Where Bad Sports Journalism Came To Die

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008



Sorry it's taken so long. It's just that this is post #1353, and we wanted to take our time and really get it right. So let's go with Bruce Jenkins and his screed about the dire consequences of adhering to pitch counts.

These are the dark ages of pitching.

I like opening grafs that read like Star Wars scrolls.

It is a time of cowardice and fear, oblivious to the lessons of history. If there's a bond among starting pitchers of the pitch-count era, it's that they were born too late.

Yes. I'm sure Barry Zito wishes he were born in 1884, and instead of making $126m over the next six+ years, he had made $40 per 350 innings and lived in a crappy one-bedroom near the park and aspired to drive a Model T and read with great interest news of the first plane flight and carried a watch fob and used a glove that was only slightly bigger than his hand that he had to leave on the mound for the guy on the other team to use and died of typhoid at the age of 28. Ah...the good old days, for baseball players.

One of life's great truisms is to finish what you start.

All kinds of [sic]s here, but I can't grammar-police this article. There's too much other work to do.

It's what you tell your kids, your surgeon, your contractor.

Who tells his surgeon this? And in what context? Like, through the anaesthesia somehow, you say this to your gall bladder surgeon, who has decided to half-ass it?

This once applied to baseball, with precision, but now there's a new law: Just quit. Let somebody else finish the job. You did your part, now go be a cheerleader.

Pause briefly to say: BP has done a lot of work on pitch counts, as evidenced in their PAP (Pitcher Abuse Points) index. You can find that here. Other, more qualified people than I have researched the effects of pitch counts on the human physique, and I won't pretend to know nearly as much as they do. But it stands to reason, in this day and age, that 7-, 8-, or 9-figure investments should be protected slightly more than their more expendable counterparts in years past.

It also stands to reason that pitchers probably have to work a little harder these days to be successful, what with all of the modern strength training, nutrition, drug abuse, tape-watching, analysis, and preparation that hitters have at their disposal. Albert Pujols (and others) routinely go into the clubhouse immediately after at bats to review the tape on how the pitcher got him out. If you could go back in time and take Nap Lajoie into a room after Rube Waddell K'd him on three pitches and show him a glowing box with a video replay of the at bat, he would call you a demon, slit your throat, tear out his eyes, and generally freak the fuck out. It's a different game, these days.

That's my lob to Jenkins. Here's his return:

Pitch counts have destroyed not only the elements of pride and accomplishment among starting pitchers, but the art of winning. If one thing characterized the great pitchers of the past, from Bob Feller to Warren Spahn to Tom Seaver, it's that they learned how to win. You don't get that from a "quality start" and a nice, early shower. It's when you understand the difference between a breezy sixth inning and a stressful ninth, when you brought that victory home, and can't wait to do it again.

I would say, based purely on anecdotal evidence, that there are many pitchers who would like to close out more games than they are allowed. I would also say, based on anecdotal and statistical evidence, that the average pitcher in this league can convert most save opportunities that might come his way, and the average good closer can convert like 90-95% of them, so there just really isn't a good reason to throw Brandon Webb back out there for the ninth inning of a 5-2 game after he's thrown 125 pitches. Or whatever.

Tim Lincecum would love to close the deal.

Tim Lincecum is fourteen years old and weighs 88 pounds. I don't care if his delivery was designed by NASA torque specialists. He can just relax and let someone else pitch.

So would Matt Cain, Dan Haren, Scott Kazmir and Carlos Zambrano. They're all prisoners of the pitch-count era, trapped inside a philosophy that characterizes every organization.

Haren, Cain, and Z have been relatively injury free so far. But here's the 24 year-old
Kazmir over a less-than-2-year-span:

March 25, 2008Placed on 15-day DL (Left elbow strain)
August 26, 2006Placed on 15-day DL (Left shoulder soreness)
July 30, 2006Placed on 15-day DL (Left rotator cuff inflammation)

That's at least two and maybe 3 different arm injuries. You want that guy pushing it?

