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Pitching in the Twenty-First Century

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Pitching in the Twenty-First Century

Modern Pitching Deployment
Letter to Alan Schwarz
Wins or ERA
One Simple Rule Change
Mike Berheide's Rebuttal
A Matter of Pace
 
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PITCHING IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

MODERN PITCHING DEPLOYMENT

Late innings, lefty batter at the plate, manager sends in lefty relief pitcher. If batter can't hit lefties, he's removed for a righty pinch hitter. If he can hit lefties, he stays in. In either case, the defensive team gains no advantage that will work often enough to justify the substitution.

“Situational lefties” often have the highest ERAs on the ballclub.

The men in the back of the bullpen, the 8th-9th-10th-11th-12th pitchers on the club, are not generally good pitchers. They're the leftovers, the guys with the 6.00 ERAs who shuffle back and forth between the majors and Triple-A. They're just as likely to throw gasoline on a fire as to put one out. I can't understand why managers trot these guys out in a tight spot.

When you bring in your 10th best pitcher, how often will he slam the door? Two times out of three? I doubt it, but even if he did, that's still allowing the opposition a .333 on-base percentage, which doesn't justify a substitution in my mind.

Both the statistical evidence and the evidence of my own observation convince me that managers who play the matchup game do not gain a competitive advantage.

The 2003 season is just underway, and Boston's "Bullpen By Committee" experiment is receiving a lot of attention, probably because it's happening in Boston and not a lesser-profile market. The experiment hasn't worked so far, and it won't, because it's unworkable. It might serve, however, to get Grady Little fired, and there seem to be people who want that to happen.

The Boston-style "bullpen by committee" has been presented to the public as the product of some deep thinking about the game, but that's ludicrous. The experiment, as conducted by Boston, is to use 3 or 4 relief pitchers in each game, at various intervals governed by the manager's whim. Who pitches when seems to be determined by “matchups.”

In point of fact, day after day Little is creating situations in which he's going to entrust games to his 9th, 10th, or 11th best pitcher. He's going to lose a lot of those games because in a close game, the more pitchers you use, the greater the chance that one of them will pitch poorly. The opposition will pounce on that guy, and the damage will be done.

You can't win your rightful share of games when you are determined to take innings away from your best pitchers to give them to your worst pitchers. And that's especially true when you insist on doing it in crucial situations.

I wonder if Boston's hire of Bill James will be discredited when this policy fails. It shouldn't be, because I can't believe James recommended this course of action. He might be a convenient whipping boy, though.

James has been critical of the conventional wisdom that a manager identify one “closer” and use him only to begin the 9th inning in “save situations.” I agree with James that this is not the best use of a bullpen, either.

In my opinion, the most sensible deployment of a pitching staff is:

1. Stay with the starter as long as he's pitching well and isn't showing signs of fatigue.

2. If the starter is ineffective early in the game, replace him with a “long reliever,” a guy who can pitch several innings at a time a couple of times a week.

3. If the starter becomes ineffective late in the game, replace him, if the game is close, with your best “short reliever.” Do this whatever the inning, the number of outs, or the number of men on base. When you need your best guy, run him out there.

This is the old idea of the relief pitcher as “fireman,” a term you don't hear any more. The fireman is the guy who puts out the fire. He's your best relief pitcher. He can pitch an inning or two, or a fraction of an inning, several times a week. You use him when the score is close and men are on base, whether it's the 9th inning or not, or to pitch the entire 9th in a tie or one-run game, if you've had to pull your starter.

This strategy worked for decades, and it could work today. Modern pitchers have been conditioned to think in terms of “roles,” which results in complaining about their roles. But their proper role is to pitch whenever the manager needs them, period.

The “matchups” fad rarely results in a competitive advantage for the defensive team. How come so many lefthanded “specialists” have such poor records? Because when they enter a game, the opposing skipper sends up a righthanded pinch hitter who feasts on these guys. Where's the advantage in that?

Why does every modern manager think he is, or ought to be, Gene Mauch? How good a manager was Gene Mauch?

If I were managing I'd trust my starters, and I'd want them to feel a personal responsibility for games. If the starter has to come out, I'd want my best guy on the mound when the game is on the line.

And remember this about starters: there’s no evidence that pitch counts prevent sore arms. Let them pitch!

