Bill Conlin | Mediocrity is king in the pitch-count era

Posted: March 22, 2007

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Baseball has done a wonderful job of creating a Perfect Storm for itself.

For better or worse - I say worse - baseball men determined that once amateur pitchers became their wards, arm health would be an overriding priority. The pitch counts and innings limits that are now a pervasive part of the game at almost every level - Little League goes to pitch counts this season, for crying out Tatum O'Neal - are probably great for pitchers at the low end of the food chain. Back in the day when the best arms were made of iron and all bats were made of wood, for every Warren Spahn or Robin Roberts, there were 50 guys who came home anonymously from their great adventure in the baseball wars with nameless arm injuries that ended their careers.

Now we know those nameless terrors by familiar names: ulnar nerve, labrum, rotator cuff. Once, Tommy John was a lefthander. Now, he is a surgery that has renewed or prolonged the careers of thousands of pitchers.

At a critical point in the 2006 season, Charlie Manuel was managing with one hand behind his back and one eye on pitching coach Rich Dubee's chart. For a variety of reasons, the Phillies were carrying 13 pitchers. That left Manuel with just four moves off his bench and a starting staff that hit the wall earlier than an NFL offensive lineman running the Boston Marathon.

But are the Phillies adding to their minestrone-thin bench? Nah. Instead, Tommy John survivor Jon Lieber, aging and porcine, is being dragged kicking and screaming to the bullpen. Hey, at least there's no pitch count for the seventh inning guy . . .

The way the game is played today is a radical departure from the precount norm of going north with 10 pitchers and 15 position players. Even then, managers were reluctant to carry a third catcher because it was felt an additional player on a seven-man bench would be much more valuable.

This raises a dicey question for a manager whose team is expected to contend. Manuel really likes the speed and defensive ability represented by rookie outfielder Michael Bourn. The organization probably wants the fleet centerfielder whose baserunning skills have been sharpened by Davey Lopes to play a full year in Triple A. A similar argument raged in 1980, when the minor league people wanted outfield prospect Lonnie Smith and hard-hitting catcher Keith Moreland to log more minor league innings. But Dallas Green wanted to change a stagnant clubhouse culture where a "we'll get 'em tomorrow" had gotten old. The Phillies would not have won in 1980 without the offense and energy provided by Smith and Moreland.

As hard roster truths close in on Manuel, does he go with youngsters on-the-come such as righthanders Zack Segovia and Joe Bisenius and the fleet Bourn? Or does he stick with veterans plodding on the treadmill such as the usual bullpen suspects or interesting journeymen like Chris Coste and Greg Dobbs?

"I like 'em all," Charlie said the other day while Dobbs smoked liners in the batting cage. "I didn't know Greg had this kind of pop and he can play some positions for us. But I like the way Bourn has approached his at-bats and baserunning. So, we have some tough decisions."

Look, I hate to keep revisiting 1980, but this isn't like doing compare-and-contrast with the New York Yankees where you can shuffle through 27 analogs until one fits your scenario. We're stuck with that one lonely World Series trophy.

As for the hardly unexpected Lieber exile to the 'pen, it's hard to get worked up over a 36-year-old coming off a 9-11 season with a career 4.26 ERA. Anymore, though, that's pitch-count platinum.

Incredibly, the radical change in the way pitchers and staffs are used has not had a profound influence on the game's bottom line: runs scored.

In 1946, eight National League teams averaged 3.96 runs over a 154-game schedule in the first postwar season.

In 1956, the NL ramped it up to 4.25 rpg and averaged an amazing 152 homers per team. The class of 1966 decade saw NL expansion to 10 teams and 162 games. NL runs dropped to 4.09. The years of the pitcher were at hand and the mound would be lowered after the 1968 season, when the NL averaged a ridiculous 3.43 rpg.

What a difference a decade makes. In 1976 and with pitching watered down by two more teams, NL offenses averaged 3.98 rpg.

By 1986, the five-man rotation and 11-man staff was common. Complete games by minor league pitchers suddenly were a rarity. Average RPG were up to 4.16. Significantly, the complete game average was down to 18.6.

Fast forward to 1996, when the rpg average for 14 teams jumped to 4.68. Hey, with all this TLC being accorded to pitchers, shouldn't they have been getting more hitters out? Oh, well, more than 60 of them would have been in the minors before six teams were added. Hmmm . . . The average of 159 homers per club was just a little better than the 152 per club in 1956, 40 years before. The more things change . . .

Which brings us to last year's uptight, pitch-count intensive, limited-moves National League. With another 24 minor league-level pitchers injected into the majors, 16 teams averaged 4.76 runs a game and 177.5 homers. Boy, those pitch counts really paid off. Did I mention the complete-game average was a robust 4.88 per team?

No wonder Jon Lieber is upset. Going into a major league bullpen today in any role but closer or UBER-setup man defines slumming.

This, of course, all could be a false alarm. After Freddy Garcia took himself out of last night's game against the Blue Jays with right biceps tightness after one inning, it probably became a whole new ballgame for Manuel's pitching staff. *

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