You hear this all the time in sports, and you hear it because it's true. Athletes are so much better today than they were years ago. No matter what the sport, they focus on it year-round. They come into camp in shape. They eat right, they exercise. They are bigger, stronger, and faster. So if that's the case, why can't a starting pitcher go more than five or six innings?
One hundred pitches. That seems to be the benchmark these days. I'm still waiting for it to happen, but no one's arm has fallen off on the 101st pitch yet, or the 110th or the 120th. The Los Angeles Dodgers have lost four straight games, and in all of them, the starter pitched well, and then the bullpen blew it. But this is not a Dodger thing, this is a baseball thing.
We'll begin with the Dodgers, though, because they illustrate the point. Closer Kenley Jansen was just diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, and his immediate future is uncertain. With no dominant ninth inning guy, manager Dave Roberts is going with a 'closer by committee'. The best matchup for the end of the game. How's that working out? Four nights, four losses.
Friday wasn't Kenta Maeda's best outing, but he left the game in the sixth with a 4-3 lead. The Dodgers lost 5-4. Saturday, rookie Walker Buehler pitched seven shutout innings and left with a 2-0 lead. The Dodgers lost 3-2. Sunday, Rich Hill went six innings, and the Dodgers were trailing 3-2 when he made his exit. LA would tie it 3-3 in the eighth, but lose 4-3 in the ninth, which brings us to tonight.
Dodgers. Giants. Dodger Stadium. Clayton Kershaw vs. Madison Bumgarner. A classic matchup that even sportswriters and broadcasters would pay to see. On this night, Kershaw had the upper hand, Bumgarner would go six innings, Kershaw eight, and the Dodgers led 2-1 going to the ninth.
In that eighth inning, and what would be Kershaw's last, he struck out the first two batters he faced. Scott Alexander was warming up in the bullpen. Hunter Pence then came up as a pinch-hitter, and hit Kershaw's 110th pitch of the night about 30 feet in front of home plate up the third base line. Kershaw pounced off the mound, and threw out Pence at first. No sign of his arm falling off.
In the ninth, Alexander would get an out, then back-to-back singles, a second out on a force play, and a hit batter to load the bases. Still one out away from a 2-1 win, but with no indication that lead would hold up, Alexander surrenders base hits to Nick Hundley and Gorkys Hernandez, and the Giants would go on to win 5-2. Kershaw's effort is wasted, but as far as we know, his arm still hasn't fallen off.
Again, this is not just a Dodger thing. Sunday's ESPN game was epic. Max Scherzer and the Washington Nationals led Cole Hamels' Chicago Cubs 1-0 after 7 innings, but neither startet went out for the eighth. Still 1-0, the Nats scored two runs in the top of the ninth, only to see rookie David Bote of the Cubs hit a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth, and a Cubbies 4-3 victory.
Just to add to it, the Nationals bullpen blew it again tonight in St. Louis. The A's beat Seattle, but had a 7-1 lead and hung on to win 7-6. Jacob deGrom of the Mets has a 1.81 earned run average on the season, but only seven wins. Yeah, his team is bad, but he would have more wins if they let him stay in the game longer. This is a problem and it needs to be fixed.
Team presidents and general managers are constantly trying to build bullpens. They not only want closers, but eighth inning guys, seventh inning guys, the lefty specialist who can still go two innings if needed. What those executives should be focusing on, is building arm strength.
Pitchers have always been babied in baseball. In the 1970s, relievers were often ushered onto the field by car. They would put a warmup jacket on when they ran the bases. That seems silly now, but the good ones also threw 300 innings a season, and were expected to finish what they started.
Pitchers do get hurt, and it's that fear of injury that has GMs do what they do. Of course, guys are getting tens of millions of dollars a year now, and executives are trying to protect their investment, but it's going way beyond that. College coaches baby their pitchers so they might get drafted. College coaches baby their pitchers so they can get into a good college. When you think about it that way, it makes sense, which is why this way of thinking continues. However, there's no evidence or data that suggests that pitchers throwing fewer innings is leading to fewer injuries.
The common allegory now is that human beings weren't meant to throw a baseball. The overhand motion isn't natural, and if you do it long enough, the inevitable will happen, and you will get hurt. Announcers from each of the different teams and networks seem to be re-telling that tale multiple times, even though there is still no record of anyone's arm ever falling off during a major league game, or after. If pitchers are going to make all these millions, and owners have all these billions, can't they invest in technology, and develop a training method that builds up arm strength, and makes careers last longer?
Nolan Ryan pitched 27 years in the majors, and holds the all-time strikeout record of 5714. He was 46 years old when he retired. A few years ago, he became part-owner and executive with the Texas Rangers, and vowed to change the pitching culture. Sure, there's only one Nolan Ryan, but you would think that big league clubs would listen. So what happened? The other owners bought him out and ran him out of town (other office politics played a role, too, I suppose)!
You may still see Ryan now and again in those Advil commercials, and while he may need the occasional relief from aches and pains, he threw 200 or more pitches several times in his career, and his arm still hasn't fallen off.
Tease or juggernaut?: If you didn't believe in the Oakland A's this season, it's about time you should. With their win over Seattle tonight, the Athletics are currently a playoff team, 2˝ games ahead of the M's for the second wild card spot. They also are only 3˝ games behind the Yankees for the first wild card, and just 2 games behind Houston in the American League West. At the All-Star break just a couple of weeks ago, the A's were 8 behind the Astros, and 3 behind the Mariners, prompting ESPN's Michael Wilbon to call Oakland a “tease”, and said they do this every year, and then fall apart.
Turning up the Heat: For the second time in the collegiate wood-bat league's three seasons, the Chico Heat are champions of the Great West League. Thursday, they defeated the Linoln Potters 8-7 to sweep the best-of-three series. While Chico didn't win the league last year, they got to the championship series, and have been there all three times in the league's three years.
Good night and good luck: ESPN's Monday Night Baseball telecast this evening was a makeup game between the Mets and Yankees, after a postponement a week ago that was supposed to be the network's Sunday night game. The surprise of the night, though, was who was in the booth. Keith Olbermann did the play-by-play, and while he introduced himself as “your fill-in announcer”, he didn't elaborate and you didn't really know if he was kidding. As pompous and pedantic as Olbermann can be, and often is, he is quite a baseball fan and his knowledge is quite extensive. He was also in the booth with Tim Kurkjian and Eduardo Perez—both of whom bring a lot to a broadcast. It was entertaining even though I only watched for a couple of innings.