Why Have Starting Pitchers Become Wimps?

March 29, 2008 |

Does the number 25 mean anything to you as baseball fans?  Some will say it’s Rich Dauer’s number from the Orioles glory run or the number Rafael Palmeiro disgraced back in 2005 for the black and orange.  The number 25 is actually an Oriole record that will stand for years to come.  Maybe forever?  It’s the number of complete games that Jim Palmer had in 1975.  That’s right 25 complete games in a single season, by one pitcher.  Last year, the Orioles as a team had four; in fact the entire American League had 63 complete games total.  
Forget complete games, most pitchers and managers are looking to the bullpen after five or six innings or 100 pitches, whichever one comes first.  Are you confused, so am I?  After all aren’t players better conditioned than they were 30+ years ago?  Why can’t someone in better condition with superior rehabilitation and medical equipment gut it out for more than six innings, especially now that they go every fifth day instead of every fourth? 
Here are a few answers:
Money:  For most of us when we get a raise or take a job with more money, it usually requires us to work more hours or it demands a higher rate of return.   Not if you happen to be a major league pitcher.  With the onset of long term, big money deals, teams guard their investments like a Wall Street broker.  They don’t hedge any bets on their new prima donna pitcher.   After all how would you like to be the manager that has to tell your GM or owner that your $20 million pitcher is out for 12 months with a labrum tear?  Can you say unemployment line?
Agents and even pitchers alike have followed suit, and this is a big topic when contract time arrives.  No agent wants to see his meal ticket on the disabled list; after all, four percent of nothing is nothing.  Again protect the investment.  Pitchers (especially one Erik Bedard) have also followed suit.  Do you think Palmer, Jack Morris or Orel Hershiser would have asked out the way Bedard did in Washington last May after saying he was tired from running the bases.  What Erik, do you need a golf cart?  Sadly Bedard, while the most extreme, is not the only pitcher who feels this way.  Fear of losing money has made cowards out of many.
Conditioning:  Ask yourself this:  why are there so many arm injuries when players are supposedly in better shape?  While the players are in better athletic condition thanks to weights and cardio equipment, they aren’t in better pitching condition.  Simply put, they don’t throw enough because they are held down by pitch counts and limitations from little league until they reach the show.  Most teams won’t let prospects go over 85 pitches in the low minors or 100 as they work their way up to the majors.  This also plays a role in mental conditioning.  Athletes are creatures of habit, if they are not conditioned to go over 100 pitches, how can they do it in a game?  After six good innings most guys are heading to the showers, even if they are throwing a shut out or a gem.   There was no chance Palmer or Steve Carlton did not want to finish what they started.  Twins broadcaster and should be Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven said it best when he was quoted as saying, “I have never seen a pitcher’s arm fall off after he threw 101 pitches.”
Bullpens:  We all know that the Orioles spent $42 million on their bullpen last year (that worked?); while most teams aren’t that foolish, teams put a premium on the bullpen.  In the late 70’s, the Orioles would come back from spring training most years with nine pitchers, 10 at the most.  This year it looks the Orioles will come back with 12 hurlers; some teams have even come back with 13.  Teams now have sixth inning relievers, seventh innings relievers, set up men, closers, and a left-handed specialist.   With all these dollars and pitchers taking up space on rosters, no wonder teams are going to the pen early and often.
The Future:  In the end the trend is indisputable; starting pitchers going deep are becoming as extinct as the bald eagle.  I think the game has suffered.  Baseball is 90% pitching, and there are too many guys getting too much credit and money for not being nearly as good as the men who preceded them.  Instead of big game pitchers like Curt Schilling, Hershiser and Morris, will we soon see the battle of relievers from start to finish in game seven of the World Series?  Will a quality start be four innings?  Will there be a revolutionary old school general manager who turns the tide back to a four man rotation or pitchers being removed for performance rather than pitch count. Will someone make men out of starting pitchers again? My guess is not!