Monday, September 10, 2012

 Men Among Men: Historical Reflections in the Age of Strasburg

So ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg is shut down. Only 24, gifted as can be, having completed a mostly magical season of dominance over National League hitters, his bosses with the Washington Nationals have said, “Sit down, kid. Your season is over.” This while the club has the best record in baseball and is poised to be the first Washington, D.C., baseball franchise to play in the postseason since 1933.

Postseasons are not promised. Needless to say, neither are World Series wins. The Nats take a calculated risk in benching their young star. The remaining starters on the team are good, and, in the case of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, potentially capable of leading the team to victory in the NL playoffs. But the other projected starters—Edwin Jackson, Ross Detwiler, late-arriving sub John Lannan—are not locks to perform at the highest level. Inconsistency can plague them. For them, the question is, Who shows up—Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

The arguments will continue about how the Nats handled the Strasburg Affair. Meanwhile, in light of the debate over how much work is too much work for a major league pitcher,  let’s look at some facts and numbers about ace pitchers from the past, with focus on the baseball stats of 40 years ago, when athletes presumably were less fit than the athletes of 2012.   

In 1972, Mickey Lolich of the Detroit Tigers, age 31, pitched 327 innings. Compiling a 22-14 W-L record, he started 41 games, completed 23 of them, threw 4 shutouts, posted  an ERA of 2.50, and had a WHIP of 1.088, leading the Tigers to a playoff they lost but in which he threw 19 additional innings and had an ERA of 1.42.

Here’s the kicker. With such astounding numbers, Lolich did NOT win the American League Cy Young Award. That went to Gaylord Perry of the Cleveland Indians, who pitched 343 innings in 40 starts (24-16 record), completing 29 games (!), hurling 5 shutouts and posting an ERA of 1.92. Perry, age 33, had a WHIP of 0.978.

The 300-inning mound ace was not a total rarity in those days. The same season, the Chicago White Sox’ Wilbur Wood, age 30, toiled for 377 innings (!) in 49 starts (!!), with a 24-17 record, 20 complete games, 8 shutouts, an ERA of 2.51, and a WHIP of 1.059. Granted, Wood was a knuckleballer and could go seemingly anytime he was called upon. Still, when you are closing in on 400 innings in a season, you are challenging the gods who oversee the athlete’s general health and well-being.

Over in the National League that year, 27-year-old Steve Carlton was pitching like a man possessed. The only ray of hope on a dismal Philadelphia Phillies squad, Carlton posted a 27-10 record (the team only won 59 games total), making 41 starts, hurling 346 innings, fanning 310, with 8 shutouts and an ERA of 1.98. Carlton’s WHIP was 0.993. Deservedly so, he won the first of his four Cy Young Awards for the Phils.

But even if 300-inning seasons were still fairly rare in those days, certainly 250+-inning seasons were not. Other pitchers from 1972 spending substantial time on the mound from April to October included Catfish Hunter (295 innings), Fergie Jenkins (289), Bert Blyleven (287), Nolan Ryan (284), Phil Niekro (282), Joe Coleman (280), Bob Gibson (278), Jim Palmer (274), Don Sutton (273), Rick Wise (269), Ken Holtzman (265), Tom Seaver (262) and Mel Stottlemyre (260).

Back then, 200+ innings up to 250 was simply the order of the day for any self-respecting MLB starting pitcher. And here’s a whale of a comparative stat: This year’s Nationals have, at this writing, a staff-wide total of 3 complete games. Carlton alone had 30 in 1972.

How the game has changed. But are today’s pitchers wimpier than their counterparts from the early 1970s? You would think not, given the advances in strength training, endurance, nutrition and medical oversight. (You can even throw PEDs in there for good cynical measure, if you wish.)

More interesting history: In 1972, at age 29, Tommy John, pitching for the Dodgers, posted an 11-5 record with a 2.89 ERA in 186 innings. The next year, age 30, John was 16-7, 3.10 ERA, in 218 innings. In a partial 1974, he was already 13-3 with a 2.59 ERA in 153 innings…when he suffered the injury which is now responsible for the historic surgery he eventually underwent, now called Tommy John Surgery. Known in medical practice as ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, TJS is a surgical graft procedure in which a ligament in the medial elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body (often from the forearm, hamstring, hip, knee, or foot of the patient).

John sat out 1975 healing up, then returned in 1976, age 33, to post a 10-10 record with a solid ERA of 3.09. He pitched 207 innings that year, his first upon return from a surgery that is now commonplace and almost always effective. (Note: The Nationals shut down Strasburg at 159.)

John pitched 13 more seasons after that, including 1979 (276 innings), 1980 (265), and 1983 (234). He finished his 26-year career in 1989 with 288 victories, only 12 shy of what is usually the magic 300 that automatically means a place in the Hall of Fame. 

Based on the anecdotal and factual evidence, there is reason to believe that the youthful Strasburg is probably reliable for another 50 innings this season. But even if we applaud the Nats for their medically conscious concern for their stud starter, the team’s management deserves low grades for not handling his work load with an eye toward the playoffs, especially since the team went into first place for good on May 22 and has looked like a postseason lock ever since.   

Maybe they should keep Strasburg around for his bat. The big guy is hitting .277 with 4 doubles, a homer and 7 RBI. Not bad for the most talented pitcher in the game. Still, this all should have gone down a whole 'nother way, and  Strasburg's dream to sip champagne in celebration of a World Series championship will now ride on the arms of other, lesser men. 



Rodney Pickel said...

From the book, "Otto, the Man at the Wheel by Peter "Otto" Abeles, Tom "Hickey" Hicks, and Rodney "Clyde" Pickel - On the subject of pitchers and Cubs baseball....

Koufax and Drysdale were not just Cub killers, but killers of just about every hitter who swung the lumber in the National League. Many teams have had two pitchers who produced great seasons together, but few could compare to Koufax and Drysdale in 1965. That year they compiled a 49-20 combined record with a total of 592 strikeouts and 47 complete games. Statistics like that are rare, if at all, these days. Koufax led the league with a 2.04 ERA and with Drysdale’s 2.77 ERA they won the national League Pennant. The Dodgers faced the Minnesota Twins in the World Series and after 6 games the series was knotted at 3 apiece. Drysdale had pitched games 1 and 4 and was ready for game 7, but manager Walter Alston, in a move that would be unheard of today, handed the ball to Koufax on two days rest. Koufax was certainly up to the task, shutting out the Twins on only 3 hits and striking out 10, capping off the ’65 season with World Series Rings for all the men in blue.

Rodney Pickel said...

On the Nats decision to limit pitches for rookie....

Martin Brady said...

Great baseball lore, Rodney! I didn't remember that about Alston switching to Koufax. Wow. I wonder how that made Drysdale feel...