A couple of decades ago, when the analytic crowd was just getting started reinventing baseball – which, by the way, did not need their help — the great Johnny Sain became a little annoyed at the innovation of pitch counts and inning counts.
“Do you have a Baseball Encyclopedia?’’ he asked.
Assured that I did, he suggested looking at his statistics and those of his pitching partner, Warren Spahn with the old Boston Braves. So I did and the numbers were astounding, especially when compared to the new, improved approach to complete games. Sain had 140 complete games in 11 years. Spahn had 382 in 21 years. Compare that to the active leaders in complete games, C.C. Sabathia with 38, two ahead of Bartolo Colon. And, like Spahn and Sain, both of them have been pitching forever.
The difference is nobody counted pitches or innings when Spahn and Sain were pitching. Now, when a hurler approaches 100 pitches or six innings, alarms go off his team’s bullpen. This leads to a parade of relief pitchers – seventh inning specialist, eighth inning specialist and closer. And if a game goes extra innings, the parade becomes a death march for pitching staffs. Relief pitchers are usually limited to one inning. Multiple innings results in multiple pitchers. This was not always the case but it is that way today.
We are told that modern athletes are bigger, stronger and better conditioned than the ones that came before them. And that’s probably true. So how come pitchers who are bigger, stronger and better conditioned have to be limited in their workload, protected like pieces of fine china? And how come, with all that protection, they invariably wind up with injuries, sometime simple strains, sometimes more complicated Tommy John surgery?
It may have to do with pitchers trying to do too much too soon. Young arms need time to mature and their owners don’t always permit them to do that, either in Little League or high school. Extending a young pitcher beyond sensible limits often results in breakdowns later.
So baseball tries to compensate by limiting pitchers’ work. No major league pitcher has thrown more than 250 innings in a season since Roy Halladay and Justin Verlander both reached that plateau in 2010. The last time a pitcher reached 300 innings was 1980 when Steve Carlton threw 304. Spahn, in particular, would laugh at those numbers. From 1947 through 1964, he never threw less than 257 innings in a season and led the league in complete games nine times over that stretch.
Perhaps Spahn’s signature complete game came in a memorable duel with Juan Marichal on July 2, 1963, a 16-inning affair decided by a Willie Mays home run. Spahn threw 201 pitches and Marichal threw 227 that day. There were no relief pitchers in that game’s box score.
That kind of game was routine in baseball’s Deadball Era. Ed Reulbach of the old Chicago Cubs once pitched both ends of a doubleheader in Brooklyn and threw a pair of shutouts. Then there was Joe McGinnity of the New York Giants who threw 434 innings in 1903 and 408 the next year. He was called Iron Man, not because of how much he pitched, but because he worked in an iron foundry in the off season.
The theory in that era was that the more you threw, the stronger your arm would be. Today the opposite theory rules and no one is quite sure which approach works best.
There was no argument about this when Jack Taylor pitched around the turn of the 19th century for the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals. Taylor started 286 games in his career and completed 278 of them including 186 in a row. He threw over 300 innings in a season six times but never led the league in innings pitched and only once in complete games.
What do you think would Johnny Sain have said about him?