Pitching strategies aren’t working

sports@macon.comApril 15, 2014 

Nationals Braves Baseball

Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel is dealing with a sore shoulder.

JASON GETZ — AP

Through the years, every sport we watch is bound to change. There’s no doubt football has changed with the careful environment now in place to protect players from head injuries. Basketball is different than in years past, where technique and shooting ability have been replaced by a desire to have the best dunk get on the “SportsCenter” Top 10.

Baseball is drastically different than it was several decades ago. Just in the first two weeks of this season we’ve seen a tremendous change with the implementation of instant replay. Rhubarbs will never be a thing of the past. What will there be for managers to argue about with the ability to review everything?

But nothing has changed in baseball quite like pitching. The specialization of the bullpen has made the purpose of a starting pitcher change from a player who wants to finish nine innings to one who knows he only has to get through six innings to do his job.

Yet the coddling of pitchers to try and protect them has not worked. No matter how many pitch limits are in place, pitchers are still getting hurt at a record rate. And the contradiction of managers is almost hilarious as they try to balance getting pitchers work with trying to make sure they don’t get hurt.

For instance, we frequently see Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez have a quick hook with starting pitchers. Ervin Santana was lifted in his first start after eight innings and 88 pitches. Then Monday in his second start, Santana was taken out after six innings and 96 pitches.

Aaron Harang pitched six innings Sunday and had 101 pitches, so he was done. He went one pitch past the limit where the alarm goes off. Why is the 100-pitch mark now the benchmark to consider a pitcher done, regardless of how easily he might be getting hitters out at the time?

But then Gonzalez used reliever Jordan Walden in three straight games, and he brought Walden in for the third straight appearance Sunday with the Braves up by five runs. Was that really necessary? Couldn’t Gonzalez have used someone else so Walden would be available Monday?

So Gonzalez is careful with his starters, but then he was somewhat careless with a reliever. And we don’t need to bring up the 2011 season, when Gonzalez’s three main relievers (Craig Kimbrel, Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters) averaged 81 games pitched.

By the way, two of those three had Tommy John elbow surgery last year, and we found out Monday that Kimbrel has a sore shoulder.

And being careful with the starting pitchers hasn’t been perfect, either. Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy are gone with the same Tommy John surgery. Chances are they were not allowed to go way past the 100-pitch mark too many times, either.

The innings pitched totals have changed dramatically through the years. In the past 10 years, the major league leaders in innings pitched per season have ranged from 238.1 innings to a high of 255 innings pitched.

Thirty-five years ago, in 1979, Atlanta’s Phil Niekro led the big leagues with 342 innings pitched. Granted, Niekro was a knuckleballer, but if you go back 40 years to 1974, the leader was flamethrower Nolan Ryan with 332-2/3 innings pitched.

Braves broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton is also an interesting case study. Sutton pitched in 200 or more innings in all but one of his first 21 years in the big leagues, and the only year he didn’t pass that total was the strike season of 1981. It wasn’t until he was 42 years old, in 1987, that Sutton failed to surpass 200 innings (and he had 191-2/3 that season).

Sutton pitched only one year in the minor leagues, in 1965 as a 20-year-old. In that one season, Sutton made 31 starts and racked up 249 innings. Can you imagine if a pitching prospect in pro ball did that today? There would be managers, pitching coaches and farm directors fired left and right.

By contrast, Atlanta’s top pitching prospect, Lucas Sims, was limited to only 116-2/3 innings last season in his first full year of pro ball. Sims was even coddled by starting him out as a reliever and then moving him into a starter’s role later in the season.

This is just not the Braves using this approach. Every team tries to protect pitchers as much as possible. But is it working? Is this about prevention of injuries or delaying injuries? It’s just ironic how much the game has changed, and yet we see someone going down with an ailment every week.

Maybe this change has not been good for the game. Maybe teams should look at how things were done in years past to see what might work again today, since the methods are obviously not working.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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