LONGSHOTS: Counting the way of managing a pitcher’s workload
by Dave Long
I started thinking about this when Robin Roberts passed away in early May. And I decided to write it after seeing Mother Francona yank John Lackey with a five-run lead on Thursday after eight innings of two-hit ball, which Manny Delcarmen and Jonathan Papelbon blew in the ninth with help from some shoddy defense.
At one time it would’ve been unthinkable to pull a guy with a two-hitter after eight. And not because it looks good on the résumé. It’s because when you give up two measly hits over eight, common sense says the other guys can’t hit him that day. So why in the name of Dick Radatz would you take a guy like that out for the uncertainty of a new pitcher? It defies logic. Yet it’s done all the time in the micro-managing world of baseball where managers outsmart themselves on a regular basis because of abject reverence to the almighty pitch count.
The question is how did it go from being an imbecilic move if a manager dared yank a guy with a two-hitter after eight to doesn’tbeing an imbecilic move today if he doesn’t yank him in the exact same circumstance?
It was gradual and it started with Steve Busby. He was a very good pitcher for the Royals when they were on the rise in the 1970s, went 3-1 with a 1.59 in a September call-up. He followed that by going 16-15, 22-14 and 18-12 the next three years when he also pitched two no-hitters. He had what you call a bright future — until he blew out his rotator cuff. People pointed to the 238, 292 and 260 innings he’d thrown in his first three seasons as the culprit. He subsequently became the first pitcher ever to have rotator cuff surgery and never was the same, BUT, as he tried to come back, doctors recommended he be put on a pitch count, and the rest is history. And by the way, why don’t they call that Steve Busby Surgery, as they do with Tommy John’s?
It didn’t change overnight. Jim Palmer led the league with 315 innings that year and again the next year when he was the last to pitch 300 in the AL. Four others pitched at least 290 in 1977, including Busby’s teammate Dennis Leonard, who also went 280 in 1980. The last 290 guy was Bert Blyleven in 1985 with 293, which is 53 more than last year’s MLB leader, Justin Verlander. Then in 1980 A’s manager Billy Martin bucked the trend of shorter workload to let his rotation pile up 93 complete games as they won the AL West. But it cooked all his starters, as none had a winning record after 1982 and they were out of baseball at 28, 30, 31 and two by 34. People paid attention after that, and the final stroke was Tony LaRussa’s yanking starters after seven for eighth-inning bridge relievers who automatically handed it over to Dennis Eckersley to close, as the A’s dominated in the late ’80s and early ’90s. After that, the LaRussifaction took hold and it became what it is today.
But if evolution makes every generation bigger, stronger and faster than the one before it, why can’t guys today go 300 as at least one did for 18 straight years from 1962 until Steve Carlton became the last 300-inning pitcher in 1980?
And that brings me to the late Mr. Roberts, a Hall of Fame pitcher after winning 286 games in the 1950s and ’60s with his heyday coming with the Phillies all through the ’50s. I looked at his record when he passed and three things stood out. First, he had six straight 20-win seasons between 1950 and 1955. Second, in that same span his low in innings was 304.1 and high was 346.2. The final thing was that he never won 20 after doing it at 27, as he basically became a .500 pitcher his last 10 years.
Did all those innings take too big a toll? The best of the best from the ’60s-’70s era was Sandy Koufax, who did 300 three times but retired at 30 with arthritis in his pitching elbow. His contemporary Juan Marichal of the Giants had three 300-inning seasons and a fourth at 299. His last effective year was a 5-1 with the Red Sox in 1974 before getting hurt. But the last of his six 20-win seasons was at 32. And other big-name, big-inning guys from the ’60s and ’70s, like Mel Stottlemyre of the Yanks, Don Drysdale of the Dodgers and Dennis McClain, were all done by 32. Though being a knucklehead and getting suspended for hanging out with gamblers probably didn’t help Denny.
On the other side there are several other guys with at least one 300-inning season to their credit who made it to at least 39, like Bob Gibson, Ferguson Jenkins, Gaylord Perry, Palmer and Jim Kaat — who won 20 and pitched 303 at 36 for the White Sox. Nolan Ryan did it twice and made it to 46 with his fast ball still there. And while Tom Seaver never had a 300-inning season, he was over 275 six times and he made it until 41.
So what does all this mean? That while I know pitchers could pitch more than they do today under the mothering of pitching coaches all over America, it could come at the same kind of price Roberts paid for his workload. But that doesn’t let push-button managers off the hook for abandoning common sense in administering such care — like automatically taking guys out when the almighty pitch count hits 100 no matter what the circumstance.
That was the case for Lackey Thursday and Dice-K Sunday. Both times Tito was left with this decision: take out in-command starters to go to middle relievers who are what gasoline is to a match. And Sunday was particularly galling when you consider that (a) Dice-K has missed six weeks so he’s fresher than the average July 23 starter and (b) a loss would drop the Sox eight back in the East. Yet the “automatic” call went out and the lead got blown.
So while managing the wear and tear on a staff has more to it than I was willing to admit, it also needs a common sense approach to stretch the pitch count and innings if need be. And while Tito is no different than baseball’s other 30 managers, he gets an F over the weekend for following the manual to the letter of LaRussa’s law when the situation called for a common sense approach to keep his struggling team’s head above water.
Dave Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He hosts Dave Long and Company from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.