Protecting The Prospects
Baseball is a game of history and tradition, but also a game of infinite changes. The current debate over young starting pitchers and their workloads is a perfect example. From Stephen Strasberg not pitching in the post-season to Matt Harvey’s innings limit to the 2016 outlook for Jose Fernandez, the topic continues to percolate with baseball fans of every age.
People of the older generation who consider themselves “old school”, like to point out that Pitchers of the 50’s & 60’s toiled in four-man rotations and sometimes exceeded 300 innings. Robin Roberts went over that threshold for five consecutive seasons from ’51 to ’55 and Warren Spahn was over 290 IP twice in the late 50’s when he was 37 & 38 years old. In the 60’s, 300+ innings were normal for Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax, Jim Bunning & Denny McLain. In the early 70’s, Mickey Lolich pitched 376 innings two years in a row! The highest totals in 2015 were accumulated by Clayton Kershaw and Dallas Keuchel at 232.
Of course, those days are long gone and the reasons are many. Obviously, the long-term health of a Pitcher’s arm is a consideration, but to be honest, that didn’t seem to be a big concern in those earlier decades. It seems more than a coincidence that the uncontrolled usage of the bullets in a Pitcher’s arm started to change with the advent of free agency in 1976. Players and their agents could now see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and it all depended on longevity. In today’s game, if you can stay healthy for six years, even an average Pitcher can become a rich man. Gone are the days of Managers and GM’s being allowed to go “all in” on player’s careers in order to keep their jobs.
The examples of Pitcher’s careers being short-lived are many, including Koufax, who was forced to retire at age 30. A classic case study is that of John D’Acquisto in the 1970’s. He was drafted in the first round (17th pick in the country) out of High School by the Giants in 1970 and was blessed with an electric arm that could throw triple digits before radar guns were the rage. To help you understand the mentality of major league teams at the time, let’s look at his minor league progression…
> 1971, Class “A” Decatur of the Midwest League – 29 starts, 233 IP, 244 K’s & 124 BB…at age 19.
> 1972, Class “A” Fresno of the California League – 26 starts, 209 IP, 245 K’s & 102 BB…at age 20.
> 1973, Class “AAA” Phoenix of the Pacific Coast League – 31 starts, 212 IP, 185 K’s & 113 BB…at age 21. And if that wasn’t enough, the Giants brought him up in September to pitch another 27 2/3 IP in the big leagues.
Now think about the three young hurlers in the first paragraph and their agent, Scott Boros. What kind of reaction might there have been if the Nationals, Mets or Marlins suggested that even one of those statistical lines was reasonable for their top pitching prospect? The obvious answer is a coronary for Boros, but imagine the media scrutiny?
In 1974, John came up to the Giants and pitched his first full big league season…
> 36 starts, 215 IP, 167 K’s & 124 BB…at age 22. That’s over 850 innings before his age 23 campaign. And innings don’t tell the entire story because when you look a the strikeouts and walks, you can start to imagine the pitch counts.
Not surprisingly, arm trouble was the result and after two injury plagued years with the Giants, John was traded to the Cardinals and eventually got healthy enough to emerge as the Padres Closer in the late 70’s, before retiring after the 1982 season. He now works for MLB in the Phoenix market monitoring games for the pace-of-play project and you can see him at Chase Field, Spring Training ballparks and the Arizona Fall League. When you meet him, you can’t help being impressed by his warmth and friendliness to everyone at the ballpark. And being an old-school guy, he’ll be honest and tell you that he never wanted to come out of a game because he knew he’d get the next guy out. However, maybe that attitude would be different if the bullpen had Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis & Greg Holland to pitch the 7th, 8th & 9th. In 1974, the Giants were 72-90 and the bullpen included Randy Moffitt, Elias Sosa and Charlie Williams…Moffitt was the Closer and his ERA was 4.50!
As with all former big league players, John D’Acquisto is proud to have worn the uniform and happy to tell you great stories about his years in the game…but you can’t help wondering what might have been.