We face a long list of travails but there is still baseball, October and the major league playoffs. And in the high
professional rendition of America’s finest sport, a disturbing trend has taken hold. The pitcher, and all that he is not, has muscled onto center stage.
At least half of the 25 players on a major league roster typically are pitchers – five starters and seven or eight relievers. In the post-season, which mystically began on September 1, the active roster expands to 40, including the 15 players who had been in reserve. A lot of these will be pitchers. Teams need a lot of pitchers because so few of them any more can field, or hit or, alas, throw for more than a few innings.
The graybeards among us will remember the days when major league pitchers usually lasted the game’s full nine
innings. Relief pitchers were called only when the opposing team began to threaten or had been pelting everything, treating a starter as though he were throwing batting practice. Relievers came in when a starter was injured, or fell ill, or having a bad day. It happened, but rarely.
No more. Today the game is scrambled with pitchers; hurlers and pitching coaches and managers and more pitchers walk and trot to the mound and leave the mound, and come again, swarming like ants over a kicked hill.
Pitchers in the major leagues have become specialists, scientific in their craft, expert at throwing the two-seam or four-seam fastball, the cutter, slider and curve ball – their deliveries an array of overhand, three-quarter, sidearm, or
submarine motions, and quick-pitch or not. Pitchers now devote so much time to their throwing that as a species they are lousy hitters. By today’s standards, a great batting average for a major league pitcher is .160, a statistic that would leave position players on the bench if not a bus back to the minors.
For generations, major league pitchers have believed hitting was not in their job description and have declined or refused to practice. The deficiency became so prevalent that, in the American League, pitchers were forgiven the chore in 1973 and replaced in the hitting lineup by a designated hitter. The DH assignment fell usually to players who could no longer field, or throw, or run, or all three, players who could
still bash a ball once in awhile.
The act of pitching is not easy or simple. To the casual viewer it may seem rudimentary – throw the ball 60 feet six inches to the waiting catcher. But television’s center field camera will reveal that as a pitcher completes a delivery his landing foot and ankle drop out of view on the home plate side of the mound. Every time.
This is because the pitching plate (rubber) on a mound is ten inches higher than home plate. If this doesn’t seem so high, find a ten-inch foot stool and stand on it. For a pitcher, the delivery descent is like coming off a foot stool. (This is why those ceremonial first pitches, often by the unaccustomed celebrity are delivered from in front of the mound.) For the uninitiated or the out-of-practiced, a mound delivery can be a risky, if not injurious, experience. Embarrassing,
And this is why major league pitchers have become lousy fielders. They are specialists at throwing 100 mph fastballs, or sliders or cutters that nip the corner of home plate, or change-ups that plop just behind it – all while falling off a foot stool. They can’t throw consistently any way but from that stool. This is why the manager and infielders gasp when a pitcher, suffering the delusion that he is a shortstop, leaves the mound in the heat of a close game to pounce on a dribbler, wheels toward the first-baseman, and rifles the ball into the stands behind the coaches box. When a pitcher leaves the mound to do anything but walk to the dugout, he is on level, unfamiliar ground. And throwing from a level surface after so long on the footstool is, for him, awkward.
In the majors, big league pitchers don’t seem to last long in a game. Many become less effective after four or five
innings, or when they have thrown about a hundred pitches, today’s unofficial threshold for preserving the function and
durability of arms signed seven- or eight-figure contracts.
Dan Plesac, the retired major league pitcher and MLB network broadcaster, has observed that many pitchers, especially relievers, are part of the “Dead-Brain Heavers’ Club” – a group that throw only one way: hard. The hundred mph fastball isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
The art in pitching, the sophistication of combining pitches of varying speed and placement, has been lost to the demand for hard throwers – the heavers.
This is not lost on the youngsters who want to throw hard, like their idols. By the time they’re in college or the early
minors, they have visions of $100 million contracts riding on 100 mph heat. Thus, the majors are stocked with pitchers
who threw long and hard as youngsters, their promising arms now subject to stress or worse after only a few innings.
Modern orthopedics, may fix those young, damaged arms, have them pitching next season. But they won’t be the same
That in mind, pitchers are subdivided and preserved for their specialty. There are starters who now last, say, five
innings if things go well. Next are the middle relievers (an inning or two), late relievers (an inning or two, depending on the middle reliever) and the closers (an inning or less), hardest and meanest of all, the heavers. Among them are the
lefties and righties who pitch only to certain types of hitters, the left- or right- or switch-hitting habitués, who hit in the
This year the playoffs and World Series are likely to be our first good look at the Ant Hill Games, the traffic swarming up and over the mound, pitchers coming and going by the halfdozen. Pinch hitters, designated hitters, more pinch hitters coming and going. Eight or nine or more pitchers in a game,
one per inning on average.
All that activity, all that changing players is bound to leave us dizzy, reeling. When the commuting stops and rush hour on the Ant Hill comes to an end, let’s hope the game is left standing.
‒ JOHN MARSHALL