Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Endangered Species: The Complete Game

Not that I think this is the way to get to a desired outcome, but it's an interesting approach:

The Brewers will try something new at one affiliate to find the middle ground. Beginning this week at Class A Brevard County, relievers will start games before turning it over to the "starters" in the third or the fourth.

By starting the starter later in games, the Brewers hope their young players develop a "nine-inning mindset" by the time they reach the Majors.

The idea of using relievers in the early innings has been pushed for some time by Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, and was also endorsed several years ago when the Brewers gathered their organizational pitching coaches and medical people for a symposium.
Back to the Brewers and Ben Sheets, who had his third CG on Monday.

Sheets has thrown 16 complete games in his career and said he steps onto the mound every time out expecting to pitch all nine innings. He knows not every pitch[er] has the same outlook.

"I'm not saying anything new, everybody knows the reason -- you're not brought up that way," Sheets said. "In the Minors, pitch count is such a big thing. For the complete game, you have to trust enough to get your pitch count up somewhere around 115, 120.

"I think some people leave some of their better innings on the bench. Some guys are in really good grooves through seven, and get taken out when they could probably get through two more fairly easily. It no fault of anybody's; it's just baseball
."
It's just baseball? No, it's just baseball's fault.

I've been lobbying for longer than I have had a blog that pitch counts have become a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you don't train your arm to throw more than 100 pitches per outing, you won't be able to in a game. This pitch count concept is so institutionalized that it's filtered down to second grade leagues. I can see it for the kids whose arms are not yet developed, but by the time a player is in the minor league system, they should be conditioning themselves for 125-140 pitches per outing. Marathon runners don't run five miles per day to train. Do pitchers need to throw more to build endurance or have the salaries caused them to be overprotected?

I don't know the throwing routines for pitchers, major or minor leaguers. But if you look at the Japanese pitchers, they are more accustomed to throwing more. Dice-K's legendary Koshein tournament as high schooler is excessive, but it goes to the point that the Japanese emphasize throwing more than less.

In the quarterfinal of that year's Summer Koshien, Matsuzaka threw 250 pitches in 17 innings in a win over powerhouse PL Gakuen. (The previous day he had thrown a 148-pitch complete game shutout.) The next day though trailing 6-0 in the top of the eighth inning, the team miraculously won the game by scoring 7 runs in the last two innings (four in the eighth and three in the ninth). In that game he started in left field, but came in as a reliever in the ninth inning to record the win in 15 pitches. In the final, he threw a no-hitter, the second ever in a final. This performance garnered him the attention of many scouts.

The Japanese mantra of "Throw until you die" is on one end of the spectrum. I think where we are now is on the other end. There is clearly a happy medium that we've deviated from. Back in the mid-90's, when Hideo Nomo was still a curiousity, the NY Times had this to say:
Nomo left the Kintetsu Buffaloes after fighting openly with the team manager over demands that he pitch and practice more. He thus defied the hallowed tradition that Japanese baseball players must serve as uncomplaining samurais. That assumption dates from the early days, when the training regimen of the best team in the country was nicknamed "bloody urine," because the players practiced so hard they urinated blood.
The phenemenon of a complete game is a dying breed. The first years EVER that the leader in complete games threw less than 10 in a season was 1991 Glavine (NL) and 1994 Randy Johnson (AL). The last time a pitcher threw more than 10 complete games in one season was in 1999 Randy Johnson (NL) and 1998 Scott Erickson (AL). Last year, Brandon Webb led the NL with a whopping 4 complete games and Roy Halladay led the AL with 7.

Way back in 1986, the amazing Fernando Valenzuela twirled 20 complete games. A year before that, Bert Blyleven tossed 24. Twenty-plus years later, we have to look long and hard to see more than a handful per pitcher. And just for fun, in the Year of the Pitcher (1968), Juan Marichal had 30 (NL) and Denny McLain had (28). Ponder those numbers for a second. THIRTY complete games in one season. Now, players would drool to get 30 in a career. Then again, maybe they wouldn't be drooling; they'd be calling their agents to gripe about overuse.

It's just baseball's fault. Situational lefties, long relievers, 7th inning set-up guys, 8th inning-set up guys, one-inning closers. Specialization or a role created out of necessity?

4 comments:

themarksmith said...

I agree that it's a conditioning thing, but imagine being a pitching coach or manager. You're trying to condition him for 125 pitches, and he gets hurt at the 110th pitch. He might have gotten hurt anyway, but the system, media, and owners may not see it that way. I'm afraid it was a situation that should have never been started because it will be hard to stop.

I wonder if this will be cyclical. The game starts out as a complete game producer, but eventually, specialization takes over and decreases the need for complete games. Then, when pitchers can hardly get through five innings, teams begin to condition pitchers to pitch late into games again to help with roster flexibility. I don't know.

Ron Rollins said...

Jason,

I agree completely and have said so many time. Robin Roberts and Bert Blyleven gave up a lot of HR's for the games they won, becasue they knew how to pitch with a lead. They didn't have to throw every pitch as hard as they could.

I think there are two basic reasons for the number of arm injuries suffered right now.

1. Pitcher throwing too hard all the time, instead of pitching to the situation, and overdoing it in the early innings. If someone did a study on this, I'll bet they find more pitchers are taken out of a game in the first five innings due to an arm injury then are taken out in later innings. Proportionally, of course.

2. The steroids era, when scores started to go up, and managers yanked starters at the first sing of trouble, instead of letting them work through the inning. I bet if more of them were given a chance in the early innings, the number of complete games would rise.

Just my opinion, of course. I've been known to be wrong. At least I've been told that.

Jason said...

Here's the thing: I think all of the things Mark and Ron mentioned are contributors to this. There isn't one issue. Add in the cost of pitching talent and you got a recipie for wussy managers playing it safe and yanking their starters too early, who are expecting to last just 5-6 innings anyways.

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