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LETTER TO ALAN SCHWARZ

Alan Schwarz wrote an article on pitch counts in the May 2003 issue of Baseball America. I responded:

Dear Mr Schwarz:

I read your article on pitch counts with keen interest. It's the most penetrating I've read on the subject so far.

I can tell you exactly when the current pitch count craze began: after manager Billy Martin was blamed for burning out his Oakland starting staff of Matt Keough, Brian Kingman, Rick Langford, Steve McCatty, and Mike Norris in 1980-1982 by asking them routinely to pitch deep into games.

It is interesting to me that you did not assert that pitch counts prevent sore arms. Neither you nor anyone you quoted could reasonably make that statement, because there is no evidence that pitch counts prevent sore arms. Actually, there is evidence that they don't. In this pitch-count happy era, there are more pitchers on disabled lists than ever before.

People who insist on pitch counts hope they will prevent sore arms, although there is no evidence that they do.

There is evidence, however, that some pitchers have arms that can tolerate a heavy workload. You can find that evidence by looking at 100 years of baseball history before, say, 1990. There were many, many pitchers who pitched 250-300 innings effectively (on rest intervals of 3 days) season after season.

I don't believe that such pitchers don't exist today. They must, but who are they? And wouldn't you win more games if you had a Don Drysdale or a Bob Gibson eating the "extra" innings that are now handled by the 9th, 10th, and 11th best pitchers on your staff?

In today's baseball, many games are lost when a starter who is getting batters out is removed after 6 or 7 innings because he has reached a preordained pitch count, and the guy who relieves him is shelled. Every time you remove a starting pitcher who is pitching well for a relief pitcher who may or may not pitch well, you're courting disaster.

If you had a potential Drysdale or Gibson in your system, how would you know it if you insisted on pitch counts?

Another problem with pitch counts is that it reduces the number of pitching stars, and that's bad for fan interest in baseball. A 20-10 pitcher is going to be a bigger star than a 16-6 pitcher. How many pitching STARS are there today, and how does that compare to other eras? For pitching star power today, you've got Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, and Curt Schilling, all well over 30. That's just 5, and you've got 30 teams! How will young guys like Roy Oswalt or Barry Zito develop into stars? By being allowed to pitch innings!

I wonder what kinesiologist and former major league pitcher Mike Marshall has to say about pitch counts. He always insisted that pitchers, with the right approach, could handle more work, not less, and then he proved it with his own performance. I wish you had interviewed Marshall.

Your suggestion that the number of pitches per game has increased over the years is intriguing and has many ramifications. I'd like to see more research on this.

Well, I could go on and on, and already have, I'm afraid. But thanks for a probing article on this very significant (and in my opinion ill-advised) phenomenon.

Schwarz graciously wrote back: “I agree with you. I'd like to see pitchers carefully developed into guys with more stamina. You'll see my column in the new Baseball America talks about the four-man rotation. Hope you enjoy it. Thanks for your note.”

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WINS OR ERA?

Remember Ray Knight, the self-styled genius who managed the Reds for part of the 1990s? Knight imagined himself a brilliant tactician, a latter-day Gene Mauch. I heard him assert, in many interviews, “Managing is all about matchups.” One of Knight’s innovations was the 6-man pitching rotation, which, when you think about it, means that your 6 horses will work just once a week. To maximize his button-pushing opportunities, Knight also wanted to carry 7 relievers. The team tanked and Knight was canned after about a month of this, but it’s interesting to see that Knight’s ideas are finally starting to catch on. Tony LaRussa fiddled around with a 6-man ro a couple of years ago, and in September 2003 the managers of no fewer than 3 teams (Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee) promised that they will employ a 6-man ro exclusively in 2004. Detroit’s Alan Trammell said he might go with a 7-man ro!

Thus proceeds the modern practice of taking innings away from your best pitchers to give to your worst pitchers. And I’m still waiting to see the evidence that pitch counts prevent sore arms.

Some managers find a way to make current practices work for them, though. The 2003 Kansas City Royals employed no fewer than nine pitchers who registered ERAs higher than 7. (For the record, they were Ryan Bukvich, Rick DeHart, Chris George, Jason Gilfillan, Graeme Lloyd, Albie Lopez, Scott Mullen, Brad Voyles, and Les Walrond.)