Complete eradication

In 1904, a 30-year-old Yankees pitcher named Jack Chesbro led the American League with 48 complete games.

Yes. I'm sure he was still firing 94 with wicked movement late in those games. I'm sure for most of the 450+ innings he threw that year, he was fresh as a daisy. Things that happened in 1904 are incredibly relevant today. I mean, 1904 was virtually yesterday, in baseball terms. I mean, that's only 10 years before this rule:

In the case of fire, panic, or storm, the umpire does not have to wait until the pitcher has the ball on the mound to call a time-out. [9.04]

was adopted. It's only a few scant years before women gained suffrage. There's basically no difference in baseball -- or any sport -- between 1904 and now. To prove that, here are some things that happened in the 1904 Olympics, held in St. Louis:

European tension caused by the Russo-Japanese War and the difficulty of getting to St. Louis kept many of the world's top athletes away.

One of the most remarkable athletes was the American gymnast George Eyser, who won six medals even though his left leg was made of wood.

The marathon was the most bizarre event of the Games. It was run in brutally hot weather, over dusty roads, with horses and automobiles clearing the way and creating dust clouds.

1. The first to arrive was Frederick Lorz, who actually was just trotting back to the finish line to retrieve his clothes, after dropping out after nine miles. When the officials thought he had won the race, Lorz played along with his practical joke until he was found out shortly after the medal ceremony and was banned for a year by the AAU for this stunt, later winning the 1905 Boston Marathon.

2. Thomas Hicks (a Briton running for the United States) was the first to cross the finish-line legally, after having received several doses of strychnine sulfate mixed with brandy from his trainers. He was supported by his trainers when he crossed the finish, but is still considered the winner. Hicks had to be carried off the track, and possibly would have died in the stadium, had he not been treated by several doctors.

3. A Cuban postman named Felix Carbajal joined the marathon. He had to run in street clothes that he cut around the legs to make them look like shorts. He stopped off in an orchard en route to have a snack on some apples, which turned out to be rotten. The rotten apples caused him to have to lie down and take a nap. Despite falling ill to apples he finished in fourth place.

4. The marathon included the first two black Africans to compete in the Olympics; two Tswana tribesmen named Len Tau (real name: Len Taunyane) and Yamasani (real name: Jan Mashiani). But they weren't there to compete in the Olympics, they were actually the sideshow. They had been brought over by the exposition as part of the Boer War exhibit (both were really students from Orange Free State in South Africa, but this fact was not made known to the public). Len Tau finished ninth and Yamasani came in twelfth. This was a disappointment, as many observers were sure Len Tau could have done better if he had not been chased nearly a mile off course by aggressive dogs.
That seems like 2008, Beijing, right? Good. Let's keep going.

Last year, Arizona's Brandon Webb topped the National League with four. The complete game has become as obsolete as five-man pepper, the two-hour game, guys swinging three bats in the on-deck circle, and coaches hitting practice pop-ups with a fungo bat.


2. If every game were Mark Buehrle v. Joe Blanton, you'd get bored in May.

3. It's hard to hold three bats.

4. Coaches still do this.

The sins of pitch-count madness are evident nightly, but there was no more glaring example than Lincecum's July 26 start against Arizona.

I can't believe you're not going with Johan for "the most glaring example." His bullpen has lost him like 6 games this year, and those games, unlike the Giants', actually matter.

Lincecum, a freakish phenomenon who has not had a hint of arm trouble, was demonstrating why some sharp observers consider him the best pitcher in the National League. He had 13 strikeouts, no walks, radar readings of 98 mph and a 3-2 lead, striking out the side in the seventh inning and finishing it with his glorious, unhittable changeup.

Time out! That's it for Lincecum. He'd thrown 121 pitches in his last outing, and now he was at 111, and ... well, can't you see? It's right here on this piece of paper.

