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The pitching conundrum

Can you spare an arm, brother?

Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Cincinnati Reds Photo by Diamond Images/Getty Images

Much ink has already been spilled about what a disaster the 2022 Royals are. I don’t have any new theories or suggestions to add that hasn’t been covered ad infinitum. I am glad to finally see fans come around to the idea I’ve been beating on for the last four years, which was nothing is going to change for the better until Dayton Moore leaves. For a long time, I battled his supporters who rightfully said that yes, he did lead the Royals back to prominence after a three-decade trek through the baseball desert and yes, the team did win a World Series title. And while I greatly appreciated that turnaround, at the end of the day, three winning seasons during his 16-year tenure, just doesn’t cut it for me.

This essay, however, isn’t about Moore or to a lesser extent the 2022 Royals. As a fan, I grew up in a baseball age (the 1960s and ‘70s) in which pitchers were basically ironmen. As I’ve watched the Royals staff mostly flounder and watch other games where the manager changes the pitcher frequently, I’ve often wondered how we got here. What has happened to the starter who could give you 250+ innings each and every season? How come we don’t have a two or three-inning “fireman” the likes of which prevailed in the 1970s?

Here is a chart of some Hall of Fame pitchers and a few others to illustrate my points. Granted, some of these names are pitchers who might be included on a Mount Rushmore of pitchers, but their durability continues to amaze me.

Pitchers

Player Career years Games Innings Ave. Innings per year High Inn./Year Age of High Inning year
Player Career years Games Innings Ave. Innings per year High Inn./Year Age of High Inning year
Bob Feller 18 570 3,287 213 371 – 1946 27
Warren Spahn 21 750 5,243 249 310 – 1951 30
Nolan Ryan 27 807 5,386 199 332 – 1974 27
Tom Seaver 20 656 4,783 239 290 – 1970 25
Bob Gibson 17 528 3,884 228 314 – 1969 33
Steve Carlton 24 741 5,217 217 346 – 1972 27
Sparky Lyle 16 899 1,390 87 137 – 1977 32
Mike Marshall 14 724 1,386 99 208 – 1974 31
Paul Splittorff 15 429 2,554 170 262 – 1973 26
Jeff Montgomery 13 686 849 65 94 – 1990 28
Tommy John 26 760 4,710 181 269 – 1970 276 – 1979 27 36
Jamie Moyer 25 696 4,074 163 234 – 1998 35

There are some fascinating things to look at. Most of these pitchers were fireballers. It seems the peak age for innings is around age 27-28. Most of these pitchers made their debut between the ages of 19-22 and all had extremely long careers. Paul Splittorff is the Royals’ career leader in innings pitched. He averaged a solid 170 over his career. The average for all these men includes their first seasons and their last seasons, which are always lower on numbers as a player is just getting started and finally running out of gas. For example, Steve Carlton only pitched 77 innings in his first two seasons and only 53 in his final two years.

Jeff Montgomery is the Royals' career save leader. His numbers pale when compared to two of the premier firemen of the 1970s, Sparky Lyle and Mike Marshall. In fact, Montgomery’s career-high of 94 innings in 1990 is less than Marshall’s average yearly innings for his entire career.

Even Tommy John, a fine pitcher in his time, and the namesake of the surgery that now bears his name, put up solid innings before and after his surgery. John was never a flamethrower. He made his bones on location and mixing things up. It must have worked as he put together a career record of 288-231 with a 3.34 ERA. With those numbers, he should get some serious Hall of Fame love from the Veterans Committee. Same with Jamie Moyer. Moyer’s fastball might have trouble breaking a pane of glass, but the guy fashioned a 25-year career. Towards the end of his career, Moyer’s fastball would be in the low 80s, almost unthinkable in today’s game, yet he used location and five different pitches to keep batters guessing. It worked, as he won 269 games. Even with his reduced velocity, Moyer was not immune to the strains of pitching. He had Tommy John surgery in late 2010.

Mike Marshall was one of the more fascinating characters in baseball. He and Tommy John crossed paths in a fateful way, which will be explored later, but first a little about Marshall. I remember Marshall quite well and always thought he was an interesting guy. He was not a particularly popular player with his teammates or the press. Some of that was because Marshall was almost certainly many IQ points smarter than everyone else in the room. He earned a Doctorate in physiology in 1978, while pitching for the Minnesota Twins. He would often use medical terms to describe what he was doing to baseball writers. The writers, who were looking for simpler explanations, would walk away when the conversation exceeded their ability to understand, which happened often and quickly.

Marshall was originally signed by the Phillies, before being purchased by the Tigers. He made his debut with Detroit in 1967, but the Tigers, flush with talent, left Marshall unprotected in the expansion draft. The Royals passed on him several times before the Seattle Pilots chose him with the 53rd pick. Those early teams really had no idea how to use Marshall. It’s probably a safe bet that he was smarter than his managers and certainly his pitching coaches.

