Bill Shanks

Pitching is changing, but is it for the best?

Every sport changes over time. Some might call it progress, or some might call it just pure changes created for one reason or another. But the games we watch now are different than what we watched decades ago.

Head injuries in football have caused dramatic changes in that sport. No longer is it funny to have a head-hunter on your defense since changes have been made to protect the heads of every player on the football field.

Baseball is full of changes. Replay is part of the game. Interleague play has changed the schedules teams have. The neighborhood play at second base has even been knocked out with a rule change just this year.

But nothing in baseball has changed like pitching. It’s so different now compared to years ago. The specialization of pitchers makes the nightly line of pitchers used look almost as long as the starting lineup.

Forget about the days when pitchers went nine innings. That’s called a complete game for those who have never seen one. Now there’s even a stat that calls a start when the pitcher finishes at least six innings and gives up three runs or fewer a ‘quality’ start.

If pitchers gave up three runs in six innings every start, their earned run average would be 4.50. That’s not good in any baseball league, much less the majors.

Before Saturday’s game, the Atlanta Braves have had a starting pitcher go more than six innings just four times in 16 games. Last week, when two pitchers couldn’t even get through the sixth inning, the television announcers said they should both be given a ‘pat on the back’ for their performance. We should applaud a starting pitcher that can’t even give his team six innings?

It used to be so nice to watch a baseball game and never hear the two words ‘pitch count.’ Now, that’s as relevant as runs, hits and errors. If a starting pitcher exceeds a certain number of pitches, he’s usually out of the game, no matter how well he might be doing in a game.

If the desire is to limit injuries, that’s somewhat puzzling. So limiting the number of pitches will completely knock out any chance at an elbow or shoulder injury? I’m not saying you shouldn’t be logical, but while care should be taken to prevent injuries, the overprotection of pitchers has gotten out of control.

Now in the minor leagues, young pitching prospects aren’t groomed to become innings-eaters. They are so protected that it is impossible to train their arms to an expectation that when they make the big leagues it will be their job to pitch more than six innings. Now, it’s almost like, “give us five or six good innings, and you’ve done your job.”

Relievers are now expected to pitch a few times a week, but they’re pitching an inning at a time. Gone are the days when relievers and even closers pitch more than one inning. Nowadays, if a reliever throws more than 25 pitches in one appearance, they usually are not available for the next day or two.

This seems to be an annual complaint every season, and it’s not like it’s going to change. Travel and summer baseball are usually blamed for the increase in injuries, but it’s not like the specialization of pitching has helped slow it down — even for repeat elbow patients. There’s an inevitability to pitching injuries that most just don’t want to accept.

I guess I’ll adjust, but it certainly would be nice to see more starting pitchers go deep into games. Until then, those calls to the bullpen will still be a regular part of the game.

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 www.twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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