It's also right here in the part of my brain that creates and registers "common sense." This game is meaningless. Tim Lincecum is the future of your organization. Remove him from the game.

Manager Bruce Bochy turned to setup man Tyler Walker, and thus was bestowed an outright gift to the opposition. Walker is a fine fellow and an earnest competitor, but he has about one-tenth of Lincecum's ability.

Most pitchers do -- Lincecum is awesome. Which is why it wouldn't really make sense to stretch him past 111 pitches in a meaningless game in late July when he'd thrown 126 pitches four days earlier.

As that one-run lead became a two-run loss, the fans couldn't believe it. They came for De Niro and got SpongeBob.

In this analogy:

Robert DeNiro = Good Actor

SpongeBob = ...Bad...Actor?

KNBR's Ralph Barbieri, who had watched from the stands, spoke for a lot of fans when he angrily called the station, got on the air and said, "If I'd known that was going to happen, I wouldn't have gone to the ballpark!"

You would have missed seven good innings of Tim Lincecum pitching, which, if you're a Giants fan, is about as good as it can get right now.

It would be misguided to blame Bochy, pitching coach Dave Righetti or general manager Brian Sabean. They only reflect a cautious stance taken throughout baseball, and if they have decided to protect Lincecum's arm - the better for him to dominate when the team becomes relevant - who's to argue? They've been consistent with their rules, involving all of the starters, so it would look silly for Lincecum to suddenly have a 150-pitch game.

Correct. Why did you write this article?

More than a numbers game

The problem isn't so much the pitch count, an honest endeavor, but the dismissal of all other factors. Fatigue can't be measured by a counter that suddenly reaches "100." For a laboring pitcher, 90 pitches could be a solid two hours of hell. For someone on cruise control, 120 pitches is about as stressful as a Caribbean vacation.

True 'dat, my brother. Other things you should consider: does the game mean anything? Is the pitcher the complete and utter future of your franchise? Did the pitcher throw a lot of pitches in his last (also meaningless) game? If the answers are: no, yes, yes, then you should pull him after seven innings.

There are so many more reliable signs of trouble: if a pitcher can't throw a strike on 2-and-0, if his curveball loses snap, if he constantly lifts or shakes his arm (indicating discomfort), if he takes more than his customary time between pitches, if he starts shaking off the catcher when the two have been in sync all night, if he walks the leadoff man with a five-run lead, if he can't throw his money pitch when he had it two innings earlier, if he's fussing with needless pickoff throws, if his body language betrays frustration.

The implication here: major league managers and pitching coaches have never considered this. They have seen pitchers exhibit this trouble and thought nothing of it. They have watched the absence of these signs and thought nothing of it. They have simply never thought to consider these factors at all. Not once. And they never go up and talk to their pitchers between innings and ask them how they feel. They never have, or formulate, plans. They just wait until the eighth inning and toss a reliever in there. Managing.

In a recent outing against Houston, CC Sabathia pitched his fifth complete game in the nine starts he'd made for Milwaukee. He threw 130 pitches, raising a torrent of alarmist nonsense. Fortunately, manager Ned Yost didn't join in the geeks' pencil party. What Sabathia has done for the Brewers is a story, something exceptional. It's called rising above the rest - the very essence of sports. Yost had a great answer, too, when asked if Sabathia threw too many pitches. "Never once did he labor," he said.

It has not occurred to Mr. Jenkins, apparently, that CC is 99% likely to leave the team after this season. Which means: the Brewers could not give less of two shits [sic] how beat up he gets. They are driving for the playoffs. If CC blows his arm out in June of next year, that's Hank Steinbrenner's problem.

In other words: Open your eyes, everybody. Follow your instincts. By all means, protect an often-injured pitcher such as Rich Harden, a star (think Pedro Martinez) near the end of his career, or a prospect who hasn't worked a 100-inning season in his life. But when you have a young, healthy starter and you're making distinctions between 110 and 120 pitches, you've driven way off the road.

