Wednesday, June 16th, 2010
Have you noticed something different about baseball lately?
It’s as if a whole new style is coming to fashion. Baseball goes through fads similar to that of clothing. I see bell-bottom pants, pegged jeans or even the latest disaster; cargo pants. Their timeline is a good way of describing our nation’s pastime and its power struggle between hitters and pitchers. It seems every ten years or so we have change.
It wasn’t long ago that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were popping balls out of ballparks faster then Jose Canseco was popping testosterone filled needles in his backside (and other players backside’s for that matter). Pitchers were intentionally walking anybody whose forearms were larger then their thighs, for fear they would be the next guy to give up a record breaking blast. Then PED testing showed up in clubhouses……
Recently, as if somebody flipped a switch in the baseball heavens (or started asking for urine samples), we have witnessed a new dominance unfold. Pitchers seem to be running the show these days. Strikeouts are up and home runs are down. There have been an unprecedented three perfect games. Well, okay, two on record and one imperfect prefecto compliments of a botched call. We saw 14 strikeouts materialize in Stephen Strasburg’s debut, but in all honesty, if he didn’t do it we would call him a bust. Jamie Moyer, AKA Father Time, threw a shutout at the age of 47. You know what they are saying though, 47 is the new 27. As if all of this was not enough, most recently we were treated to a special night at Wrigley Field. Ted Lilly and Gavin Floyd took dual no hitters into the seventh inning in game 3 of the Crosstown Classic, the longest a game has gone without a hit since 1980. All of this and we are not to the halfway point of the season.
Every time a pitcher starts doing the impossible we start asking questions. People start comparing them to their predecessors. Stuff like pitch counts, conditioning, the ball, the mound, and anything else that can be used as an explanation for their dominance or lack there of.
Back in the day
Did you know the Curveball was supposedly invented by a young man named William Arthur “Candy” Cummings back in the 1860’s? (Honestly, have you ever heard a better name for an adult film star?) There are many people who claimed this feat but Candy got the press. Apparently he and his buddies liked to throw Clam Shells on their trips to the beach. They got a kick out of the curved flight. Candy thought it would be cool if he could make a baseball fly the same way, so he spent the next few years trying to figure it out. He was successful and played professionally in the 1870’s and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. He once pitched two complete games in one day. His career lasted 6 years in the pro’s…..I have a feeling they probably didn’t have pitch counts back then.
Pitchers pitched until they lost their stuff. You didn’t see a guy get pulled because he passed a magic number on the pitch count. Up until the eighties starting pitchers were relied on to go as far as they could be effective. Here is a quick trivia question: How many closers were there in the Major Leagues during the 1970’s and before? Can you name any?
Granted, back when “Candy” (A nickname of adoration at the time) was pitching, the labor situation was not the same as at present. When a ballplayer signed on with a team, they owned your butt. Whether Candy’s arm was about to fall off or not at the end of that first game is anybody’s guess, but if he was going good that day, you better believe his manager was going to put him out there to win game two of the twin billing.
“When we played, World Series checks meant something. Now all they do is screw your taxes.”
I like to grill food….I’m a grill guy. In my first year out of college I bought the cheapest gas grill money could by. It was terrible and the thing was more then likely to blow up then grill a piece of meat. I think I paid close to $100 for it…..yah it was a peach. I treated it as such too. I never cleaned it and left it out in the snow and such. It was what it was, it did the job and it only cost me $100. A few years later I bought a Weber…..I don’t treat the Weber as poorly. I don’t baby it too much, but it gets a little more TLC then the old rusted out flame thrower…..of course it was a much larger investment, about five times as much. Did either one of these grills cook a piece of meat better then the other? Maybe. The one thing I know is that one will definitely last longer.
The Baseball Almanac lists Sandy Koufax rookie year salary at $20,000 back in 1955. Using an inflation calculator the current value or buying power in 2010 would be equal to $162,693.28…..I would call that a bargain.
I bring this up because I got to watch Stephen Strasburg’s debut last week. I could not help but notice they not only have a pitch count on the guy, but a total innings count for the season as well! The announcers mentioned it many times like the sand in the Strasburg hour glass was running out with each pitch. Does this mean they shut him down if the once hapless Nationals find themselves in a pennant race?
“Hey fans we finally got to the playoffs but Steve-o’s out of innings so you won’t see him for the entire post-season.”
Oh by the way, Stephen got $7.5 million as a signing bonus and will make more then $15 million over the next four years. You think maybe they are trying to protect that investment?
