BEWARE THE SWINGMAN
Chien-Ming Wang, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes. Three pitchers for two rotation spots. Each time one pitches well, or pitches badly, or pitches at all, the argument starts up again as to how to best dispose of each of them. The drumbeat becomes insistent, as if there had to be an answer right now, as if there’s a switch for each player, with position A “starter,” and position B, “bullpen,” and as long as the switch is hovering between the two something is not right in the universe.
In truth, there is a third setting, “neither,” which worked for baseball for years and year, in an era in which a stifling uniformity hadn’t removed the possibility for all creativity or initiative in the way teams are run and constructed, before a self-defeating overspecialization of relief pitching had caused Major League staffs with detritus that would previously never have escaped the minors. Players objected to the uncertainty and the suppression of their individual numbers, but the Yankees won approximately 14 pennants by keeping that switch in neutral.
With more quality pitchers than they had rotation spots, Yankees managers Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel planned a more complicated pitching staff, using certain pitchers against certain teams, skipping the lefties in Fenway Park, or going out of their way to use them in Detroit, letting them rest against the clubs that hit them well. It worked terrifically. The 1939 Yankees, on the short list for greatest team of all time, used nine starters. Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez largely stayed in rotation, but every once else swung between the rotation and the bullpen. Only Ruffing threw more than 200 innings, this in a season where the league leader in innings pitched came in just under 300. Most of those pitchers found out they were starting when they reached the clubhouse and found a ball under the cap in their locker.
In the 1950s, Casey Stengel initially had a rock-solid rotation fronted by the famous trio of Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Eddie Lopat, augmented by Tommy Byrne, and soon joined by Whitey Ford. Starts were distributed in a fairly standard manner. As those pitchers faded, the rotation became more elaborate. In 1953, the world-champion Yankees had only one pitcher, Whitey Ford, make 30 starts. Twelve other pitchers took turns. The 1954 rotation is like a Jackson Pollock painting. In most seasons thereafter, the Dynasty staffs look a lot like that of 1939, with two pitchers — usually Whitey Ford and somebody — staying in rotation and everyone else being called upon as needed. In 1958, Ford made 29 starts, Bob Turley made 31, and no else made 20. Ford and Turley both pitched over 200 innings; no one else pitched even 140 innings.
The insight here is that some pitchers are better in 150 innings than they would be in 200, but would be wasted throwing only 80 innings out of the bullpen. Thus you have a sixth starter, or a seventh. Present-day baseball doesn’t have a place for that kind of pitcher, though Joe Torre did have one for awhile in Ramiro Mendoza. Everyone is a specialist, either a starting specialist or a relief specialist. That’s fine for some — you want to get every inning you can out of CC Sabathia — but as for almost everyone else on the planet, one-size-fits-all solutions, or even two sizes, are too limiting.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, here’s what I don’t know in presenting this argument:
1. How changes in the schedule affect a team’s ability to play fast and loose with its pitchers.
2. How changes in pitcher usage affect a team’s ability to swing their pitchers.
3. The impact of swinging on pitcher health.
4. Whether the pitchers would stage an outright rebellion over such variable usage.
Factor #2 is of particular interest. The complete game is now virtually dead. While the great Yankees managers, particularly Stengel, were willing to go to the bullpen as necessary, they were still far more likely to let a starter finish up a game than any manager would be today. Just pitching a year at random, the 1958 Yankees threw 53 complete games. This was just a bit above average for that season. Last season, the Yankees had one. This means that while McCarthy or Stengel could anticipate that roughly once or twice a week nine of their ten pitchers would get a complete rest, meaning the swingers who recently started wouldn’t be called on to relieve, thereby allowing them to rest or leaving them available for the next spot start. That is obviously impossible today.
Assuming that these factors can be dealt with, or safely ignored, the Yankees really don’t need to be making aggressive decisions about Wang, Chamberlain, or Hughes short of just doing what seems most productive on a day-by-day basis. That any of them have a specific role on the team should be of greater interest to the pitchers themselves than a dispassionate Yankees management. That means that any of them could be a starter, a reliever, or both. Remember, just because things are presented as they way there are doesn’t mean they’re the way they have to be. Pitcher usage in baseball has always been highly mutable. We haven’t yet reached optimal usage, and in some ways may be running away from it. Those saying that the Yankees are not using their pitchers the right way need to stop being so dualistic and realize that there is no right way, only the way they’re being used right now.
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Wholesome Reading continues to be wholesomely updated with new entries, and will be throughout the weekend. Warning: politics!