Manager Tony Pena left these nine guys out there for a staggering total of 203 innings, in which they surrendered 301 hits, 119 walks, and 194 earned runs. Their collective ERA was 8.60, and yet their collective won-lost record was 16-16, a .500 percentage only slightly worse than the team’s overall .512 (83-79).

Lesson Number One: Tony Pena, crazy like a fox, was voted Manager of the Year for a reason.

Lesson Number Two: You can have the ERA guy. I’ll take the guy who wins the game.

I saw this headline in the December 24, 2003 issue of the USA Today Sports Weekly: “While (pitchers’) wins depend on offense, ERA is key.” I couldn’t agree less.

The foremost champion of the “ERA-Is-Key” movement is analyst Rob Neyer. On December 11 Neyer wrote about Houston’s signing of free agent Andy Pettitte:

“How will Andy Pettitte fare in Houston? He'll presumably enjoy his family life there, but his baseball life is going to suffer. His (relative) run support will suffer, because while the Astros have a good offense, the Yankees had a great one (they led the AL in road scoring in 2003)…

“And frankly, Pettitte's not a great pitcher. He was great in 1997 and excellent in 2002 (when he wasn't on the disabled list), but most years he's been merely good. Everyone seems to think the Astros are getting a No. 1 starter, but the reality is that Pettitte is the team's third-best starter, behind Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller.

“Why do people think he's a No. 1 starter? Because Pettitte's spent his entire career pitching for the best baseball team in the world, which has meant 1) great run support, and 2) plenty of TV time in October.

“We've come a long way, babies. But we still sometimes forget that when a pitcher has a good-but-not-great career ERA and a .656 career winning percentage, he probably had a lot of help along the way. The Astros are going to remember, but it's going to be a costly and painful memory.”

Sorry, Rob, but I say that a pitcher with a .656 winning percentage despite a relatively high ERA knows what it takes to win, and you can’t attribute his good record simply to “luck” or “help.” That Pettitte spent his entire career pitching for the best baseball team in the world was not simply a matter of luck. Rather, Pettitte’s pitching is what helped make them the best baseball team in the world!

The notion that the way pitchers pitch depends to a large extent on game situations is the basis for my “Prime Start” concept (explained elsewhere).

A few weeks later Neyer wrote:

“There are still, I suppose, a few Neanderthals who think that run support is due to something other than blind luck. What’s really amusing – and I can document this – is that when a great pitcher gets good run support, it’s attributed to his teammates being relaxed, and when a great pitcher gets lousy run support, it’s attributed to his teammates being too relaxed…

“It’s all bunk, of course. A pitcher’s record depends primarily on how well he pitches, and secondarily on how well his teammates hit. And how well they hit doesn’t have anything to do with how well he pitches.”

Neyer had me until the last sentence. Run support depends on blind luck: I agree. A pitcher’s record depends primarily on how well he pitches, and secondarily on how well his teammates hit: I’ll go along with that too. But how well a pitcher’s teammates hit has A WHOLE LOT to do with how “well” he pitches, if you measure “well,” as Neyer does, by earned run average. If the score is 1-1 a pitcher is going to pitch differently than he will if the score is 10-1. When you have a lot of runs to work with, you don’t have to be as careful or as fine. You can take a little off with the sure knowledge that if you surrender a few runs, they won’t affect the outcome of the game, only your ERA.

What do you think a pitcher would rather do, lead the league in wins or lead the league in ERA.? In team sports the primary goal is always to win.

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ONE SIMPLE RULE CHANGE

One simple rule change would improve the aesthetics of the contemporary game immeasurably. Here’s my proposition: prohibit any pitching changes while an inning is in progress, except in the case of injury.

Are there any fans who enjoy watching the endless parade of relief pitchers in the late innings? These rituals are pointless, as they impart no discernible competitive advantage, and they slow a game intolerably at precisely the point when it should be most interesting. Believe me, this is the reason fans start leaving the ballpark in the seventh inning of even tie games. At what should be crunch time, they’re bored!

Does this rule change sound impossibly radical? Most rulebook modifications have been a response to an imbalance in the game, and some have been a lot more revolutionary than this. It was radical in 1893 to move the pitching distance from 50 feet to 60, in 1901 to declare a foul ball a strike, in 1969 to lower the pitcher’s mound from 15 to 10 inches, in 1973 to allow a substitute batter for the pitcher.

Baseball already regulates the number of times a manager may visit the mound in an inning. Why? In the interest of keeping the game moving.

