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About a month ago, I posted this article on my Brewers blog in response to a reader who suggested that a 6-man rotation is on the rise because of the endless trend of injury plagued pitching staffs. The article has been modified some because of the conversations I've had since then.
Baseball is changing constantly, and it's quite fascinating to compare players from the 70's to those of the new millennium. Yes, homerun numbers have sky rocketed throughout the league, but the most glaring stats fall heavily on pitchers. ERAs are about the same, but innings pitched and games played have changed so much over the years, but not in the way you would expect.
Just to get a gauge of how insanely different pitchers of this era are to the old days, at the age of 22, Babe Ruth pitched 326.3 innings (Mickey Lolich of the Detroit Tigers pitched 376 innings in 1971 for the Tigers, the most I've found so far) for a damn good Boston team, starting 41 games, winning 24 of them and amassing a healthy 2.01 ERA. The scare thought though is of all those the starts Babe finished 35 of them. Yes, COMPLETE games. And even though the Babe stopped pitching two years later, the idea is just mind boggling. In 2007, Dontrelle Willis started the most games of any one with 35, and Roy Halladay pitched the most complete games with 7. The next guy beyond him had 4. Are these guys weak, or has the game itself changed?
Well, a little bit of both in my book. Guys throw harder now, and they throw a lot more junk, but the counter argument is that we know a lot more about physiology now. Guys know how to recuperate faster and have state of the art equipment to accelerate the healing process, rather then just beer, cigarettes and the ice you kept the beer in. But there's one really big counter argument, and his name is Nolan Ryan. Hey! He's a Hall of Famer! You can't use him. Don't worry, he's not the only one.
Nolan Ryan had a 27 year career in the bigs, carrying a sub 4.00 ERA in every single year, but one, which was his last. All in all, he pitched in 5,386 innings, appearing in 807 games, throwing 222 complete games and 61 shutouts. Everybody knows Ryan throws straight gas, and you can't deny that. People can call him an anomaly if they want, but Ryan pitched for over 270 innings five times in his career, and over 300 twice, however, he still managed a 27 year career with very few injuries scattered about as age and the innings increased. The argument for innings limitations starts to get clearer for Ryan around 1973-1975. In '73 and '74, Nolan Ryan pitched 326 and 332 2/3 innings respectively, only to follow with 198 innings in 1975. I can't say for sure why, but Ryan only pitched in 28 games, so injury was clearly the problem. This would have given Ryan an 8 year career, though he followed these years up with 299, 234 and 222, and was still extremely productive.
But like you said, Ryan was a HOFer, so how about a non-HOFer, say Mickey Lolich of Detroit Tiger's lore? Lolich was a pitcher for the Tigers from 1963-1975, followed by three short seasons with the San Diego Padres and New York Mets. Baseball-reference.com describes Mickey as having a top-notch fastball, which made him the top left-handed strikeout pitcher ever. With that in mind, Mickey piched 3,638 innings in just 16 years. He pitched more than 300 innings four times, all back to back, and even followed that up with a 240 inning season. Ultimately, he pitched 195 complete games, with 41 shutouts, and yet is not in the HOF.
After looking at these two players and a handful of others, which I have omitted here, I've realized that this game has turned more into a business than ever before. In years past, you can't help, but be convinced that these guys threw just as hard, played more games and perhaps in narrower time frames. Hell, Mickey Lolich pitched three complete games in the 1968 World Series and only gave up five runs. So something is different. Something must be very different to see what we see now.
If you go from season to season starting in 1970, you will see that pitchers of the 70's had a limit of 300-360 innings per year, but after 1980, not one pitcher surpassed the 300 inning mark. From 1980 to 1988, the max innings pitched was around the 280-295 mark and stayed there pretty consistently. In the 90's, it dropped to 265 innings. And today, you're looking at no more than 250 IP. In fact, only two pitchers have pitched for 270 innings in the last 18 years, those being Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson in 1991 and 1999. GMs are trying to protect their guys as much as possible from the injury bug, but it's almost as if these guys are getting more hurt now than the guys in the 1970's even though they pitch almost 100 innings less a year, or 200 if you're Ben Sheets, but I'm not bitter. While the talent pool has grown, so has the number of teams and the level of competition, so even the slightest drop off could result in big offensive innings.
I understand the concept of the 6-man rotation, but I beg the question, is the talent pool really good enough to have a 6-man rotation? Think about all the five starters out there right now. None of them are particularly exciting. Do you really want to see Jorge De La Rosa pitch just as often as Gil Meche? And does tapering the innings for starting pitchers even more effect their injury rate? The numbers really suggest no. The pitch limit for minor leaguers and growing men is understandable. You can seriously stunt their growth or cause abnormal growth, but grown men have the ability to prepare their body for anything. If man could pitch 300 innings in 1969 with no such thing as a hot tub in the clubhouse or an ultrasound in the training room or bikes just behind the dugout, why can't someone do it now? GMs and managers may just be protecting their investment and the future of their team, but I don't think it's impossible to see these guys learn how to handle the strain on their arms a little better.
A friend of mine said that every one is a max effort guy and everyone throws 90+ these days out of necessity. Well tell Jamie Moyer, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine that. These guys may have pitched better velocity years ago, but they're still effective pitchers in the league. I think I saw Carlos Villanueva hit the 91 mark four times on Friday during opening day and yet he when 5 scoreless to start. What do you think? Are pitchers whiners? Are GMs too scared? Are pitchers just weak willed? Hell, Pete Vuckovich pitched with a torn rotator cuff for half a season in 1982! Now a sprained pinkie finger keeps guys out?! Who's right? Who's wrong? I don't care, but I better not see a 6-man rotation hit the majors.