Monday, October 23, 2006

Tony the Meddler

With the attention that Fox and ESPN give to it, a casual observer of baseball might conclude that teams have to apply for special dispensation to have a starting pitcher appear on "short rest," which they define as fewer than four idle days (pitching every fifth day). Remember that those appearances are usually only six or seven innings. Forgive the "back in my day" rant, but consider the last time the Cardinals and Tigers met in the World Series, 1968.

Bob Gibson pitched Games 1, 4 and 7 for the Cardinals. All three were complete games, not six-inning stints. There were no rainouts so he had only three days of rest between starts. What a Herculean effort!

But wait, two Tiger pitchers also started three games during that same series. Future jailbird Denny McLain got knocked out early facing Gibson in Games 1 and 4, but got it together with a complete-game victory in Game 6. The MVP of the series turned out to be Mickey Lolich, who pitched complete-game victories in Games 2, 5 and 7. His rest between the final two appearances was only two days, half of what Fox, ESPN and Tony LaRussa would consider normal.

Oh by the way, McLain pitched 336 innings in 1968 with 41 starts and 31 victories. This year, projected Cy Young winner Johann Santana led the American League with only 223.2 innings, with 34 starts and 19 victores. Not only is that fewer starts, but it is fewer innings per start (8.1 vs. 6.2). Today's LaRussa-ized managers are much quicker to yank the starter and turn the game over to the bullpen.

Today you have specialists who pitch only to left-handers, only in the eighth inning (the Setup Man), or only in the ninth inning with a lead of three runs or less (the exalted Closer). Using a Closer outside of a "save situation" is considered an insult to their status. Yankees Manager Joe Torre is hailed as some sort of genius innovator for using his Closer, Mariano River, to get four outs instead of just three every once in a while.

Dick Radatz, a reliever for the Red Sox in the '60's and a frequent commentator on local sports radio until his recent death, always said pitchers should pitch more innings to stay strong, not fewer. Radatz routinely pitched three innings to get saves. Among the seven complete games pitched in the 1968 series (including one by Gibson in a defeat), one Cardinal reliever managed to get a save. In Game 3, Joe Hoerner came in with one out in the sixth and pitched the rest of the game. He batted twice and even got a hit. That's enough to send LaRussa screaming from the room. The current manager of the Cardinals surely would have used at least three relievers and a couple of pinch hitters to cover that situation.

I know pitching a baseball is hard on a human arm. But remember the days of Gibson and Lolich when asking pitchers to log a few innings was not considered unusual. Maybe it isn't all Tony LaRussa's fault, but he's the poster boy for modern managerial meddling.

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