LONGSHOTS: Going to the nines a thing of the past
by Dave Long
An interesting thing happened in back-to-back playoff games last week. It gave a side-by-side glimpse of how pitchers are handled today vs. back in the day and a vivid illustration of how in the life of a manager, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
The first was in Game Four of the ALDS when Jon Lester was cruising along after seven stellar innings with a 2-0 lead over the Angels. He was replaced by Hideki Okajima in the eighth after exceeding the almighty pitch count level of 100. The next game was the opener of the ALCS with Tampa Bay. Dice-K was the starter and pretty much matched Lester’s effort in leading by the same 2-0 score after seven. But, in an about-face from the Lester game, Terry Francona used an olden-days approach by staying with Dice-K in the eighth even though he exceeded the almighty 100-pitch-count benchmark
That flew in the face of almost everything Tito’s done in his Boston tenure. A time when he has the best winning percentage of any manager in team history and in the history of baseball’s playoffs as well. It was surprising, actually shocking is a better word, for two reasons. First, he’s a by-the-book manager if there ever was one and in today’s baseball it’s almost always seven and out even if you’re in total command as Lester was. And second, it was Dice-K who went back out in the eighth, and he’s prone to a bad inning with his high-wire act and the lead was just two.
The “seven and done” strategy has evolved over the past 20 years or so. Seven is the number these days because that’s generally the latest time when a guy’s pitch count goes over 100, and 100 pitches today means you’re done. I can’t quite remember when the pitch count came to rule baseball as it now does. The first time I recall even hearing it was when Roger Clemens threw over 150 in back-to-back games in 1990. It sent him to the DL in the middle of a 21-6 season and held him to “only” 228 innings after throwing 253 in ’89 and 278 in ’91, which is still nine more than Lester’s ’08 team-high 217.
I do remember people grumbling that not-by-the-book Joe Morgan needed to keep a closer eye on it as Roger was too valuable to lose — which he showed later that year flipping out in the playoffs, but I digress. But I don’t have a clue when 100 became the number. Even still, LaRussifcation in baseball, as the Globe’s Bob Ryan calls it, was already in full gear. By then Tony LaRussa had been using the automatic eight-inning set-up guy and the clean ninth inning closer philosophy that resurrected Dennis Eckersley’s career as Oakland was winning three straight pennants between 1988 and 1990. And with sports being a copycat business it led directly to the current state of affairs where every manager besides Ozzie Guillen follows the LaRussa manual and yanks the starter after seven NO MATTER WHAT.
It actually started earlier. The Yanks in the ’70s and ’80s had guys like Dick Tidrow, Sparky Lyle and Ron Davis pitch the seventh and eighth before giving way to overpowering Goose Gossage and the ’70s Big Red Machine rarely had starters pitch complete games. But the difference was that the Reds had to because, aside from injury-prone Don Gullett and Tom Seaver for a short time, their starters weren’t A level. The Yanks did use bridge guys too, but if there was real trouble they went right to Gossage, like in the 1978 playoff game when he relived Ron Guidry with one out in the seventh and pitched the rest of the game to get a “real save” as opposed to the clean ninth inning type that helped send the Eck to the Hall of Fame. I’m not picking on Eck, who was great, but there’s a difference in how the two were used and it’s probably why Goose waited 20 years before finally getting in the Hall this August. For context: the most innings Eck pitched as a closer was 80. For Jonathan Papelbon it’s 69. Gossage threw 133 and 138 in ’77 and ’78. Plus, the Yankees never took Guidry out automatically after seven. If he was pitching even reasonably well he was going to finish if he could.
Today, however, the pitch count rules almost everywhere, except for Roy Halladay and maybe a no-hitter. I’ll admit there’s something to keeping pitchers fresher through the longer season of today by adhering to it. Plus, given how expensive a blown-out arm is in the days of multi-million, multi-year contracts, I understand why teams are so cautious. But I still haven’t been given an explanation as to why pitchers of a generation ago could throw so many complete games as Seaver did when he had 21 in 1971 and 231 in his career and still pitch 20 years, while bigger, stronger players of today’s evolved world can’t. And I won’t even ask how Iron Man Joe McGinnity could throw 434 and 408 innings while winning 31 and 35 for the New York Giants in 1904 and ’05, or what the pitch counts were the day Juan Marichal and 42-year-old Warren Spahn both pitched complete games in a 0-0 duel Willie Mays won in the 16th inning with a walk-off homer in 1963.
Since four sprinters running 100 yards each run 400 meters a lot faster than one guy running all 400, I understand how today’s relay race approach means fresher pitchers in the late innings. Although, the other side is, who’d you rather have pitching in the eighth of a 2-0 game, a fresh Okajima, or a used-to-going-the-distance Seaver, Marichal or Spahn? But that’s not how it’s done today, which I accept, though I do blanch at doing it automatically.
That’s why I was surprised when Mr. Automatic went new wave, then went back-in-the-day, with Lester and Dice-K. I was ticked when he took Lester out and felt validated when Okie and Justin Masterson immediately coughed up the lead. I agreed when Tito stuck with Dice-K, but that baby nearly backfired too until Okie and Masterson bailed Dice-K, Tito and me out after the first two guys got aboard. What it showed in the end was that whether it’s a today strategy or from below the Tarrier line, it’s still up to the players. If they do their job, they get the credit. And if they don’t — whether he goes by the book or not — the manager gets blamed.
Just like it’s always been.
Dave Long can be reached at email@example.com. He hosts the Absolute Sports Experience at Billy’s Sports Bar in Manchester each Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon that is broadcast live on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.