I mentioned in a recent post that how you are treated by the local sports personalities often depends on how “well” you fit into the prevailing society. Latinos, for example, are virtually invisible in Seattle, so there is no one to take exception to the occasional demeaning rhetoric one might hear about one player or another. Despite that, even I would not want to “even” the score by deriding the hapless Mariner pitcher Brandon League in a similarly demeaning manner. I don’t know if he should consider it a “blessing” that we haven’t heard of any more of his mound misadventures since Friday, but I’m sure that the rain-outs in Cleveland over the weekend offered him a much desired respite from any more opportunities to disgrace himself. The prior week’s performance was enough embarrassment for any player for an entire season. Pitching in four of the last five games—three of which the Mariners were ahead, and the other tied—League, as the “closer,” pitched a total of two innings, gave-up 12 hits and 10 runs, all earned. His record in that span? 0-4 and 3 blown saves. His ERA ballooned from 2.08 to 7.31.
You would think that coming in for one measly inning every other day shouldn’t be considered a herculean task. After all, in one season in the 1970s Mike Marshall of the Dodgers pitched in a record 106 games, and his 208 innings was another record for a relief pitcher; these days, if a closer gets in 65 innings, that is considered “typical.” Marshall had only 21 saves that year, and 12 blown saves. Did that make him a “bad” closer? Consider that he had a 15-12 record and respectable 2.42 ERA; back in the day, there really wasn’t such a things a “closer” as we understand it today, and his numbers would be considered good for a starting pitcher in the present era. What made Marshall’s record so remarkable was that back then, starting pitchers were expected to go seven or eight innings every four days, and for most of the year it was Marshall who was supposed to go in and “mop-up” the rest of the way. Back in those days, you only received credit for a “save” if you actually saved a game—meaning that you came in the eighth or ninth inning with bases loaded and one out, and you got two men out to save the victory.
Today, a “save” is recorded if you pitch the ninth inning with a lead of two runs or less, and your team is still ahead when you are done. All you have to do is get your three men out, and you’ve accomplished your assignment. For most closers today, you are only expected to do this once every three games. That’s why League’s performances of late has been sadly comical and frustrating. On the surface, Hall of Famers like Bruce Sutter (who had 27 saves and 14 blown saves in 1978 despite a 2.01 ERA) and Rollie Fingers (who had 20 saves and 14 blown saves in 1978 despite a 2.47 ERA) would seem to have “similar” lack of success; HOF pitcher Goose Gossage had the career worst 112 blown saves to go with 301 saves, suggesting a less than stellar success rate. But these greats played under different rules and expectations.
Starting pitchers today also perform under different expectations. In the pre-1900 era, top pitchers routinely racked-up 500 to 600 innings a year, then dipped to the 300-400 innings. From 1957 to 1961, no pitcher threw for 300 innings, but from 1962, the league leader in innings pitched in the National League had at least 300 innings in 18 of 19 seasons, while AL leaders had 300+ innings in 11 of 12 years. In 1972, Wilbur Wood of the White Sox started 49 games (in a 154-game season) and pitched 376.2 innings—the most in the live ball era. He completed 20 games, and still had a respectable 2.51 ERA. In 1971, Mickey Lolich of the Tigers had 45 starts, completed 29 with 376.0 innings pitched—an average of more than eight innings per start. But by the late 1970s there was a change in strategy and slow decline in innings pitched. Steve Carlton, in 1980, was the last pitcher to throw 300 innings in a season; Phil Niekro in 1977 was the last AL pitcher to do so. Even Roger Clemens never pitched 300 innings in a season. These days, 220-250 innings pitched in a season is considered a “workhorse” load.
The reasons for lack of innings are many. Some say pitchers have to save their strength because of bulkier hitters, or because of high salaries, pitchers can’t be allowed to burn-out too quickly. The latter, perhaps, has more coin, because back “in the day,” teams with “Murderers Row” like the Yankees were routinely scoring 900-1000 runs in a 154-game season in the 1920s and 1930s. Oldsters like Elden Auker of the Detroit Tigers, who completed 126 of his 261 starts in a ten-year career in the 1930s and early 1940s, said that back then starting pitchers were paid to finish what they started, because as an owner during the Great Depression era told him, “I can't afford to pay you to start a ballgame and pay three or four others to finish it." In an interview before he passed away recently, he claimed that the problem with pitchers was that they don’t work enough, not work too much. Not keeping arms in shape by regularly using them, and running to strengthen legs, was the cause of sore arms and other arm injuries. Putting pitchers on a “pitch count” was a joke, and only useful to pitchers who are out-of-shape due to lack of exercise of their limbs; pitchers today are “pampered.” Auker said that it a pitcher with a sore arm was such a rarity in his day that the joke was that pitcher probably didn’t like to exercise.
The story today is that a good, reliable pitcher who can go "deep" into a game--even if only six innings--is like gold. If that is true, we are talking fool's gold.