The Pilots tried using Marshall as a starter, before selling him to the Houston Astros. The Astros quickly unloaded him on the Expos and in Montreal, Marshall’s talent began to blossom. He led the National League in saves and games pitched in 1972, before the Expos traded him to the Dodgers for Willie Davis, a star in his own right. Marshall, who threw a devastating screwball, set a Major League record for appearances by a relief pitcher, with 106 in 1974, on his way to becoming the first relief pitcher to win the Cy Young award. 1974 was a magical year for Marshall, as he pitched an almost unthinkable 208 innings of relief. He later pitched for the Braves, Rangers, Twins and Mets. While with Minnesota in 1979, he set the American League record for relief appearances with 90. With his knowledge of kinesiology, Marshall would loudly proclaim to anyone who would listen that he could end pitching arm injuries.

According to his Wikipedia page, “He wanted pitchers to externally rotate early as they swing their arm up. That means the pitcher will lift the hand before the elbow, so that the wrist faces away from the body and up, the hand is above the elbow when the front foot touches the ground, which leads to a smooth transition without a “forearm bounce”, as Marshall called it. Marshall believed this causes ulnar collateral ligament injuries, which can necessitate ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, which is known as “Tommy John surgery”. He wanted to first lay back the forearm and then accelerate by rotating the body instead of bending over, in order to protect the elbow against injury.”

In retirement, Marshall founded a baseball clinic in Florida in which his students threw hard every day. Some of the methods were shall we say, unusual, such as going through a windup with 30-pound weights strapped to each wrist and hurling 12-pound iron balls at a backstop. He was quoted as saying in 2001 that, “Nobody who’s gone through my program has ever gotten hurt. These kids are now injury proof.”

Now let’s circle back to that 1974 season. Tommy John was a teammate of Marshall’s on the Dodgers. John had a tremendous start to the year and went into the All-Star break with a 13-3 record. For some crazy reason, he wasn’t selected for the All-Star team, which in those days carried some serious cachet. Upset at the snub, he blew out his elbow in the third inning of his first start after the break. In 1974 there wasn’t much a pitcher could do to elbow and shoulder injuries. Sometimes they recovered, but most often, they did not. Baseball history is littered with pitchers who blew out their shoulders and elbows: Gary Nolan, Don Gullett, Mark Fidrych, Roger Nelson and Steve Busby just to name a few. In September 1974, legendary surgeon, Dr. Frank Jobe proposed trying a new surgical procedure on John. John agreed to try it and underwent UCL reconstruction. John missed all the 1975 season recovering from the operation.

During John’s recovery, Marshall taught John how to pitch without putting unnecessary stress on his pitching arm and both knees. It not only helped with John’s rehabilitation, but it also gave him his career back. In 1976 John compiled a record of 10-10, which was considered a miracle achievement by baseball experts. John continued pitching until 1989, winning another 164 games. Thanks to Dr. Jobe and Mike Marshall.

Was Marshall onto something? Are baseball teams mishandling their young pitchers today not only by coddling them but more importantly with improper training? In 2021, Mike Minor led the Royals with 158.2 innings pitched. Scott Barlow led the team in saves with a paltry 16, while appearing in 71 games. He only threw 74 innings. The major league leader in innings in 2021 was Zach Wheeler, who only threw 213. Only four pitchers in baseball exceeded 200 innings in 2021. The last pitcher to throw over 300 innings in a season was Steve Carlton in 1980. The last American League pitcher to eclipse 300 innings was Jim Palmer in 1977. I may never see that happen again in my lifetime.

Maybe we can never go back to what pitchers were in the earlier generations. Pitching a baseball puts unreal pressure on the elbow and shoulder. I know. I blew out my elbow as a 13-year-old pitcher. I discovered how to throw a slider and threw hundreds of them, trying to perfect the pitch, before my young elbow blew apart. In those days, surgery was not an option.

Dr. Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) in Birmingham, Alabama, said that a pitcher’s shoulder, from a loaded position, rotates forward at 7,000 degrees per second, which is the fastest measured human motion of any human activity. The biomechanists at AMSI wanted to test and see how much force an elbow could take before the ligaments blew out. They used cadavers in their experiment and found that the elbow could take 40 pounds of force before the ligaments were shredded. They also found that the average major league pitcher exerts about 40 pounds of force on his arm with nearly every pitch. You don’t have to be a Mike Marshall level of genius to see where this trend is going. It’s not uncommon today to see high school pitchers touching the 90s and I’ve read stories of young teenage pitchers already having Tommy John surgery.

There’s a part of me that wonders if teams, and pitchers, would be better served by dialing back on the MPH and stretching their starters out for 100-120 pitches at a slower velocity. Has there ever been a better time to try it? Batting averages are the lowest they’ve been since the late 1960s. Thanks to the new dead ball, home runs are down. I’m not sure we’ll ever see a major change in pitching philosophy happen. A team would have to employ a revolutionary like Marshall and then go against conventional wisdom, and most likely the player and his agent, who are probably more concerned about maximizing earnings potential. If it ever happens, it won’t be a star that leads the way, it’ll be a marginal pitcher, an AA or AAA guy with nothing to lose. Someone who’s willing to take a chance and go against everything that doesn’t seem to be working today.