Watered Down Baseball: What Happened to My Game?

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Watered Down Baseball: What Happened to My Game?

On May 1, 1920, the Major Leagues would witness the longest game in the history of the sport. The Brooklyn Robins battled the Boston Braves in a game that would eventually end in a 1-1 tie, due to the fact that it was getting dark out, and stadiums were not built with lights at the time.

The two starting pitchers are names that are not really recognizable now, and they are Leon Cadore and Joe Oeschger. The amount of innings to be played that night fell just short of the equivalent of three games, at twenty-six innings. What is even more remarkable is that both starting pitchers finished the game. That’s right! Twenty-six innings pitched by each one of them, and surely they did it proudly, trying to earn their team a win.

Nowadays in baseball, if a pitcher goes six innings we give him a medal, but back then, pitchers were actually expected to finish the game that they started.

This is a feat known as pitching a complete game, a stat that is a rarity today, except for the likes of Roy Halladay, who was probably born in the wrong time frame. People make such a big deal about him because he eats up innings and has led the majors in complete games year after year. But had he played even just thirty years ago, baseball fans and analysts would be saying, “So what?”

This is not a knock on Halladay, more like the highest of compliments. It is truly a shame that this sport does not have more of him. But the fact of the matter is, this league we all love and watch now is watered down baseball, ruined by the owners and general managers by dolling out huge sums of cash to the players, and ruined by the managers for not playing real baseball.

What do we consider a solid season by a starting pitcher in present time? Maybe two hundred innings and ten to fifteen wins. If any pitcher consistently puts up those numbers, they will earn a major contract, be on the all-star team, and be looked at as a top pitcher. But fifty years ago and beyond, those stats were nothing major.

A pitcher today is considered a freak if he goes above and beyond those numbers. So what’s wrong with this situation is that we award them for doing something that was considered normal in the early days of baseball.

Let’s take a look at Christy Mathewson, one of the first inductees into the Baseball Hall-of-Fame. In the 1908 season, he threw thirty-four complete games, while amassing 390.2 innings, all while winning thirty-seven games. Quite remarkable, don’t you think?

Want to know what is even more shocking than that? His arm did not fall of during the season. And Mathewson was not alone; in 1903 he set his career high with thirty-seven complete games and was not even the league leader.

That is the major problem: managers being too protective of their pitchers. Today if a pitcher goes six innings, we pat him on the back saying he did the best he could, and then the men in charge of baseball had to worsen the matter by awarding him a stat; that ridiculous piece of new-age garbage known as the “quality start”.

A quality start is categorized as if a player pitches six or more innings and gives up three runs or less (which makes the ERA 4.50, not a great number in itself), he is awarded that. So now already the pitcher has in my mind that once he gets to the sixth, he can come out of the game. Fifty years ago if a pitcher wanted to come out that early in the game, either he had to be dying or his wife was giving birth.

But this problem did not just evolve on its own, in fact, it all started when closers became a mainstay in baseball.

Saves had always been a stat, but they were rarely used because teams really did not have much of a bullpen back then. As a manager you had your five starters (sometimes teams opted to go with only a four man rotation) and maybe two or three pitchers to have in case of emergency. If those relievers were not available, then you just used a starter to come in and finish the game.

Take a look at pitching stats from the early days of baseball. You will see that most pitchers have saves, but none hardly ever have more than ten. That is because these pitchers were workhorses, and saves were meaningless to them. Getting back to Mathewson, in 1908, he started forty-four games as the team’s ace. But he would also make twelve relief appearances and earn five saves.

Most likely those saves were the kind earned when one pitches the final three innings of a game and the team wins, a situation hardly seen in baseball today.

The Oakland Athletics are really the team to blame, as they started the whole movement of a pitcher pitching solely to close out the game, and that is where the term closer came from. It all started with Rollie Fingers and then Dennis Eckersely, and by the time the latter replaced the former, a league wide hysteria had caught on.

All of a sudden managers realized that they did not need their starters pitching every inning. Originally it was not that bad. Closers were there to pitch two, maybe three innings. But then managers got another idea into their heads; the set-up man.

If one situational reliever was not enough, they now had one for the eighth inning, and some even had another one for the seventh. Shortly, “lefty specialists” would become a mainstay in every bullpen, in addition to the above lunacy.

Closers were not all that bad, and in fact, I was fine with them until a few years ago when I realized just how over-hyped they are. Just listen to what people say:

“Not just anyone can be a closer.”

“It takes a special pitcher to close out a game.”

“You need to have a certain mindset to work the ninth inning.”

It has gotten so bad in recent years that closers have started to believe them. They have to have a special song when they run on the field, grow crazy facial hair to be intimidating, and come up with some manipulated version of the sign of the cross to jump around and do upon getting the final out.

When people argue that it takes a special person to be a closer, what about all the “star” closers that get injured every season and some journeyman nobody comes in and pitches lights out?

Take Dustin Hermanson for example, a middle of the pack starter and a below average reliever. After he left San Francisco in 2004 to join the Chicago White Sox, this sub par pitcher became the team’s closer and was lights out, saving thirty-seven games with an ERA of 2.04. The next season? He appeared in six games before being demoted to the minors, where he has never returned from.