Tim Lincecum had thrown a grand total of 62.2 innings in professional baseball before throwing 146 with the Giants last year (after 31 of those minor league innings). He is on pace to throw 216 this year.

...nobody wants to be blamed: by the media, talk-show hosts, agents, the players' association or executives protecting their financial investments. When I spoke with Bochy in the aftermath of that Lincecum game, he actually mentioned Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, who gallantly took the Cubs to the brink of the World Series in 2003, then broke down with sore arms later, prompting some after-the-fact hysteria targeting then-manager Dusty Baker.

I wouldn't call it hysteria. I'd call it "anger."

Don't be so quick to blame then-Giants manager Felipe Alou of ruining an arm when Jason Schmidt crafted a one-hit, 144-pitch shutout at Wrigley Field ("I'd do it all over again," Schmidt recently said. "There's nothing like knowing the game is in your control.")

July 16, 2008Recalled from minors rehab
June 28, 2008Sent to minors for rehabilitation
June 01, 2008Recalled from minors rehab
May 20, 2008Transferred to 60-day DL
May 11, 2008Sent to minors for rehabilitation
March 30, 2008Placed on 15-day DL (Recovery from right shoulder surgery)
November 01, 2007Removed from 60-day DL
August 13, 2007Transferred to 60-day DL
June 18, 2007Placed on 15-day DL (Right shoulder surgery - out for season)
June 05, 2007Removed from 15-day DL
May 30, 2007Sent to minors for rehabilitation
April 17, 2007Placed on 15-day DL (Right bursa sac inflammation)
May 24, 2005Removed from 15-day DL
May 10, 2005Placed on 15-day DL (Strained right shoulder)
April 16, 2004Recalled from minors rehab
April 16, 2004Removed from 15-day DL
April 10, 2004Sent to minors for rehabilitation
April 03, 2004Placed on 15-day DL (Right shoulder stiffness)
April 24, 2002Recalled from minors rehab
April 13, 2002Sent to minors for rehabilitation
May 11, 2001Recalled from minors rehab
April 30, 2001Sent to minors for rehabilitation
April 20, 2001Recalled from minors rehab
April 13, 2001Sent to minors for rehabilitation
September 01, 2000Transferred to 60-day DL
August 23, 2000Recalled from minors rehab
July 29, 2000Sent to minors for rehabilitation
August 30, 1996Recalled from minors rehab
August 11, 1996Sent to minors for rehabilitation

Not that many games have been under his control, really. What with all the injuries.

Don't single out Yost as some type of renegade because he believes in Sabathia's durability. And don't join the lunatics blaming Baker for the downfall of Prior and Wood.

We've covered the situation in Milwaukee. And we're not lunatics. We're people who watched Dusty Baker have Kerry Wood throw 141 pitches after an injury-riddled early career and asked: "WTF?" (Also, how is Kerry Wood different from Rich Harden? Remember back when you suggested protecting Rich Harden?)

Baker's Cubs went for it that year. They had a postseason in their reach, they had the right pitchers for the job, and those men wanted the ball - all night, if that's what it meant. People can sit around adjusting their spectacles and analyzing, but they have no idea how it feels to actually compete.

I'll have you know that I once pitched six grueling innings with a sore toe in a little league game against Rent-a-Wreck in 1988. I gave up four runs but also drove in three with a 3-R bomb to left off Dave Forgione. We won 19-4. Then my mom took me for ice cream. So, yeah, I think I know how to compete.

"Nothing that happened to me was because of that man (Baker)," Wood recently told Chicago reporters.

This reminds me of something...oh. Right.

"I did not have sexual relations with that woman (Miss Lewinsky)."

I bet you fuckers never thought you'd get a Monica Lewinsky joke on this blog, did you?! You never saw that coming! I got you! I got you all!


Jay Leno

P.S. Viagra!

