By DENNIS RICHARDSON
09 September 2021
ORLANDO, FL – W.P. Kinsella, the novelist who penned the book that became the basis for the movie Field of Dreams, once wrote, “Baseball games are like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two are ever alike.”
Certainly Major League Baseball will never again see a game like the one between the California Angels and Boston Red Sox on July 14, 1974. In that game, future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan threw 235 pitches over 13 innings for the Angels. His counterpart, Luis Tiant, tossed 14.1 innings for the Red Sox. Angels’ right-hander Barry Ranzano, who picked up the win in two innings of relief, was the only other pitcher used in the game.
Tiant’s pitch count is unknown because baseball did not start tracking number of pitches thrown until 1988 (Ryan’s count was kept by the Angels’ pitching coach using a handheld clicker), but it is quite possible that Tiant was in the 200-pitch neighborhood himself (that would average a very realistic 15 pitches for each of the 14 innings).
A pitcher throwing 235 pitches or going 14 innings in one game would never happen today. Fourteen frames or 235 pitches is the equivalent of more than two outings for a starter these days. Instead, a manager might use his entire bullpen, plus a position player, to cover all those innings.
2021 has become known as The Year of the Pitcher, not only for the eight official and two unofficial no-hitters that have been tossed, but also for the number of pitchers used. As of Aug. 30, a record 949 pitchers had taken the mound this season, shattering the previous high of 799 in 2019, and, incredibly, almost 400 more than the 557 that were used in 1998. With September call-ups of minor leaguers, this year’s record total almost certainly will top 950.
Major League Baseball’s new motto should be: Never have so many (pitchers), pitched so few (innings). One would think that starting pitchers today are dragging themselves back to their dugouts between innings, pitching arms hanging limp by their side.
“We have 13-man pitching staffs, rules to shorten extra innings and seven-inning games in doubleheaders, and we still need to use position players to save regular pitchers’ arms,” one National League pitching coach lamented to Peter Gammons of The Athletic.
Not So Great Expectations
There was a time when starting pitchers were expected to pitch deep into games. Anything less than seven innings or so was looked upon with disdain. But, starters routinely pitching into the seventh or later has gone the way of bullpen carts, manually operated scoreboards, bunting for base hits, and the San Diego Padres’ gaudy yellow unis.
Nowadays, the assignment from a manager or pitching coach for his starter is, “give us five or six innings and we’ll turn it over to the bullpen.”
The accepted five-inning start has even added a phrase to baseball’s vocabulary: “five and dive.” After completing his five innings, the starter accepts congratulatory handshakes and pats on back from his manager, pitching coach, and teammates, then contently settles into the dugout to watch the remainder of the game, his night’s work done.
Completing just one additional inning while giving up a total of three or fewer earned runs rewards a starting pitcher with a “quality start” stat, even though surrendering three runs over those six innings represents a not-so-quality 4.50 ERA. Oh, how expectations have diminished.
“Quality start?” Ryan asked the Los Angeles Times in an interview some years ago. “(Back in the 1970s) if I had pitched only six innings and given up three runs, I had a bad outing and I was hacked off. And I can tell you what: My manager and general manager weren’t happy either.
“In those days, I was my own closer.”
The expectation today for how long a starting pitcher works in an outing is to the complete game what a short story is to a novel, or what Twitter is to a conversation. In other words, it’s all too brief.
“Every box score these days is the same,” said former Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox. “It shows the starter pitched 5.1 innings.”
Cox was not exaggerating. More pitchers indeed are tossing fewer innings these days. This is not a new problem. Since the early 1900s, starting pitchers have thrown fewer innings and pitches than the generation of hurlers before them. But, the decline in starters’ workload in today’s game is glaring.
Consider these facts:
* According to FanGraphs, the average start for a pitcher this season is 5.1 innings, the lowest ever, and 1.1 innings less than the 6.2 average in 1980.
* In 2020, starters completed at least six innings in just 31.7 percent of games. Ten years before, that percentage was 64, more than twice as high.
* From 1970 through 1975, there were at least four 300-innings starters in each season. There hasn’t been a 300-inning pitcher since Philadelphia Phillies’ Hall of Famer Steve Carlton tossed 304 in 1980.
* According to espn.com, two dozen pitchers hurled 250 innings in 1970. Since 2011, there has been just one – when Justin Verlander pitched 251 innings that season for the Detroit Tigers.
* Today, it’s difficult enough to find pitchers who throw 200 innings, let alone 300. In 2005, there were 50 major league pitchers who threw 200 innings. In 2010, there were still 45. By 2015 that number had dropped to 28. In 2018, there were 13. In 2019 that number dropped to 11. Depending on how a handful of pitchers perform over the last month of this season, that total might drop again, to five or six.
* During a 20-year period from 1960 to 1980, each team employed two or three hurlers a game. Last season, that average had jumped to 4.5 a game.
The bottom line is, teams are burning through pitchers faster than candidates trying out to replace the late Alex Trebek as host of Jeopardy!
