starts for the Red Sox in 1902

Baseball has changed through the decades, from a pitching-dominant sport to a hitting-dominant sport.

The exclusion of black players until 1947 kept many exceptional players out of the big leagues, and out of the record books.

League expansion has added more players and, some would say, watered down the talent pool. That, however, should have affected both hitters and pitchers equally.

After the 1968 season, known among baseball historians as “The Year of the Pitcher,” the pitcher’s mound was lowered in 1969 to curb to the dominance of pitchers.

Additionally, the American League’s adoption of the designated hitter in 1973 increased offense and diminished the pitcher’s advantage in that league.

Through it all, however, some things have endured and remained consistent — year after year, decade after decade.

The mound is still sixty feet, six inches from home plate, which remains a five-sided slab of whitened rubber, 17 inches square. The batter’s box remains the same size, at 4 x 6 feet, and the bases are all still 90 feet apart.

However, there has been one rather odd change in MLB in recent decades: the near absence of the complete game.

Will White completed a whopping 75 games for Cincinnati in 1879. The notion that a pitcher would make that many starts, alone, sounds bizarre today. However, throughout the late 1800s, it wasn’t uncommon for a pitcher to record 50-plus, or even 60-plus, complete games per season.

During this era, the basic rules of the game had not been settled upon (examples: the number of balls for a walk was once as high as 8, foul balls did not count as strikes, so a batter could foul off pitches until he got one he liked, etc.) and the American and National Leagues had not been established as the two major leagues.

The period beginning in 1901 is generally considered the start of “modern baseball.”

As its name implies, the Dead Ball Era (1901-1920), was heavily tilted toward pitchers, who would routinely start 40 or 50 games and often win 25 or 30.

Some of the things that contributed to the pitchers’ dominance in this era included the use of the spit ball, which wasn’t banned until 1920. Pitchers were not only allowed to spit on the ball, but were also allowed to scratch up the ball, changing its aerodynamics to their advantage.

Additionally, in this era, a single ball was used as long as possible, allowing it to wear down and become softer and harder to hit for distance. After the 1920 season, new balls were used more often for better visibility, which helped batters. Furthermore, new parks were also constructed toward the end of the Dead Ball Era that had hitter-friendly dimensions.

However, starting in 1920, the game shifted to lessen the numerous advantages held by pitchers and to level the playing field, so to speak, for hitters.

Yet, from the 1920s to the 1970s, it was not uncommon for pitchers to record 30 complete games in a season. These pitchers aren’t ancient artifacts of history. They were modern pitchers, playing by the same standardized rules that remain in effect today.

For example, Catfish Hunter led the majors with 30 complete games for the Yankees in 1975. It didn’t even seem remarkable at the time. Rick Langford led baseball with 28 complete games for Oakland in 1980. But by the time Roger Clemens competed an MLB-best 18 games for the Red Sox in 1987, the downward trend in complete games was clearly visible.

Jack McDowell of the White Sox (1991) and Curt Schilling of the Phillies (1998) notched the highest complete-game totals in the 1990s, each finishing 15 games. Such a number seems extraordinary by today’s standards.

The highest complete-game total in the 2000s was nine, which was reached six times by five different pitchers.

James Shields finished 11 games for the Rays in 2011, by far the highest total this decade. Last year, Ivan Nova and Max Scherzer led the National League with two complete games apiece.

So, what happened? Pitchers aren't physically inferior today than they were in the 1970s, or even the 1920s. The human shoulder and elbow aren’t weaker or less durable.

Yes, pitchers throw harder today than ever before. Today’s game emphasizes the heater more than in the past, favoring hard throwers to four-pitch craftsman who paint the corners at will with great command. The current game is littered with starters who can throw in the mid to upper-90s, and even the triple digits.

On the other hand, as recently as the 1970s, teams used four-man rotations, with each starter pitching on just three days’ rest. It didn't ruin pitchers.

Today, a five-man rotation (and occasionally six) is the norm. That has resulted in pitchers making fewer starts and throwing fewer innings. In essence, pitchers now endure less physical stress and their bodies endure less wear. Yet, it isn’t helping.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is littered with pitchers who took the mound on three days of rest. It clearly didn’t make them pitch less effectively or shorten their careers.

Today’s pitchers operate on strict pitch-count limits (usually 100) and enjoy longer rest periods. Yet, no one can even complete as many as 10 starts. It’s reasonable to ask why can’t they complete the majority of their starts. What was once common is now viewed as impossible, or super human.

The last time a major league pitcher completed as many as 20 starts was in 1986, when Fernando Valenzuela finished 20 games for the Dodgers.

Despite five-man rotations, seven-man bullpens, four-days rest and pitch counts, pitchers are now more fragile than ever. Tommy John surgery is currently an epidemic. Even when starting pitchers aren’t undergoing elbow or shoulder surgery, they often miss starts to rest or end up on the DL.

Boston’s David Price led the majors with 35 starts in 2016 and Tampa’s Chris Archer led the majors with 34 starts in 2015. Those numbers were once considered pedestrian; now they are outliers.

The expectations of a starting pitcher have dropped dramatically in the modern game. We celebrate a pitcher who makes 30 starts and throws 200 innings. A “quality start” is considered six innings and three or fewer runs. However, three runs allowed over six innings results in a 4.50 ERA. That should not be viewed as quality.

Steve Carlton threw 304 innings for the Phillies in 1980. No one has even come close since then. Prior to that, it was the norm.

In fact, since 1990, the highest innings totals have been 271.1 by Roger Clemens in 1991 and 271.2 by Randy Johnson in 1999. Just two pitchers — Roy Halladay (250.2 in 2010) and Justin Verlander (251 in 2011) — have reached at least 250 innings since 2005.

Pitch counts and five-man rotations aren’t helping starters or the game. Baseball needs to reconsider the way things are being done. The conventional wisdom needs to be challenged because it does not appear to be wise after all.

Cy Young made a club-record 43 starts for the Red Sox in 1902, a year in which he threw a remarkable 384 2/3 innings, also a club record. Most stunning, perhaps, was that Young competed a whopping 41 of his 43 starts that season.

That sounds like the stuff of fantasy. In today’s game, he would be considered a freak of nature. But he was just a man, with the same shoulder and elbow construction as most other pitchers in the 21st Century.

I don’t claim to have the answers, but I know this for sure: the way pitchers are being managed, and limited, today is not working.

Humans have shown a tendency to evolve over time; not to devolve.

It’s time to go back to the past. Pitchers might be better served.

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