"You have guys who go through their whole careers and don't get injured. Other guys pitch two years and get injured six times. I don't think it has anything to do with a manager or a pitching coach or anything like that. It's either going to happen or it's not."

This is an oddly fatalistic attitude to apply to a game that requires extreme stress on a player's muscles, ligaments, and tendons. I don't think winning the dead lift competition has to do with how strong your legs are. It's either going to happen or it's not.

If more people realized that, and trusted their eyes, we wouldn't have pitch counts at all.

This condescending sentence seems like a good place to end.

What? There's like 10000 more words?

A game of honor

The complete game is a badge of honor among starting pitchers, and historians will view the early 21st century as a veritable wasteland. Only Toronto's Roy Halladay and Milwaukee's CC Sabathia (eight each this season) bear any resemblance to the iron-man performers of the past. A few notes on the subject:

Fernando Valenzuela, with the 1986 Dodgers, was the last pitcher to have at least 20 complete games in a season. This century, no pitcher in either league has reached 10.

Then Fernando Valenzuela went on to pitch 10 more years of awesome baseball and got elected to the Hall of Fame with 350 wins.

Oh no wait -- that's not what happened. What happened was, he threw like 1550 innings before the age of 25, had that last good year in 1986, then the next year his WHIP shot up to 1.5 and he never had a good season again due to -- in no small part -- a lot of injuries.

The Giants' Juan Marichal had 30 in 1968, a season dominated by pitching statistics, but how about Ted Lyons with the 1930 White Sox? That was a hitters' year of almost comical proportions. The Yankees hit a collective .309, the National League hit .303, and eight batters hit .370 or better, yet Lyons had 29 complete games, and the co-leaders in the National League had 22.

Yeah, how about Ted Lyons and those 1930 numbers? Crazy. 297 IP. But more to the point, how about Ted Lyons and that 1931 arm injury that made it impossible for him to throw his cut fastball anymore? And how about the fact that he never pitched anywhere close to that number of innings again? And how about the fact that he's in the HOF even though his 1.348 career WHIP is only slightly worse than Bronson Arroyo's? It was a different game, man.

Also, do you do any research? I have no idea if Ted Lyon's arm injury was due to the 297 innings he had thrown the year before. For all I know he injured his arm waving a sign of support for Herbert Hoover, who was President in 1930, because that's how fucking long ago 1930 is. But why use Fernando and Lyons, two guys who got badly arm-injured the very next year you cite for each of them, to try to prove your point? That's crazy.

[...] As recently as the 1998 season, there were 212 instances of a starter throwing at least 125 pitches. Last season, it happened 14 times.

Baseball is lost.

I don't think every arm injury is caused by pitcher abuse. I do think that certain pitchers could complete more games, if they wanted to, without career-ending injuries. So why did I take three hours to break down this article? Because it's in my blood, man. It's in my blood.


Labels: , , ,

posted by Unknown  # 2:55 PM
An excellent point from Ron:

"One of life's great truisms is to finish what you start. It's what you tell your kids, your surgeon, your contractor."

I'm no M.D. (though I did watch "St. Elsewhere" quite a bit), but don't surgeons often have residents (or even nurses) finish up for them? And in these instances, don't they (Dr. Craig, Dr. Ehrlich, Howie Mandel, etc.) sometimes actually use the words, "Close for me"? (Emphasis added.)
Thomas sez:

In one of Joe Posnanski's most recent blogs, he talked about the average length of starts over the last 50 years, and how it really hasn't gone down that much. Here's his table:

1956: 6.41 innings per start.
1963: 6.50 innings per start.
1968: 6.66 innings per start.
1971: 6.60 innings per start.
1977: 6.30 innings per start.
1980: 6.33 innings per start.
1985: 6.22 innings per start.
1990: 6.06 innings per start.
1995: 5.90 innings per start.
1998: 6.06 innings per start.
2001: 5.92 innings per start.
2004: 5.86 innings per start.
2008: 5.85 innings per start.

50 years, two fewer outs a game.

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