Timeline

Are pitchers actually any better or worse than they used to be?

It’s a complicated question. Traditionalists will say that they’re worse — back in the day pitchers worked in three- or four-man rotations, threw complete games every time out, pitched hundreds of innings. Back before the war a pitcher who went seven innings every time out would be considered something of a wuss; today, the same pitcher would be a workhorse. This camp argues that teams are babying pitchers with pitch counts and shutting them down at the first sign of injury, and that the only reason guys don’t go the distance anymore is because they’ve been trained since little league that they don’t need to; that six innings is “good enough”.

Sabermetric orthodoxy, on the other hand, claims that obviously pitchers are better than they used to be — modern baseball has access to a much wider spread of talent — South America, the Far East, even Australia and Europe — and can afford to carry only the best talents. In addition, conditioning and health is far improved since baseball’s earlier days, and pitchers are better able to study their opponents. The best an older pitcher could hope for regarding his opponents was a scouting report couched in vague language; a modern pitcher can learn everything there is to know about every guy in his opponents’ organization, if he so desires. If the numbers of modern pitchers haven’t kept pace with their forebearers, sabermetrics argues, it’s because the hitters have improved just as much — it might not be easy to go nine innings when a third or more of most lineups are soft-hitting singles-hitters, but it’s certainly easier than modern baseball, where any eight-hole hitter in the league can send it four hundred feet if you make a mistake. Against such vicious lineups, this camp argues, making pitchers try and finish what they start can only result in either reduced chances of winning games or injuries, and teams are in the business of winning, not padding the Hall of Fame case of every fiftieth pitcher who can handle the workload.

I wonder if either those are wholly correct. I mean, it seems improbable that pitchers could throw 300 innings a season throughout the 1970s only to suddenly start dropping like flies if they tried it during the nineties… but the arguments regarding the quality of competition are hard to ignore. The pitchers in the ’70s didn’t have to face anyone like Ichiro, after all… and the Pujolses (Pujolsi?) were few and far between.

I think the answer is that in modern baseball, the average pitcher is much better than he’s been in ages past. Back in the day, either you fit into the old baseball mold for a starting pitcher or you washed out; there wasn’t a lot of room for guys who didn’t. These days, though, a guy with a good enough arm can usually fill some role for some team somewhere… even if it’s not the ace-starter dreams he had when he was drafted. Guys have careers now who would have blown out their arms after two years or been minor league lifers back in the day. Old baseball weeded out the guys who couldn’t handle the workload early in their careers, so all you hear about are the ones who survived.

At the top levels, though, I think modern pitchers are as good on a per-inning basis as their forefathers… but they’re not as valuable, because they don’t throw as many innings. And the reason they don’t throw as many innings is because teams don’t want to chance it. I think it’s not just likely, but almost inevitable that some guy in the major leagues right now could throw 300 innings with no ill effects if his team let him… but without trying it, you have no idea who that pitcher might be, and you’d be in a world of trouble if you tried it with the wrong guy. Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez are plenty valuable as it is… they’d be more valuable if they threw 350 innings, but less if their arms exploded in their third start and threw 21. And with teams paying these guys millions of dollars, the downside of the latter is a lot more haunting than the upside of the former would be triumphant… so they don’t try it.

The infusion of money into the game has made management more risk-averse overall. There’s little incentive to try something new because there’s hell to pay if you’re wrong. I don’t know that this is good or bad, necessarily — but it’s the way it is.

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