Straw-Man Hunting Season with Bruce Jenkins

You may have thought that poorly-thought-out, knee-jerk, Neanderthal baseball opinion pieces were out of season until next March. If so, you thought wrong. The tweeting of OldHossRadbourn (who everyone should be following NOW) alerted me to an article on by Bruce Jenkins entitled “Joe Girardi deserves praise for refusing to pamper starters”. I think you can see where this is heading.

The article opens with a definition of the word “mollycoddle”, for those readers under the age of 90, taken from the well respected lexicographic authority WordNet.

I once knew a Molly Coddle. Close friend of Jimmy Jack. Neither is related to Joe Girardi, as it turns out, and for that we should all be grateful.

And I once knew a guy named Loopy Louie and another guy named Sad-Eyed Sid. What the hell are you talking about?!

The World Series gave us a novel’s share of heroes…but for me, the lasting impression will be Girardi’s three-man rotation. He used it throughout the postseason, 15 games’ worth, with spectacular success. He turned back the clock, drove a lot of people nuts, and emerged with a great big trophy in his hands.

Checking the national-media reports as the World Series reached its most crucial stage, you got the impression Girardi was an odd sort of dead man walking.You’d better be right, you idiot,” was the general tone. “Because you’ll lose your job if you blow this.”

I don’t remember anyone being too stunned or upset at Girardi’s move. The only time it came into question, really, was when he started A.J. Burnett on three days’ rest in game 5–which didn’t work out too well for the Yankees, you may recall. In fact, I think most reporters were on the same page as Jenkins, praising Girardi for his Macho Manliness in employing old school baseball tactics

Jenkins doesn’t name any specific “national-media reports”, so I can’t really attack his hypothesis. I think he thinks Nervous Nellies attacked Girardi’s strategy, and now he’s giving these Imaginary Wusses a piece of his Manly Mind!

In truth, Girardi’s job never was in jeopardy, but such was the tone of panic and paranoia as the Yankee manager wielded that deadliest of weapons: common sense. He employed a strategy that worked in baseball for, oh, about 70 years, not including the 19th century.

I think Jenkins is confusing “worked” with “was the status quo”. Lots of things existed for long periods of time, but whether they were effective, wise, or just is a whole other story. Western civilization “worked” for a few millennia without the input of non-whites, the landless, and women. Does that mean we should return to those wonderful days?

While four-man rotations were employed by most teams until the 1970s, how well they worked depends on your definition of “worked”. If by “worked” you mean “allowed baseball to exist”, then yes, they worked. If by “worked” you mean “kept pitchers healthy and ensured long careers”, that’s a different question. It’s also a question that’s very difficult to answer, but Jenkins doesn’t seem interested in asking it in the first place.

Somewhere along the line — and I’m sure it’s connected in some sinister way with the Nixon administration — baseball lost its way. Forever the province of workhorse starters, pitching entire seasons on three days’ rest and approaching 150 pitches in a given start, the game surrendered to the Mollycoddle Generation. Five-man rotations became the rage, and “100 pitches” equated to a traumatic overload, certain to destroy a man’s arm and perhaps cause flooding in the neighboring streets.

So many things about baseball are different now. Until 1961, there were only 16 teams and 154 games in a season. There are far fewer off days now–a team will routinely play eight, nine, or ten games in as many days, often while traveling across large distances. In the olden days, series were often four games (or longer) instead of just three, meaning travel between points was less frequent. Until 1958, there were no teams west of St. Louis, and most travel was done by bus or train. I don’t care what anyone says, but constant plane travel is NOT good for you, mentally or physically, especially the coast-to-coast variety.

So is it unreasonable to ask the game to adjust to these new realities? Yes, apparently!

The old-school guys didn’t know whether to holler or weep. A number of them, including Bob Gibson and Robin Roberts, were hanging around this year’s World Series, wondering aloud what happened to the game’s integrity. “I don’t get it,” Gibson said after Game 4. “A guy can’t pitch with three days’ rest? I don’t think it’s going to kill somebody.”

Bob Gibson wonders why guys can’t pitch on three-days’ rest because he’s Bob effin’ Gibson, one of the best pitchers ever. He doesn’t know what it’s like to be mortal. I’m sure Einstein wondered why people couldn’t do quadratic equations in their head.

