Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Tyranny of Pitch Counts

Chris Sale was on fire. Through eight innings, he had allowed two measly singles and struck out the side in the eighth, giving him fourteen for the game. The White Sox held a 1 - 0 lead. 

Then something strange happened. (Apologies to White Sox fans, who may feel the White Sox holding a 1- 0 lead was strange in and of itself.)

Citing Sale's 111 pitches, White Sox manager Robin Ventura pulled him for reliever David Robertson. 

While this doesn't quite qualify as off-the-charts stupid since Robertson has been one of the few bright spots this year for the Sox, it does qualify as curious in light of Sale's mastery.

And as luck would have it, this wasn't Robertson's night. After a walk, a single, a wild pitch and an intentional walk which loaded the bases, Robertson surrendered a single to Rangers' pinch-hitter Mitch Moreland and the White Sox lost 2 – 1.

You have to wonder how Sale, who was humming like a small-block Chevy V8, would have fared.

Afterwards, Ventura was upfront about his reason for pulling Sale; he wasn't tired, cramping or otherwise diminished. It was merely the number of pitches Sales had thrown. Nothing more.

At times, it seems that little else matters in modern baseball. Pitch counts have become so all-important that pitchers in the midst of no-hitters are now pulled merely because of the number of pitches they have thrown.

Ace pitchers are even held out of post-season play for fear their arms can't bear the strain.

Stratospheric salaries certainly have something do with it, especially when pitchers with eight-figure salaries are going at it. (What does it say when premium players are paid so much the people who sign their paychecks are afraid to play them?)

But it doesn't explain pitch counts rearing their ugly heads when the number-four guy on your staff is pulled because he, too, has tossed a certain number of pitches.

If you haven't already guessed, I'm confused.

How is it that twenty-first century pitchers, with their healthy diets, sophisticated workout regimens and access to health care undreamt of just a few decades ago can't pitch like their peers of a century ago, whose workout regimen—with the exception of a privileged few—was their off-season job?

Whose diet consisted of whatever was available and affordable?

Remember—no one was popping into supermarkets to pick-up tomatos, broccoli and pomegranates during the early-twentieth century winters of Walter Johnson's and Christy Mathewson's primes. 

In fact, only those who lived on a farm or in a temperate climate even had off-season access to fruits and vegetables.

And yet the front-line pitchers of yore regularly racked up twenty or thirty complete games a year. Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Christy Mathewson all enjoyed Hall of Fame careers even without helicopter coaches tallying their pitches.

Ditto Warren Spahn. Bob Feller. Sandy Koufax. Ferguson Jenkins. Tom Seaver. And Jim Palmer. 

Nolan Ryan surpassed two-hundred complete games in his career, and it's looking like he'll be the only pitcher of the Internet age to do so. Roger Clemens, he of the twenty-four years in the major leagues and untold amounts of steroids, managed just 118. Greg Maddox, after twenty-three years in the bigs, compiled just 109. 

If fact, no pitcher since 1986 has even managed twenty in a season.

So where are these carefully-managed careers headed? With today's pitchers being treated like vintage Ferraris, that must mean Cy Young's 511 career victories are in danger. As are his 7,356 innings pitched. Surely Ed Walsh's all-time low career ERA of 1.81 is feeling the heat?

No. No. And no.

For all of the tender, loving care they receive, twenty-first century pitchers don't loom any larger than their fore bearers, unless the conversation is about career earnings.

I don't see them dominating the game year in and year out a la Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal. I don't see them blanking the opposition in the post-season, which was another supposed benefit.

Then what, exactly, is the point?

Is it to extend a pitcher's capacity to earn ungodly amounts of money? To ensure physical therapists have ample free time? To keep the guys in the bullpen from getting bored?

You could say I'm an old guy grousing about the good old days, and how the present is different and doesn't measure up. And you'd be a teeny weeny bit right.

But tell me how Stephen Strasburg's single complete game is worth his twenty-four million dollars in career earnings. Or how the career-long coddling he has received has yielded the game's most dominant and feared pitcher.

The clock is ticking.

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