Harmon Notebook: On Coddling Pitchers, The Baseball God Hisself Not Happy With 100-pitch Counts
Maybe baseball’s “truths” are a lie.
Editor’s note: One of Dick Allen’s former managers once commented that a higher power would have had trouble dealing with the individual that was Philadelphia’s first African American ballplayer (The comment about Allen became a part of the title of the biography by Richard Nathanson, God Almighty Hisself: The Life and Legacy of Dick Allen). Neither individuals nor change have been very popular in sports as those in power exert authority in all areas… including pitch counts.
It’s also a shame that the teams he’s played for – the Pirates and Rays (yes, I know Tampa changed its name to appease the easily offended Florida evangelicals) – overused him to the degree they did. I mean he had thrown all of 1,018 innings over a 10-year stretch since starting out as an 18 year old kid in the minors in 2012. I mean, that’s over 100 innings a year!!!! They abused him!
And did you see how many complete games they made him pitch? Every single year, he registered exactly zero (0) complete games. I mean, talk about pushing him beyond his limits!
(Before you get turned around on this, I am using some sarcasm here, k?)
Now, I understand that Glasnow has said that he believes he was injured because he’d been forbidden from using the stickum that had been the key to his 4,856/second spin rate. And, I don’t intend this commentary to be viewed as a knock on him. I actually love watching him pitch and wish for his full recovery.
My point, however, is that injuries like Glasnow’s are far too frequent – the rate of Tommy John surgeries has been on the upswing for a decade now – and coincide with the “Era of Coddling.” Like baseball’s unwritten rules, there is also an unpublished Venn diagram that supposedly proves a relationship between pitch counts and arm surgeries.
All the worrying about protecting pitchers (because, as all the smart people say, teams have so many millions of dollars invested in them) by limiting them on pitch count and innings pitched, seems at odds with the pressure to have pitchers throw with maximum effort two times through a lineup.
Which is it? If you’re protecting them, why would you push them to exert maximum energy on every pitch to the point of arm breakage? If you were really protecting them, you would do all you could to develop arm strength and teach smart pitching that doesn’t require sixth gear MPH.
I am fully braced for the Bill James crowd to retort with its highbrow (I think I mean elitist here), analytic-driven pontification …
But: I now have in my possession evidence of Baseball’s Tragically Flawed Approach to Pitching (i.e., the Coddling and Pampering of Pitchers, otherwise known as the Slow Disintegration and Downfall of the Starting Pitcher).
To wit: Thursday’s ballgame between the best team in baseball, the San Francisco Giants, and the worst, the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Giants appeared to be headed toward having to settle for a split in their four-game series with the Diamondbacks, as Arizona starter Merrill Kelly turned in one of the most dominating performances the Giants have seen this year: Kelly was twirling a three-hit shutout after eight innings and had a 4-0 lead.
Kelly did nothing wrong to be taken out for the ninth. In fact, he finished the eighth with a flourish, striking out two and getting a weak popout.
Wait. He did make a mistake. He offended the baseball world by daring to go over the 100-pitch threshold. You know that messing with Social Security is called the third rail of politics, right? Well, going over the 100-pitch threshold is akin to touching that third rail. Or, opening up that nasty Pandora’s Box. Who knows what terrible pestilence and human horror might come from breaking that pitch line.
So, D-Back manager Torey Lovullo did only what all reasonable, analytically-bound managers do these days: they refuse to see what’s right in front of them: an artist with a palate filled with brilliant colors, using brush strokes on the corner of home plate to stymie an offense.
Now, even I might accept the conventional explanation of a manager wanting to just get those last three outs with a golden-armed reliever waiting to burst through that bullpen gate.
Alas, the Diamondbacks’ bullpen is so deprived of talent that they have turned to an aging ex-closer, Tyler Clippard, to be that guy. But, before getting to Clippard, Lovullo figured he had enough of a lead that he could put a guy in there who’d just returned from the injured list to get some work in to build up his arm so that he could one day get up to 15 pitches in one full inning of relief. That didn’t work out so well for Taylor Clarke, who faced three batters and gave up as many hits to the Giants as Kelly had given up over eight innings.
But, Clippard could cover up THAT mistake, right? Mmm. He saunters to the mound , wearing that look of a City Lights Beat Poet (eye glasses and a Van Gogh beard), hits Donovan Solano on an 0-2 pitch, gives up an RBI single to Brandon Belt as the Giants cut the lead to 4-2, but does get the next two pinch hitters. So, he does have the opportunity to vindicate Lovullo (or, more importantly: the Baseball Ruling Class that is a slave to trends, numbers and analytics). Alas, again, the plan is foiled, as LaMonte Wade, on a 3-2 count, lines a two-run single to right field. Game tied, 4-4 (Giants go on to win, 5-4).
Only the Baseball God Hisself knows what was going on in the mind of Merrill Kelly. I can guess. Something along the lines of, “Eff analytics. Eff pitch counts. I could have had me a three-hit shutout.”