Friday, January 23, 2009

OUTSIDE THE STRIKE ZONE: Baseball Does Need Some Fixing by Brian G. Walsh

From 1964 to 1974, 11 baseball seasons, Detroit Tigers lefthander Mickey Lolich completed 167 games. Completed. While he was saving the Tigers from the spectacle of the "chain gang" of specialty relief pitchers foisted upon us today, Lolich merely averaged 17 wins, 270 innings pitched and 15 complete games a year.

Imagine if such a concept was rediscovered today! Agents across America would howl, of course, at the dimunition of their clients' earning power. Most of the relievers on major league staffs today would be put where they belong: in the minor leagues, learning how to throw more than one pitch for a strike and learning how to pace themselves.

This is baseball's most glaring deficiency. There was over $300 million in pitching "talent" on the disabled list in 2007. It has become dogma that starting pitchers should rarely if ever complete the games they start. They will break down, we are told. Their careers will be shortened, we're told. It is better to go all-out for 5-6 innings and then bring in a reliever, we're told. Baloney.

Lolich lasted 16 seasons and won a total of 217 games. Would he have fared better had his manager relieved him every game after 5-7 innings? Doubtful. Would the team have fared better? Absolutely not! That's because the starting pitchers were the best pitchers on a staff in those days. The relievers were pitchers not good enough to be starters and they were around for those times when the starter had to be taken out because of ineffectiveness. The dogma of bringing in a reliever every single game didn't exist. Cookie-cutter managers of today don't have the fortitude to challenge this idiocy. Even if they did, their common-sense but bold action would probably be halted by some cowardly general manager.

Will all due respect to today's closers...ah, forget that. One inning pitchers don't deserve ANY respect. How hard should it be for a professional major league pitcher to pitch one perfect inning? The answer is that it shouldn't be hard at all. Especially when all the pressure is on the opposing team, because the closer doesn't pitch until his team has a lead and he's brought in to close out the 9th inning. Yet, you hear about "the pressure" of being a closer. Baloney.

Nolan Ryan is attempting to turn back the clock in Texas to some degree, and I hope he's successful. Baseball games are too long and the skill level has eroded as the offensive numbers have become downright offensive. Steroids might have been the major component in the increased scoring, but dilution of talent is probably a close second.

Frankie Rodriguez, the much-heralded "K-Rod" formerly of the Angels and now the prized free-agent signing of the New York Metropolitans, posted 62 saves last season, breaking Bobby Thigpen's record of 57, set just a few years back. Cheap, one-inning saves aren't impressive. Even to the Angels. When K-Rod's demands soared, the Angels let those glitzy, inflated stats fly right along with him to the land of gigantic salaries, egos and boorishness that is New York.

Another component of the shift to specialization is the effect it has had on starting pitchers. Their mindset, as Andy Barrett says, is "I just have to get through 5 innings and the bullpen will take over." In other words, there is no longer any pride in finishing what they start. They are not offended, as even Jack Morris from not that long ago would be (never mind Bob Gibson of the 255 career complete games or Juan Marichal with his 244) at being replaced by another pitcher.

This particular type of specialization has ruined baseball and devalued the word "pitcher." The only legitimate relievers who deserve praise are the likes of Rich "Goose" Gossage, who thundered fastballs at opposing batters for 3 innings at a time, daring them to hit it if they could. Gossage had to get nine outs a lot of times, not the easy three. He didn't have the luxury of getting through one inning. Though he wasn't gifted with multiple pitches he could command, Gossage knew how to pitch, which along with his blazing heater, made him a legitimately great relief pitcher. None of today's closers are in his class.

Mariano Rivera? Please! We'll never know how good Rivera might have been because current baseball standard fitted him with a skirt and told him to go all out for one inning and try not to get his dress dirty while doing it. This is not to single out Rivera, but he is held as the present-day standard for relivers. My question is, "Standard for what, exactly?" Pitching one measly inning while the opposition is desperate to score. If you can pitch at all, you have a great advantage being in that position. One perfect inning should be automatic. When pitchers like Rivera are pretty close to it, they are heaped with praise for doing what they should find routine. What a joke!

Hey, why don't we take this level of specialization to football, too? Why don't the Lions employ a "4th Quarter Closer QB" to finish out games? Oh, yeah, they'd have to actually have a lead. My bad.