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Sunday, November 02, 2003

PANSIES and PITCH COUNTS 

Now that the free agent season in baseball has begun, the first item on the sport's agenda that deserves to be ignored, besides Manny Ramirez's waiver from the BoSox, is the ridiculous degree of attention paid to the pitch count. Listening to the playoffs and World Series, the attention focused on this statistic makes you believe that the guy on the mound has an arm made of meringue and the stamina of an eighty-five year old emphesyma victim. You have to wonder if these guys are professional athletes or hemophiliacs one paper cut away from mortality.

According to the kind folks at the Baseball Hall of Fame, no one knows when tracking pitches became the key determinent to yanking a pitcher. The following day's starter has always charted pitches for his teammate, but the now dominant reliance on a pitch count is fairly new. When I asked the HOF about pitch counts from complete game closers like Drysdale and Gibson, they suggested I find a scout that may have tracked the pitches or that I find old broadcast tapes and tally them myself. Yeah, sure. Scouts from the 60's & early 70's are worm food and the tapes from that era are as rare as grammatically correct pronouncements from the Oval Office.

It's no coincidence that the pitch count and multi-million dollar contracts have acheived a parallel arc in importance to the game. A starting pitcher is pure gold in today's game and his salary reflects that. A pitcher making $10 million per year is expected to be a cash cow for both his team and more importantly, his agent. With guaranteed contracts in place, both the owners and the agents have a financial interest in seeing that their golden goose lays eggs for as long as possible. The player's union backs this idea to the hilt and makes certain that its members aren't susceptible to the inhuman working conditions their predecessors had to endure.

Yet, performance and longevity based on a reduced workload has hardly increased in the age of pampering. Bob Gibson threw three complete games, the last one on two days rest, in the 1967 series. He won all three and had an ERA of 1.00 for the series. It's safe to say he threw far more than 100 pitches in each of those games. Yet, he went on to have a legendary 1968 season posting a 1.12 ERA and winning the Cy Young.

Instead, today's pitchers are "doing their job" if they get throught the 7th inning and are instantly canonized if they manage to toss a complete game in the regular season. Announcers hail their grit, determination and competative spirit as if they had just run the Boston Marathon wearing ankle weights and with a divorce lawyer strapped to their back. Conjecture instantly begins as to whether the hurler will have 'anything left' for his next start, some 5 days later. Gibson, Drysdale et al pitched in 4 man rotations with 4 days rest, sometimes going on three days when there was a scheduled double-header.

Has anyone considered that more, not less, work for pitchers might be a better prescription for success? Could it be that more work actually strengthens arms and legs? Of course not, because that would interfere with the agent's ability to negotiate contracts and bonuses based on the least amount of effort from his client.

If baseball wants to be taken seriously, that is on par with a NFL season (and pre-season) that is always one play from ending a player's career, or an NBA season that requires running full speed banging into opponents without pads and doing so for 40 minutes, it should stop being a showcase for the delicate multi-millionaire with the dazzling curve-ball who works a French like 35 hour work week.

Fans of the game don't work jobs where the average workload has declined by 33% and the pay scale has increased by 2000% over a 20 year period. Why pay to see anyone who does?





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