Wednesday, July 02, 2008

How they used to play the game -- or at least pitch it.

Forty-five years ago today in the world of baseball, Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants and Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves both "went the distance" and then some, pitching an epic 0-0 game into the 16th inning.

“I begged [Giants' manager] Mr. Dark to let me stay a few more innings, and he did,” Marichal said ... “In the 12th or 13th, he wanted to take me out, and I said, ‘Please, please, let me stay.’ Then in the 14th, he said, ‘No more for you,’ and I said, ‘Do you see that man on the mound?’ and I was pointing at Warren. ‘That man is 42, and I’m 25. I’m not ready for you to take me out.' ”Marichal said his catcher, Ed Bailey, was telling him: “Don’t let him take you out. Win or lose, this is great.” [NY Times]
Willie Mays won the game for the Giants and Marichal, 1-0, with a home run to left field hit off Spahn with one out in the bottom of the 16th. Marichal and Spahn today are both in the Hall of Fame (as is Mays, of course). Their pitching lines...

Marichal: 16 innings, 8 hits, 0 runs, 4 walks and 10 strikeouts. Spahn: 15 1/3 innings, 9 hits, 1 run, 1 walk and 2 strikeouts.

And this wasn't the only game like this for either of them. Spahn had lost two prior 16-inning performances, one against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951, and another in 1952 against the Cubs (after striking out 18 and hitting a home run for his own cause). Marichal would go on to pitch a 14-inning 1-0 win against the Phillies and a 14-inning 1-0 loss to the Mets.

That's surely all a far cry from today's world of scientific baseball where starting pitchers are held to rigorous pitch counts, rarely throwing more than six or seven innings to protect the teams' huge investment in them, to be followed in the game by a sequence of specialized relief pitchers.
“Pitchers of the generations up until Marichal had a belief that ‘this game is mine,’” said Steve Hirdt, executive vice president of the Elias Sports Bureau. He added, “The idea of doing permanent harm to a pitcher’s arm didn’t come into anyone’s mind.”
Last season the most innings thrown by pitcher in the major leagues was 241, and the most complete games was six.

Marichal threw more than 241 innings nine times in a 16-year career, and averaged 15 complete games per season. Spahn threw more than 241 innings 17 years in a row, and over that stretch averaged more than 21 complete games per season -- all without any apparent harm to his arm, considering his ability to throw 15 1/3 shutout innings at the age of 42.

But with starters now throwing only every fifth game, for maybe six innings, and the "specialists" claiming ever more of the action, the game is "theirs" no more.

This year, when the Yankees moved their great young hope of the moment Joba Chamberlain from the bullpen to the starting rotation, for the first time in my life I heard the fans and sportswriters protest the move from reliever to starter as a demotion to a lesser job.

... why general manager Brian Cashman would succumb to Hank Steinbrenner’s wishes on the questionable Joba strategy makes me scratch my chin. Here you’ve got a lights-out reliever, an outstanding successor to Rivera in a year or two, probably guaranteeing that the Yanks will have the sport’s most dominant closer for two decades, and suddenly that late-inning weapon is wiped out. As a Sox partisan, I love the move, but it still doesn’t make much sense... [NY Press]
"It doesn't make much sense" that a promising specialist relief pitcher throwing maybe one inning in two out of every three games should be reduced to being a starter.

Such is the march of science, money, and specialization through sports.