Today’s Hurlers Can’t Go the Distance Like Legends

    This summer, a milestone was reached that may never be accomplished again.
    To baseball purists, it was a record that embodies the true soul of the sport.
    It was a moment to cherish above all others.

    And no, Barry Bonds had nothing to do with it.

    On Aug. 5, Tom Glavine of the Atlanta Braves guided his team to an 8-3 win
    over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. The six one-third innings turned in by
    the veteran lefty gave him his 300th career victory, making him the 23rd, and
    possibly last pitcher, to achieve the feat in major league history. The win
    propelled Glavine into an illustrious club, joining the likes of legends Cy
    Young and Nolan Ryan.

    The 300-win club is not exactly exclusive at 23 members, but what makes
    Glavine’s achievement so remarkable is that it might be the last time a sports
    fan can open the paper and see a headline about the newest pitcher to reach 300
    wins.

    The evolving nature of baseball has completely changed the role of a
    starting pitcher. In the good old days, pitchers would start a game and,
    barring a complete meltdown or freak tsunami rolling through the stadium, that
    same pitcher would go the distance for a complete game. Pitch counts were as
    unheard of as the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative. And the only remedy for a
    sore arm was more throwing.

    In today’s game, nobody is “just a pitcher.” A starting pitcher will get
    the game going, but is by no means expected to finish it. The development of
    bullpens has led to the creation of middle relievers, long reliever, left-handed
    specialists, right-handed specialists, set-up men and closers. With so many
    players charged with such a specific task, the guarantee of the starting
    pitcher collecting his team’s win has gone the way of wool uniforms and the
    spitball.

    The bar has been lowered so much for starting pitchers that major league
    baseball now defines a quality start as lasting at least six innings and giving
    up at most three earned runs. This means that pitchers are being praised for
    their ability to labor through two-thirds of a game while surrendering a run
    every other inning. As a former pitcher myself, I fully understand the
    difficulty in that seemingly simple job, and can remember far too many times
    when I would have given my nonpitching arm to get through six innings. But I am
    sad to see how the once-glorious position has been diminished.

    Gone are the days when pitchers would throw complete games in both legs of
    a doubleheader. Gone are the days of the three-man rotation. Gone are the days
    when a pitcher’s career ended solely because he could no longer pitch through
    the arthritis and had to babysit his grandchildren.

    To illustrate my point about how much pitching has changed, I’d like to
    tell you a brief story about the greatest game ever played:

    July 2, 1963. The freezing confines of Candlestick Park played host to the
    San Francisco Giants and the Milwaukee Braves. Both teams sent their ace to the
    mound to face the shuddering fog that rolled in off San Francisco Bay. For the
    Giants, the young 26-year-old Juan Marichal took the hill for the home team.
    The Braves sent out legendary Warren Spahn — at this point 42 years old but
    still dominant, as he would go on to win 23 games that season.

    Marichal, better known as the “Dominican Dandy,” compiled 243 victories in
    his career and, more remarkably, 244 complete games. Spahn is now regarded as
    the best left-handed pitcher in baseball history. Both pitchers were
    first-ballot inductees into the Hall of Fame.

    On that epic evening, the two aces embodied pitching’s true essence.After
    nine innings, the score remained tied 0-0. Before the start of the 10th inning,
    then-Giants’ manager Roger Craig approached Marichal, asking him whether he had
    enough left in him to keep pitching. Marichal quickly pointed to the mound
    where the aged Spahn was warming up to throw the 10th and said, “If that old
    man can still pitch, then so can I.”

    Fast forward to the bottom of the
    16th inning. That’s right, the 16th inning. At that point, the game had almost
    equaled the length of two regular contests and, unbelievably, neither pitcher
    had left. Marichal finished with well over 200 pitches thrown, having
    handcuffed the future home run king Hank Aaron in the process. Spahn was not
    lucky enough to escape the 16th inning, surrendering a walk-off homerun to
    Willie Mays to end the marathon that sent both pitchers into the pages of
    baseball lore.

    The thought of a similar game in today’s era is beyond absurd. In 2006,
    Aaron Harang of the Cincinnati Reds led the majors with six complete games.
    That same year, Harang’s team-mate Bronson Arroyo led the league in innings
    pitched with 240. Fifty years ago a pitcher would be considered a failure with
    those stats.

    The closest active pitcher is Randy Johnson, who has 284 career wins.
    Injuries have sidelined the six-foot-ten-inch lefty, and 300 wins now appear to
    be out of reach for him. Next in line is Mike Mussina with 250 but, again, his
    age makes him an extreme underdog. Granted, there are a few young pitchers like
    C.C. Sabathia, Johan Santana and Justin Verlander who have showed potential but
    it is far too early in their careers to start hypothesizing about 300.

    Young pitchers are now coddled and pampered to the point where getting to
    the big leagues in three seasons is considered magnificent.

    Joba Chamberlain, a prospect for the New York Yankees was babied so much
    that he was banned from pitching in back-to-back games as a reliever — giving
    birth to the phrase, the “Joba Rule.”

    We also see the harmful impacts of modern-pitcher developments when a
    young pitcher is brought up to the majors and must pitch throughout the
    elongated season for the first time. These young studs often over-pitch in
    order to thrive, and their infantile arms cannot handle the pressure, leading
    to serious injuries that can derail their once-promising careers. Where are you
    now, Francisco Liriano?

    I understand that baseball is an ever-evolving entity and if these changes
    had not occurred, raggedy relief pitchers like Mike Myers and Steve Kline would
    have been unemployed years ago. But is it too late to return to pitching’s
    glory days? I say we do away with pitch counts all together, cut down on visits
    to the bullpen. And if you’re really bent on keeping arms from getting hurt, we
    can just outlaw the slider.

    It’s not too late to train kids to know it’s OK to pitch deep into games
    and that the human arm definitely has the potential to pitch back-to-back
    games. Imagine how much more confidence young pitchers would have if instead of
    being removed from the game at the first sign of trouble, they were left in to
    learn how to get out of jams. Kids are now developing nasty curveballs at the
    tender age of seven, and people wonder why arms are so injury prone.

    We must spread the gospel of the pitching days of old. We must preach the
    word of Koufax and Drysdale. The pitching revival depends on us.

    Here’s a nice thought: the seventh game of the World Series sees Jeff
    Francis and Fausto Carmona matching scoreless innings for a full 15 innings
    before Matt Holiday wins it with a walk-off.

    Impossible? It wouldn’t have been 50 years ago.

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