62: Baseball’s New Magic Number?
Baseball’s number crunchers have jumped the shark.
Picture this: you have some semblance of baseball talent. Let’s even say you’re in the major leagues. Let’s go way out on a limb and say you are a starting pitcher. You are leading 3-1 in the fifth inning. You have thrown exactly 62 pitches. Not 92. Not 102. Not 122.
Now picture this…you’re out of the game. “Wait! What? Why am I out of the game?” you might ask yourself. Good question. The answer? Because analytics are messing with the game. Or worse, managers are pulling pitchers to keep their win totals low and their salaries also low.
Wins are hard to get nowadays. Pitchers are pulled from games earlier and earlier. According to Bleacher Report, there were 734 complete games in 1982. We are on pace this year for…four. Funny, four innings is about how long starting pitchers are lasting before being pulled -4.72 innings to be exact- according to FanGraphs. Just a decade ago, the average was six innings.
Let that soak into your statistics laden mind like linseed oil into a mitt: four innings.
June 1. San Francisco Giants pitcher Jakob Junis found himself walking off the mound in the fourth inning after 62 pitches and with the possibility of a win just two outs away.
Granted, this isn’t Sandy Koufax we’re talking about. Junis had a 4.73 earned-run average coming into the season. But he has been one of the surprising lynchpins of a San Francisco Giants starting pitching staff. The starters have had to carry the load because low ERA’s out of the pen have been rare. In May, the relievers’ 6.26 ERA was actually the worst in all of baseball.
So this begs the question, why is manager Gabe Kapler so eager to turn the firefight over to a collection of human gas cans?
Numbers crunchers, that’s why. It doesn’t matter how the pitcher is throwing. It doesn’t matter if he’s retired 10-straight. It doesn’t matter that he’s one batter away from qualifying for a win.
Kapler calls it “protecting” his pitchers. Fair argument, if we’re talking about 120 pitches or even 90. Fair argument if the starter needed to eat innings to give the bullpen a break and has been relying on guts more than stuff. Not a fair argument after 62 pitches.
And it’s not a singular occurrence. Logan Webb was pulled June 4 after 4 2/3 innings. Webb didn’t look “protected.” He looked like a guy who had thrown 87 pitches and had a chance to pick up a win. He then looked like a guy who had just been robbed.
Kapler’s a players’ manager, but he’s in dangerous territory here. You can “protect” players only so much. After a while, the players will start to feel like maybe he doesn’t really care about them as much as he does a stack of numbers. Starting pitchers hate two things: losing and losing because the idiot out of the bullpen just served up a meat pitch that traveled 400 feet. This kind of decision-making could have adverse effects for the front office. Maybe other pitchers from other teams won’t go to San Francisco because they don’t want to risk pitching for a franchise that doesn’t give them a chance to compete.
On June 2, the San Francisco Giants’ Jarlin Garcia came into a game against the Philadelphia Phillies in the sixth inning. That was not abnormal given the starter was around 100 pitches. Garcia gave up two home runs and four runs overall. The move didn’t work out. The Giants lost. Easy to second-guess in hindsight.
But at least that pitching change made sense. Carlos Rodon had been in high-stress situations throughout his 98-pitch effort and Garcia hadn’t allowed an earned run in his first 17 appearances.
So, that wasn’t weird.
What was weird was the night before
Major League Baseball is partly responsible here, of course, and so is the player’s union. If not for the lockout and the lack of a spring training and the extra two pitchers allowed through May 1, managers might not have considered the idea of pulling a starter when there was no earthly reason to do so.
The individual typically should not come before the team…usually. But in a sport like baseball, sometimes the individual accomplishment is worth something to the team. Who on the 2012 Giants hasn’t shared a story about their part in Matt Cain‘s perfect game or in Cain’s performance? That brought that team closer together and they won the World Series that year. Do you think anyone on the Dodgers is going to be talking about how great it was to be a part of Clayton Kershaw‘s perfect game that wasn’t because Dave Roberts pulled him early? No. Will that bring the players and Roberts closer together? No. Kershaw, by the way, would go on to visit the injured list anyway, which proves that you just can’t protect a player from injury who is injury-prone.
Protecting the pitcher may be a noble ideal in a vacuum. But baseball isn’t played in a vacuum. It’s played by men with a passion for competing and proving themselves. That’s how they contribute to the team. Taking away those opportunities takes away their drive to succeed, and in the end hurts the team. Numbers are a great tool, but they still don’t replace a manager’s ability to see how a batter is being set up or how a pitcher may have lost command of a pitch that is crucial to the success of an at-bat. Let’s go back to a little more real-time human observation and reaction, shall we? It makes for better teams and a better game.
Editor’s note: The Spitter can neither confirm nor deny that Dodger manager Dave Roberts is a reader, but the day after this ran, he allowed starter Tyler Anderson to throw 123 pitches in pursuit of a no-hitter against the Los Angeles Angels. Anderson, with a lefthanded Johnny Cueto delivery, saw the bid end after Shohei Otani tripled past a diving Mookie Betts in right field (kudos for the effort). Anderson’s arm then fell to the ground and his career ended…kidding.