Using a legend like Gibson to prove your point about short rest being okay is like pointing to to an eagle and saying, “Why can’t everybody fly like him?!” We can’t because we’re not all gifted with wings. For every Gibson, there are 10 guys who had a few good, promising seasons, were overworked when teams didn’t know any better, blew out their arms, and were never the same.

How about Sandy Koufax? He was a workhorse, too, and he had six of the best seasons any pitcher has ever strung together. And he had to quit after those six seasons, because the Dodgers rode his arm so hard, he had to get special jackets made with one sleeve shorter than the other.

It was so refreshing to watch Girardi go through a month of excruciatingly tense baseball with CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte as his starters….There wasn’t any big puzzle to the strategy [in the old days]. Teams went with their very best, not some questionable fourth or fifth starter, with the idea of rising above the rest. Other sports, notably football and basketball, have found ways to maximize the “bigger, faster, stronger” element and develop athletes more fit and productive than ever before. Baseball has managed to go backward, and it’s not as if the pitch-count madness has improved the product. There has never been an era with more elbows, forearms, rotator cuffs and labrums on the shelf.

Thanks to advances in medical science, we’re able to diagnose and treat things like torn labrums and rotator cuffs. In ye olden days, when a pitcher’s arm hurt, they patched him up with voodoo and greenies and sent him back out there until his elbow exploded. Then they threw him on the scrap heap, because there was no free agency and all players were expendable, interchangeable parts. Ah, the good ol’ days!

I don’t think there’s more injuries nowadays; teams are just able to detect them better and be cautious about them.Thirty years ago, most front office types probably thought the labrum was one of those little bones in the ear. Blaming the modern pitcher’s regimen for injuries is like blaming an x-ray for a broken bone.

I’m not saying that a four-man rotation is an idea completely without merit. Even amongst the sabremetric set, the debate rages: at least one Baseball Prospectus writer thinks a four-man rotation would improve the game without damaging arms, while Rob Neyer believes that such a rotation simply wouldn’t work with the modern baseball schedule, for many of the travel/day off reasons I mentioned above. I can’t say I know enough to make a conclusion in either direction.

This is what I do know: Throwing a baseball the way pitchers throw baseball exerts a huge amount of trauma on the arm. Especially when it’s done over and over again, which is unavoidable when you’re a pitcher. It seems to me that a pitcher’s effectiveness would be in indirect proportion to the amount of work that arm is asked to do. Not in every case, of course. But in most cases.

Asking an athlete to do that to their body throughout a season, then asking them to be in top shape down the stretch when it matters the most–which is the whole point of a baseball season, isn’t it?–is begging for trouble.

Long story short: Unless I’m show definitive evidence to the contrary, I don’t think a four-man regular season rotation would be to the overall benefit of all pitchers or clubs.

But I guess we should just do it cuz that’s what manly men like Allie Reynolds and Bob Feller and Warren Spahn did. Can’t argue with that logic!

One thing Jenkins neglects to mention: While the Yankees employed a three-man rotation throughout the playoffs, they didn’t really pitch anyone on short rest until the World Series. Thanks to a short NLDS against the Twins and rainouts during the ALCS, they didn’t need to. Sabathia pitched game 4 of the ALCS on three-days’ rest, but that was the only short-rest start for the Yanks until he pitched game 4 of the World Series.

So this “daring act” Jenkins credits to Girardi was really just the byproduct of some fortunate scheduling. Had the dates and the climate conspired otherwise, who knows what he would have done?

If other managers haven’t tried similar gambits in recent World Series, it may be due to the fact that this year’s Fall Classic was the first one to last more than six games since 2003. There’s little point in starting a pitcher on short rest when you have a commanding 3-0 or 3-1 lead in a series. In fact, when Girardi did that with Burnett in game 5, it very nearly blew up in his face, and basically forced him to start Pettite on short rest in game 6.

But again, I don’t recall too many sportswriters in traditional media blasting him for doing this. So I really don’t know who Jenkins is railing against here. I imagine that he sees the Bill Jamesians the way that Dave Berg used to draw all “young people”, like dirty long-haired types, a bong in one hand and a pitch counter in the other.