If my rule were enacted, no players would lose their jobs, and there would be no net effect on offense or defense. But baseball would become a snappier, more suspenseful game that would be more fun for a fan to watch. Think about it!

Few people realize it, but any substitution for reasons other than injury was illegal in baseball until the 1889 season. That's fairly late in the evolution of the game. An honor system prevailed until then.

My rule would prohibit only substitutions while an inning is in progress. An exception would be made for an injured player. I think it would be workable on an honor system. The umpire crew chief would accept the manager's declaration that the player was injured. This would be monitored by the commissioner's office. Abuses would be pretty obvious, I think, and result in hefty fines. Maybe the injury-removed player would have to be placed on the disabled list.

Managers would learn not to allow his pitcher to start an inning if he seemed too fatigued to finish it.

This rule has never been suggested in print, perhaps because it's a castle-in-the-air proposition that has no chance of being adopted. But it would improve the watchability of a game immensely.

Baseball remains unique, of course, in that a player who is substituted for may not return to the game.

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MIKE BERHEIDE’S REBUTTAL

“I very much agree with you that pitchers are substituted for far too often -- and it's clear that it slows down the game. (My deepest problem is that I don't mind slow games -- hell, I'm a cricket fan! I like to spend hours at the ballpark even when there's nothing going on, though I admit that that is weird.)

“But while I don't have a problem with rule changes to recover “balance,” it's hard for me to take away such a powerful managerial weapon merely to speed up the game. But again, I wouldn't mind a six-hour game, though I'd be the only one left in the seats, I'm afraid.

“I also disagree with your other respondent's suggestion that we simply keep the batter in the box. No matter how slow the game was, I never found there was enough time between pitches to do everything I wanted to do as a coach. Having the batter step out allowed me (on offense) to make a lot of strategic decisions, and if the opponent did it, it really helped me positioning defenses and calling plays and pitches. And as a batter, I will stay in the box only if you also require the pitcher to keep his foot on the rubber! He gets to upset my timing, I get to upset his. Fair's fair!

“Nevertheless, your idea has merit. There is already too much specialization in baseball, and when managers sub pitchers for one batter, it just drives me crazy. Not because of the delay, but because a pitcher should be a pitcher.

“Which brings up another point: is there any reason to single out pitchers in all of this? What if we just limited a team to, say, five substitutions a game, period? That might be interesting.”

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A MATTER OF PACE

I'm not sure when unlimited substitution was first allowed. Starting in 1889, managers were permitted one non-injury substitution per game. This was expanded to two in 1890. In the Players League, such substitutions were not permitted while an inning was in progress. That’s similar to what I proposed. Unlimited substitution was legalized sometime during the 1890s, perhaps as early as 1891.

Limiting substitutions (all positions) to five, as you suggested, or another number, has precedent and is a good idea.

I disagree that a different pitcher for every batter in the late innings is, as you characterize it, a “powerful managerial weapon.” It is not powerful, but only perceived to be powerful. Bill James' research has shown that in today's game, leads are protected no more or less frequently than they were 40 years ago, long before the present vogue for multiple relief pitchers in the late innings of every game. It doesn't take many games to observe that there are many, many ineffective relievers on current rosters of every team, guys better suited to Triple-A at best.

Personally, I get frustrated with a slow-paced game. I don't want baseball to be like hockey, but neither can I stand the sight of guys endlessly standing around. I hated it when I played, too.

I went to a couple of fourth-grader games this spring. Most plate appearances resulted in walks, and when the ball was hit it seldom flew over the infield. The outfielders looked bored to tears. I'm sure they would rather have been playing soccer, where everyone is running all the time. Standing around, that's not my idea of athletics.

There is no reason why a 9-inning game between professional players needs to last longer than 2 hours. I long for those decades when a 2-hour game was the norm and a 3-hour game unheard of. Baseball is best when it moves right along, when it is played at a snappy pace. At 2 hours a game is still leisurely enough for me, because there are still plenty of pauses.

As for cricket, I have had the pleasure in my life of residing in two cricket-playing nations, in which I attended several matches. Cricket makes baseball look like Nascar. For cricketeers, standing around is an art form. For this spectator, cricket is about as exciting as standing in a field and watching corn turn yellow.

When in Xaghra, stay at the Cornucopia Hotel.

January 2004

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