Ramp Up Problems
Part of the problem, at least for 2021, is the increase in the number of games, from 60 in last year’s pandemic-truncated season to the standard 162 this season. That spike requires more innings to be pitched, and more pitchers to fill them, while trying to navigate around all the injuries to pitchers caused by that sudden ramp up of innings. It makes sense for teams to want to protect their investments by bringing in more pitchers.
But a bigger part of the problem, one that has nothing to do with recovering from a one-year anomaly in number of games, is the Age of Specialization. It’s not quite as bad as a few years ago when teams commonly had a LOOGY reliever (Left-handed One-Out Guy, a left-hander whose sole responsibility was to retire one hitter, generally a left-handed batter). Still, “There are a lot of games when you see six, seven or eight one-inning relievers throwing max effort stuff for three outs,” one general manager told Gammons.
Demise of the Complete Game
The complete game is becoming a relic of the past. It has gone the way of automobile classics like the Ford Thunderbird and the Pontiac Trans-Am -- a product of a bygone era.
According to baseballroundtable.com, there has been a steady decline in starting pitchers going the distance. In 1950, 40.3 percent of starts resulted in complete games. That percentage has shrunk over time -- to 26.9 in 1960, 21.9 in 1970, 20.3 in 1980, 10.1 in 1990, 4.8 in 2000, 3.4 in 2010, and an astonishingly low 0.9 percent (only 45 complete games in 4858 starts) in 2019.
The bar for starting pitchers keeps being lowered, like some limbo contest: from 300 innings pitched, to 250, to 200. The game is headed to where 150 innings is the new 200.
How’d we get here?
So, we’re left to wonder: How did Major League Baseball get to this point? Where “five and dive” is considered acceptable. Where position players pitch during nine-inning games. Where bullpens not only cover the final four innings, but entire games.
Undoubtedly, workout regimens, training programs, and nutrition are all better now than they were three or four decades ago. Given the vast amounts of money to be made, players tend to take better care of themselves these days so they can play longer and make even more money. Fitness and training are year-round now.
Yet, starters still struggle to reach the sixth inning. If pitchers are healthier and more committed to staying in shape, why has the complete game become an endangered species? What’s changed in the last 30, 40 years? The answer starts with a suggestion from a noted orthopedic surgeon that became gospel; and then analytics took over.
Worshipping at Altar of The Pitch Count
The human body is an amazing work of creation or evolution, depending on your view. But the arm is not meant to withstand that torque of full-effort throwing 100 times or more every fifth day. Especially when it is done with the force needed to throw a baseball, say, at 95 miles an hour.
The pitching motion is a violent movement that puts tremendous stress on the shoulder, arm and elbow. Over time, the constant repetition and force of that motion can lead to injury, including a rupture or tear of the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in the elbow.
When that happens, Tommy John Surgery may be required. This procedure, pioneered by Dr. Frank Jobe, who performed it on Dodgers’ left-hander Tommy John in 1974, replaces the injured UCL in the elbow with a healthy tendon from the patient’s arm or leg, or with a tendon from a donated cadaver. The surgery generally puts a pitcher out of action for a season, with the usual recovery time running from nine months to one year.
In 1999, Dr. James Andrews, a noted orthopedic surgeon, and James Whiteside suggested in a study on elbow injuries in young pitchers, that after 100 pitches the chances of injury increased significantly.
The 100-pitch count is arbitrary; some pitchers tire sooner, others later. Plus, there’s a fair number of skeptics who question whether capping pitches at 100 actually reduces injuries at all. They point to the growing number of pitchers who were on pitch counts, yet needed TJ Surgery all the same.
Still, over time, the 100-pitch suggestion has become gospel. Teams continue to worship at its altar, with the number of pitches and innings thrown obsessively monitored, and driving strategic moves.
For instance, twice this season young pitchers have been pulled from games because of pitch counts, even though they were working on no-hitters. On April 3, Twins right-hander Jose Berrios had a gem going through six innings. But manager Rico Baldelli pulled Berrios because his pitch count was already 84, and the odds of Berrios completing a no-hitter with a pitch count under 110 were not good. Similarly, on June 24, Boston Red Sox’s right-hander Nick Pivetta was replaced after his 100th pitch while he had a no-hitter going with two outs in the seventh inning.
Neither manager was apologetic. Boston’s Alex Cora called removing Pivetta a “no-brainer.” Baldelli said that allowing Berrios to try to complete the no-hitter “probably (would) put his pitch count somewhere well above where we were comfortable."
Learning how to pitch
That sheltering begins long before a pitcher reaches the major leagues. In the minors, pitchers are not conditioned to work deep into games. Instead, many face severe limits on number of pitches per outing. Those restrictions are hurting their development, critics argue.