I don’t know for sure but I highly doubt the Dodger management put a pitch count on Mr. Koufax more or less an innings count. I am not trying to compare Sandy to a cheap flame thrower that barely worked, far from it, more or less trying to say that the larger the monetary investment the more we may coddle it. For the type of money they are spending and all the restrictions put on a pitchers workload in this day and age, it will be amazing if we even see these guys pitch twenty years from now. Maybe they will just sign them to the contract and put them on display in a glass case by the stadium lobby for all to see.
And then there was personality……
As a young lad growing up in Detroit my fondest early memories of the game were of a total lunatic talking to a baseball on the mound. In my eyes, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych defined the 1970’s for pitching. If the pitchers of the seventies don’t represent that decade well I don’t know what does. The flowing locks, bad facial hair, and rock star appeal brought some personality to the game. Guys like Bill “ Spaceman” Lee and Jim “Catfish” Hunter were on the marquee at ballparks all over the league. The beauty of it was these guys had talent! They weren’t just a side show act. Mark Fidrych won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 1976 with a 19-9 record and finished with a 2.34 ERA.
Many of you are thinking, “but Fidrych had such a short career?” and he did. There is a story about the following season at spring training that explains some of this, the one after his Rookie of the Year campaign. Apparently he jumped on the back of a teammate while horsing around in the outfield. The teammate threw him to the ground, on his way down he tore up his knee. This was the start of his downfall. He returned but shortly after suffered what would later be diagnosed as a torn rotator cuff. It also took years to figure this out…. Can you imagine a pitcher in today’s game trying to pitch with a torn rotator cuff for years on end?
Once again, do you think anybody in their right mind is going to let Stephen Strasburg or Mike Leake horse around in the outfield next spring training? My guess is that would be frowned upon. If either of them feels a tweak in their arm a diagnosis wont take five or six years either. They also wont be trying to pitch over that pain will they?
The rest of the story
In 1980, Nolan Ryan became the first pitcher to earn $1 million per year when he signed a contract with the Houston Astros. This was the beginning of the millionaires club in baseball. Pitchers were now a significant investment and teams became more aware of their health and conditioning.
Along with larger dollars the eighties brought on the specialty reliever roles. All of the sudden a guy could make a decent living by pitching one inning of baseball. Talk about personality, these guys had it all with intestinal fortitude to boot. The term closer would be coined and specific jobs were created in the bullpen.
The nineties saw a need for yet another specified roll in “the setup man”. The setup guy makes sure the table stays clear for the closer. He is kind of like the closers wing man at the bar. He bridges the gap between the middle relief, long relief, or lefty specialist or whatever other title they can find for a relief pitcher. Do you see where I am going with this? I am not sure we even have enough innings in baseball to get all these guys work?
The evolution continues…..
If you put Bob Gibson and Mark Prior in a room to talk pitching I often wonder what type of conversation they would have. How would Bob Gibson react to the famed “towel drill” that Mark Prior spent his time perfecting on the north side of Chicago during his many rehab stints?
Many people say it is the torque or strain put on an arm by today’s pitcher to create such devastating breaking balls or rocket speed that causes an increase in injury. Is this to say that pitchers in today’s game have better stuff? Does their curveball break more? Do they throw harder? Some blame it on upbringing, saying kids today play one sport year round and they don’t give their muscles and tendons time to develop and rest properly causing injury later on in life. Some people say the radar gun is a cash machine causing players to “overthrow”. Dominance in the form of power makes for a nice exclamation point and attention grabber, but Greg Maddux made a fine living throwing regular old periods and commas at hitters.
There is definitely a difference between today’s ballplayers and yesterdays, it’s not just the pitching. However, there is no other position in baseball that has experienced change over the years like the one that occupies the mound. One thing is for certain; pitchers are making exceedingly more money and working far less.
I will end this column with a quote from Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, taken from a Tim Kurkijan article that was written earlier this season for ESPN magazine:
“These guys today are so talented, but we will never know how good they can be,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, who had 211 complete games in his career, 25 in 1975; last season, the Dodgers led the National League in ERA, won their division and had one complete game.
“They will never learn how to get someone out for the third, fourth or fifth time in a game,” Palmer said. “That’s what tests your head, your heart and your physicality. The game has evolved. It’s a different game now. Pitchers are asked to go 7 1/3 innings, not nine. We’re going to have to change the criteria for the Hall of Fame. We’re going to have to change the criteria on someone you want to watch.”
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