Thrown for loops
Baseball executives don't know for sure how to protect their pitchers
There is an inner torment lurking inside every baseball executive, manager and pitching coach. They wrestle with the most important aspect of their game -- the act of pitching a baseball -- as if it's a many-limbed, double-jointed creature. They know there's no way to wrap it up and subdue it, but that doesn't stop them from trying.
Nobody knows with any certainty how much someone should pitch, when they should pitch or what they should throw. Theories abound, and this isn't exclusively related to the Nationals' decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg at some point before the playoffs. His is the biggest pitching-related wrestling match of the year, but it's far from the only one:
• After starting the season 25-40, the Rockies switched from a five-man rotation to a four-man, limited pitch-count format that calls for Jim Tracy to make the long, slow walk to the mound when his starter gets in the neighborhood of 75 pitches. The reasoning: desperation. The results: about the same -- 22-33 through Monday under the new rules. The starters rarely last long enough to get wins, but the good thing is, the Rockies' bullpen is getting used like a rented mule and Tracy's trips to the mound have made him the fittest manager in the game.
• Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette doesn't want anyone in his organization throwing the cutter. He thinks the pitch is generally less effective than others -- it helps that Duquette doesn't consider Mariano Rivera's cutter a cutter -- and he believes young pitchers who depend on it would be better served developing a changeup and curve. And, perhaps most importantly, he believes a reliance on the cutter leads to a drop in velocity and a greater risk of injury.
• Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in Mets history on June 1, and he needed 134 pitches to do it. Afterward, manager Terry Collins said, "In five days, if his arm is bothering him, I'm not going to feel very good." Well, guess what? We don't know whether Santana's arm hurt five days later, but we have some solid empirical evidence that something changed. He has allowed 45 earned runs in 49 innings pitched since the no-hitter. His last five starts: 33 earned runs in 19 innings.
• And, of course, there is Strasburg and the ongoing mystery of the magical 160-inning limit.
If you're a baseball executive, here's the toughest part: You're guessing. They're all guessing. The Rockies are guessing. (To their credit, they admit it.) Duquette is guessing. The Nationals are guessing. The Mets and Santana weren't so much guessing as rolling the dice in a situation where there really wasn't a choice.
Certain rules are easy. For instance, what you ask of Kevin Correia (24 pitches in two innings Sunday; emergency start on Monday) you don't ask of Strasburg.
Give the Nationals this: They didn't decide from the beginning that Strasburg was a five-inning pitcher. They didn't put him on a pitch limit in an attempt to extend him throughout the year. They decided he would pitch 160 innings, and assuming they hold to it, they'll get the most benefit out of those innings. You could argue that a plan to develop a long man/spot starter to take every fifth or sixth of Strasburg's starts would have allowed him to stretch his 160 innings into the postseason, but there's no question that Strasburg's health is more important to the franchise than whatever happens this year, including -- yes, including -- a run at the World Series.
Pitch counts highlight a bigger problem and maybe are among the reasons there are so many theories regarding pitchers and so few absolutes. In the minors, the best prospects are either brought along slowly or coddled, depending on your perspective. One unintended consequence is the development of pitchers who don't know how to pitch out of tough spots. Every time they get into a high-stress inning late or even mid-game, they get pulled. Understandably, no minor league manager or pitching coach wants to answer to the big league GM if a good young -- and expensive -- arm gets hurt in a 35-pitch inning, or while throwing its 78th pitch when the plan called for no more than 75.
For the most part, young pitchers grow up not being forced to think the game. They're told what pitches to throw and where to throw them. They're told before the game how long they're expected to pitch, so there's no mystery to any of it. When the pitch count reaches its preordained total, the manager walks to the mound and the pitcher hands him the ball without the chance -- or even the inclination -- to plead his case.
Think about this: If you're a Rockies starter, how much ownership do you take into each game? If you know you're done after five innings on a good night, and you know the same will be true in five days and five days after that, how does that affect the mentality you take to the mound?
This isn't meant to be an ode to a simpler, better time -- although it might sound like it. Instead, it's an attempt to explain why something like the Strasburg situation is an issue, and why he needs to be shut down. It's a mixture of sound reasoning, modern thinking and flat-out fear. It might be the toughest job facing the people who run ballclubs: deciphering the undecipherable.