away from game
August 15, 2007
Now that our beloved Detroit Tigers have hit what appears to be a large bump in the road back to the World Series, it might be a good time to reflect on the team's biggest weakness this year: Pitching.
So was all of the hype about the Tigers' pitchers last year too much too soon? Probably.
If you recall, everyone was touting the Tigers young arms as the best to come along since Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz hurled for the Atlanta Braves. What a difference a year makes.
Considering that Tigers' aces, Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bondeman, already seem to have tired arms, things could get a little dicey the rest of the way.
Toss in the unexpected injuries to starter Kenny Rogers and relievers Joel Zumaya and Fernando (keep your hat on straight and throw it over the plate) Rodney, it is understood that the Tigers are having a tough time winning of late.
But now for the real rub. Can anyone explain Jim Leyland's seemingly odd handling of his pitching staff?
Playing the law of averages, the Tigers' braintrust routinely brings in a righthanded reliever to pitch to just one right-handed batter. If if he gets the batter out, Leyland immediately goes to a lefthander to pitch to the next batter, who of course, happens to swing from the left side.
I fully understand and honor baseball's love affair with percentages, but a little feel for the game is needed, too. When a reliever comes in—is throwing strikes and getting guys out—why not leave him in? At least for one more batter or until he gives up a hit or a walk.
Is Leyland following his baseball instincts or allowing himself to become a slave to percentages? So far this year, too many of his pitching decisions have gone terribly awry.
Another problem I have with Leyland, and most other modern-day managers, is the strange preoccupation they have with pitch counts.
The theory is that once a starting pitcher approaches the 100-pitch mark, he must be nearly done for the day.
From the Tigers' perspective, the theory dates back to Mark Fidrych, who for one glorious, fairy-tale season was able to talk to the baseball and then blow it past opposing batters. By year's end, he had won 19 games and the admiration of everyone in baseball.
Unfortunately, the next year Fidrych had a hard time getting anybody out. Everyone presumed the reason was that he'd burned his arm out the previous season.
There could be some legitimacy to that conclusion. Pitching coaches and managers need to keep a close eye on their young pitchers. That means sometimes being overly cautious for the sake of preserving a promising prospect's arm.
There comes the time, though, when a pitcher has to prove his mettle and demonstrate he can go the distance.
Some of the guys on the Tigers' starting staff (Bonderman, Robertson, etc.) are at or even past that point. By now, they should be giving it their all to go nine innings.
Back in the day (here I go again) it was nothing for pitchers like Frank Lary, Jim Bunning, Mickey Lolich or Jack Morris to pitch 250-300 innings in a season. The difference then was that those pitchers went into each game expecting to pitch a complete game; not five or six innings like today's starters, but a full nine innings.
There exists a troubling mindset in today's game that if a pitcher can get his team into the sixth inning, that's good enough. God forbid if he reaches the dreaded 100-pitch count. Then it's time to yank the starter, replace him with a "middle reliever," followed in short order by a "set-up" man and finally, the primadonna of all pitchers—"the closer." In Detroit's case, that means giving the ball to Todd Jones, regardless of circumstances
Like a bad habit, this process is being practiced all around the major leagues. But there's something wrong with this formula.
To make a point, when was the last time a Detroit pitcher threw a complete game? To my recollection it was Verlander's no-hitter. Since then he has either run out of gas, moxie or the
ability to compete at his
former level. The troubles Verlander has had since the no-hitter might support the growing mindset that modern pitchers should not or
cannot throw nine innings.
On the other hand, it could open up a whole new argument: That physical and mental limits being placed on pitchers, along with
arbitrary pitch count limits, are psychologically affecting their ability to perform.
If a pitcher begins to believe he is incapable of going the distance, or that it's in his best interest to avoid doing so, why should he try?
Like all professional sports, baseball is about making big money—for the owners, the players,
television, corporate sponsors, etc. From the standpoint of the athlete, it's
about accumulating as much money as he can for as long a period as possible.
When a manager, owner or athlete becomes satisfied that six innings is plenty for a starter, why would the pitcher want to push
himself to exceed the preconceived limit, particularly when doing so could shorten his career and potential income?
As further evidence that pitch counts are controlling the game, note the
infrequency of pitchers who are reaching the 300-win, even 200-win plateau in the current era. Aside from perennial hard-throwers like Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and a few others, 300 wins has become an increasingly exclusive club.
Ironically, this comes
at a time when athletes are bigger and stronger than ever. Shouldn't their added size and strength translate to greater durability, more innings pitched and ultimately more wins?
Could all of this, then, have everything to do with the emphasis on arbitrary pitch counts and with pitchers wanting to extend their careers to make more money over the long haul?
What do you think?
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