Then there is Ryan Franklin, who bounced from the majors to the minors for his entire career, and last season becomes the most feared closer in the game. He even had to grow a crazy goatee to try to scare people. And what happened when the playoffs rolled around? How elite was he then?

The final example of this counter argument saying that anybody can close comes with David Aardsma of the Seattle Mariners. This was a player who played on four different teams in four years, and a guy who could not hit a cow if he was standing on the milking stool. Yet last season, he saves thirty-eight games and this season he finds himself owned by 86% of all fantasy baseball managers.

All of this hype for one inning wonders, and they only pitch one inning because they want to come into the ninth with a nice fresh, clean slate to pitch on. All this build up of closers only being able to pitch one inning has made them mentally unstable to come in during the eighth inning. How many times do we see elite closers come in early with men on base, only two allow them all to score before getting the outs?

And why does a save only have to come in the ninth inning? Tell me, what is more valuable; a closer coming in with nobody on base in the ninth inning and getting three outs, or a reliever coming into the seventh inning with the bases loaded and getting the outs he needed?

Why can’t the save be awarded to the pitcher who actually “saves” the game? It could be a discretionary stat, decided by the official league scorers. But then again, that would not be fair to the closer, because he is getting paid the big bucks to pitch his one, glorious inning.

So now the middle relief pitchers got upset, and Major League Baseball had to instill the biggest travesty this sport has ever seen, with a little stat known as the “hold”.

According to this fantastic stat, if a pitcher enters the game with a lead and exits with the lead, he is awarded the stat. These are two scenarios that can lead to a hold. Please tell me what is wrong with them:

1. Pitcher A enters the game with a 10-0 lead and retires three batters. His team wins the game and he is awarded a hold.

2. Pitcher B enters the game with a 10-0 lead and gives up nine runs. His team holds on for the win and is awarded a hold.

How on earth can baseball award a pitcher for a poor performance? It is because everything has to be individualized, and everyone must have a stat. There have been instances where a pitcher has come into a game, walked a batter, and left being awarded a hold. A pitcher not even recording an out and getting a positive stat?

Managers are even losing games or putting them at risk because of over-reliance on their bullpen. Take yesterday afternoon, for example. The Athletics were leading the Giants 1-0 after eight innings. Gio Gonzales had pitched all eight innings, allowing only two hits and one walk. He only had ninety-five pitches, but was lifted in favor of closer Andrew Bailey, who in his one inning would throw thirty pitches and allow two baserunners.

Although the A’s still won the game, how come Gonzales could not finish it out? Was it because he was approaching 100 pitches?

This is the new thing now, pitch counts. When I first started watching baseball in the late 90′s, I don’t remember them being mentioned. Now the hysteria has even gotten so bad as the YES Network now has a pitch count display on the main scoreboard, so that every second in the game you know where your pitcher is.

I don’t see this as counting up pitches, I see it as counting down to how much longer a pitcher has left to go. At the hundred pitch mark, apparently, a pitcher’s arm will just fall off. It is taboo to allow someone to throw much more than than that. Why, I ask? Why?

Take the New York Yankees and last season’s embarrassing treatment of Joba Chamberlain.

Starter, reliever, starter, reliever.

It got so bad that it seemed like almost every month they were changing him around. Then it got worse and they created the “Joba Rules”, which monitored his pitch counts and innings totals. Eighty pitches, and he was done. Getting close to the innings limit? Skip his starts every few weeks and only allow him go four when he does. (Thank God for bullpens!)

Chamberlain is now the set-up man for Mariano Rivera, the spot he should have been in all along. But it is safe to say that the Yankees ruined what was their most promising pitching prospect since perhaps Mariano himself.

Not only that, but he was built like a brick you-know-what. At 6-2, 230 pounds, Chamberlain was not some frail little stick. Let him pitch, or will his arm just fall off? Why couldn’t they let him mirror Tim Lincecum who is big enough to be confused with the bat boy? All he has been able to do in two seasons pitching without a leash is win two Cy Young awards.

He came up from the minors gunning it at 99-101 MPH. How he is lucky if his hardest fluctuates between 94-96. He struggled as a starter last season, and he is struggling now, with an ERA of 4.50. (But that’s okay, cause he has nine holds)

So I ask, what happened to this great game? Starters no longer pitch to help the team win, but they pitch to earn wins themselves. Closers do not pitch to seal the win for their team, they pitch to earn a save. And now relievers do not pitch to help out the team, but to get a hold.

All of this individualized, and all of it for the stats. There is no longer any winning for the team, just winning for personal stats. It will only get worse, and in years to come I wonder how many more will be invented so we can give another mediocre pitcher his own stat.

The way this game has dipped in recent years is embarrassing. What happened to durability in players? In the 1900′s when players were overweight chunks of fat whose only off-season exercise consisted of raising a beer glass to their mouths, they never got injured. Now players have personal trainers and a staff of team doctors and there are more injuries now than ever before. This really is cause for another article, but it adds to how watered down this sport has become.

Give me back the real baseball players we once had.

Give me back my game.

Please visit my blog, "From New York to San Francisco" .

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