Pitchers Getting An Easy Ride?

So, a few more odds and sods for the mid-Spring Training midweek. An example of baseball looking backwards and perhaps moving forward this year…but maybe taking two steps back in doing so.

First on the agenda, we have the announcement today that Arizona will bring back the Bullpen Cart this year. For those too young to remember- it was, after all, last seen in any ballpark back in 1995- there was a time when relief pitchers had an unusual perk. They weren’t considered superstars back then, and seldom earned a fraction of what top starters did, unlike today, but they did get a free ride to the mound! No having to actually run or put wear and tear on those cleats for the late-inning arms of the ’70s and ’80s- they’d be driven to the mound in a modified golf cart! In the case of the Mariners, modified so much it looked like a boat! The Yankees, who long have seemingly had the motto “Go big or go home!” one-upped the others: they drove the pitchers out in an actual sports car!

Eventually the practise was discontinued, in no small part to the ridicule the pitchers, and sport in general ,were getting. Somehow, baseball has long suffered from the reputation of being a lazy man’s sport; a game played by athletes who are anything but athletic. It’s unfair, sure. Hockey players might exert more energy, for instance, but typically do so in shifts of 90 seconds or less – often interrupted by whistles and breaks- followed up by several minutes of sitting on the bench. Anybody who’s actually played outfield in a game, even at beer league level, knows you work up quite a sweat playing and need to be in decent shape. But that’s not what the public thought and having players who were seemingly too lazy to jog a distance less than the length of a football field didn’t help that perception.

Now Arizona’s bringing it back, and doubtless other teams will follow suit, apparently in an effort to speed up the game, per Rob Manfred’s directive. I wonder just how many seconds are actually saved by the slow-moving carts (which of course need to return to the ‘pen after delivering their passenger) compared to having the pitcher power himself onto the field. I can’t imagine it will be many, but do figure it will be a new revenue source for teams, as judging by the Arizona one unveiled this week, they’ll stick some ads on it.

I have to admit, they’re cute and will make a neat little collectible if teams start giving away miniature ones instead of bobbleheads or visors. But at a time when the public already perceive players as whiny and spoiled, in a game that has Bartolo Colon and

5’11”, 260-pound (give or take a hamburger or two) Pablo Sandoval , making them seem even lazier and more pampered hardly seems like good marketing!

Speaking of lazy pitchers, seems at least two teams in the AL West are considering lightening the workload for theirs. Los Angeles Anaheim and Texas are both apparently considering using a 6-man rotation this year, instead of the traditional 5-man. In the Angels’ case it may be a specific move to accomodate Shohei Ohtani, who is coming from Japan where starters frequently only pitch once a week. In the Rangers case, it presumably stems from their thinking that they have 6 decent major league starters (although that assumes Mike Minor is fully back from surgeries which made him miss 2015-16 and pitch out of the Royals ‘pen last year and that Matt Bush needs to be in the starting rote. All of Bush’s 115 big league appearances thus far have been relief ones.) Their ace Cole Hamels has outspokenly criticized it. “It’s not part of baseball,” he told reporters, “I was brought up in the minors on the 5-man and that’s what I’m designed for.” He added that he planned to start 34 games and go 200 innings this year, a bar that would have been considered low only a decade back but now is uncommon.

He’s right. It’s difficult to see how this idea could possibly help a team. Perhaps it’s designed to reduce injuries, but that seems doubtful. If arm and shoulder injuries were just the outcome of throwing too many innings, we’d not see relief pitchers go down, nor starters blowing out their arms in April or May when still “fresh”. And we should see far fewer injuries now than a generation back, when pitchers routinely aimed to finish their starts and carried heavier workloads. Instead, the reverse has happened. As Hamels points out, he and almost every other non-Japanese pitcher in the game have been trained for years to pitch on the fifth day, with a well-oiled workout and rest regimen for the off-days. Tinkering with that seems destined to cause problems with pitchers over-compensating by working out too much between starts or resting too much and not being in full game shape.

If it is a response to the concept that most teams number five starter is pretty bad these days, and wanting him out there less… well, that would be accomplished. But so too would their best pitcher see less trips to the mound. Not to mention that it would require a number six starter be picked from the best of the previously not good enough! In the case of Texas, last year Martin Perez led the team with 32 starts. Using a six-man rote would have meant A.J. Griffin would’ve been a regular. He was 4-6 with a 5.94 ERA over 18 games last year. Do Texas fans really want to see more of that caliber of pitching.

Hamels’ former teammate, Roy Halladay, is probably rolling around in his grave over the idea. It seems a long time back now, but it was in fact only 15 years ago “Doc” started 36 for Toronto and logged 266 innings. Four times in his career he had 9 complete games (10 in 2010 if we include the playoffs). These days few teams post 9 CGs a season. His numbers of course, pale compared to some of the pitchers he grew up watching. Early Blue Jay Jim Clancy started 40 games in 1982, completing 11 of them, at the tail-end of an era when a 4-man rotation wasn’t uncommon. He was a contemporary of rubber-armed Wilbur Wood, who was moved from the bullpen to rotation by the White Sox in 1971. In 1972, he started 49 games and pitched 376 innings (winning 24 and having an ERA of 2.59.Not too shabby!) The next year he took it easy a little – only 48 starts! Wood’s career was cut short by injuries , mind you. But it wasn’t his arm, it was his knee after being hit square on it by a line drive.

And for those who’d argue Wood doesn’t count as he was a knuckle-baller, there’s the curious case of Nolan Ryan. The hardest-throwing pitcher of his generation, Nolan pitched from 1966 to 1993! In 1974 he threw 26 complete games, 332 innings and K’d 367 batters. Pitch counts weren’t a normal stat back then, but it’s said with all those strikeouts, Ryan passed 200 pitches in a game several times. Age eventually caught up to him- he last pitched 200 innings in 1990. At age 43.

Perhaps that kind of strain isn’t wise for anyone’s arm. But I would rather see more Nolan Ryan-inspired, Roy Halladay-like or even Cole Hamels types out there and fewer starters who look irritated if they’re still on the mound when the pitch count turns 90 and are happy enough to see five or six fewer appearances on their annual sched.

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