“My problem with it really is that that’s the way we’re grooming (starting pitchers) in the minor leagues,” former major league manager Jim Leyland told Scott Miller in a bleacherreport.com story a few years ago. “They throw 75 pitches in the minor leagues. They say if they throw 75 they’re OK, but if they throw 76 they’re going to get hurt…It’s ridiculous. They don’t pitch innings.”
As a result, young pitchers don’t get a chance to learn how to pitch deep into games or out of trouble. They may face a runners-on-first-and-third-and-nobody-out situation in the sixth inning, but if the pitcher has already reached his pitch limit, he’s yanked. Learning how to escape from pitching jams is becoming a lost art.
“That’s part of learning how to pitch,” Leyland continued. “You got yourself in a mess, now get out of it…I mean, I understand the investments. Believe me. But I think we’re way too cautious.
“The fact of the matter is, we’re so cautious in the minor leagues that we’re grooming five-inning pitchers to come to the big leagues.”
Hall of Fame right-hander John Smoltz agrees. “We don’t train starting pitchers anymore,” he told Gammons. “We train for power, for velocity, but not pitching.”
Teams need to allow young hurlers to learn the art of pitching by throwing innings in the minors, rather than rushing them to the major leagues. And, once in the majors, let them learn from their mistakes instead of being pulled at the first sign of trouble. What’s the old saying, “we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes”?
The “K” is King
Somewhere along the line, the analytics crowd decided that not all outs are created equal, that the strikeout (listed as “K” in scorekeeping) is No. 1. Teams may be employing more infield shifts, but the preferred method for retiring hitters —despite objections from the “pitch to contact” apostles – is the strikeout.
The “K” is King in baseball today. Strikeouts are sizzle. Strikeouts are fun for home-team fans to hang “K” placards along stadium railings. Fans love to see pitchers blow away hitters with 100-mph fastballs. But, are strikeouts necessarily better? They represent a huge obstacle for pitching deep into games, because they inflate the all-important pitch count.
Take Verlander and Warren Spahn, two different types of pitchers from two different generations and pitching philosophies. In 2019, Houston Astros’ right-hander Verlander led the majors in wins, and averaged 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings (fanning 300 hitters that season), yet he recorded only two complete games. In his 16-year career, Verlander has won 226 games, two Cy Young Awards, thrown 26 complete games, struck out 300 hitters in a season once, and more than 200 eight other times, and is one of only 18 pitchers in MLB history with 3,000 career strikeouts. Compare that to Hall of Famer Spahn. The Milwaukee Braves’ left-hander won 20 or more games 13 times in a 21-year career from 1946 through 1965, won a Cy Young Award, and led the National League in complete games a record nine times. Yet, the 17-time All-Star never struck out more than 200 hitters in a season and averaged just 4.4 strikeouts per nine innings over his career.
Spahn finished 382 of his 665 career starts – a 57.4 percentage. Compare that to Verlander’s 5.7 percent completion rate (26 complete games in 454 starts), and today’s league-wide 0.9 percent rate for complete games.
It’s substance (Spahn) vs. sizzle (Verlander). One saves wear and tear on the bullpen while the other fascinates fans. Which is better is open for debate.
The Dreaded Third Time
Baseball’s “Third Time Through the Order” penalty has been written about ad nauseam, but it remains a favorite with the sabermetrics crowd.
It says that the more times a batter faces a pitcher in the same game, generally the better the hitter’s chances of success. Data suggests that a hitter’s batting average, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage all improve the second and third time he faces a pitcher in the same game, as the hitter becomes more familiar with the pitches being thrown, their velocity and movement, and the pitcher’s strategy.
According to baseball-reference.com, a pitcher tosses an average of about 16 pitches an inning. That means, depending on how many hits and walks he issues, the pitcher reaches the 100-pitch count around the fifth or sixth inning, which coincides with the point where he is going through the opponent’s batting order a third time.
By then, the manager who’s a “Third Time” disciple already has been on the phone to the bullpen, and he’s ready for the walk to the mound to replace his starter, even if his pitcher is throwing a shutout.
In 1959, Pittsburgh Pirates’ right-hander Elroy Face won 18 games, seventh most in the National League. His 18-1 record remains the MLB mark for most victories in a season by a reliever.
If starting pitchers continue to pitch fewer and fewer innings, and if baseball continues its requirement that a starter complete a minimum of five innings to get credit for a win, we may start to see more cases like Face, where league leaders in victories come out of bullpens.
There is a saying that baseball is cyclical; that the game goes through phases where pitching dominates; then, hitting takes over; and then, pitching reclaims its reign. But, the days of guys like Nolan Ryan and Luis Tiant tossing 200 pitches in a game or throwing 300 innings in a season are not coming back.
Next week we’ll look at why MLB needs to limit the size of pitching staffs, and the number of pitching changes in a game.
Editor’s Note: In an eventful weekend, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Corbin Burns and Josh Hader combined to throw the ninth official no-hitter of the season, on Saturday, Sept. 11. The following day, the Dodgers’ Max Scherzer became the 19th pitcher in MLB history to strike out 3,000 batters in his career.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.