|The Modern Age of Pitching: Why has pitching changed over the years?||| Print |||Send|
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on April 21, 2003
So why can today’s pitchers only manage 200 innings per season, with 35 or fewer starts, and on 5 days of rest?
Many of the old pitchers would think that they were getting a vacation or being eased out to pasture if they were asked to pitch that little. In fact I’m certain that many would have complained that they were being worked too little. So what changed? Why is it that the pampered, better-trained, better-conditioned, more muscular athletes can’t handle the same workload?
In truth there are a number of factors that probably play a part, and the largest one is most likely money. That’s right - not stamina and not conditioning, but money. Since the dawn of free agency and the players union, developing a pitcher (or any other player) is very costly, especially a potential ace who is probably being signed as a “bonus baby.”
The costs involved are more than just those involved in the players themselves. Other costs must be considered as well. Costs such as the attrition rates of younger players, while the lesser athletes who also have to be paid are winnowed out, and those with major league talent shine through. There are also managers, coaches, and trainers to pay. Then there are the league minimum salaries of $300,000 per year for rookies, and they only go up from there.
Because of this, the cost for each pitcher who makes the majors may already involve between $500,000 to five million dollars, depending on signing bonuses, training and more. That is a significant investment and teams are going to be protective of that kind of money. For this reason teams are going to pamper these athletes and try to get the best and longest-term return for their investments.
Another dynamic to consider is that fewer players may actually be going into pitching. Historically pitchers were the best athletes on their teams in high school, and lower level ball. Because of the higher breakdown rate of pitchers and the fact that sluggers make the big dollars, many athletes who can do more than pitch may choose to make it as a hitter instead. Another factor is that younger baseball players are just that, kids who generally enjoy the game and like to play. Almost every team gets its pitching potentials away from batting as soon as possible, which turns a lot of young would be pitchers off.
The third factor might actually lie in the fact that athletes nowadays are over-conditioned and over-muscled. Like well oiled machines they work best within certain stress limits. There is no doubt that the modern athlete would blow away the players of the early half of the last century, because of conditioning and training. Modern players run faster, throw harder, have a better bat speed, and are generally better athletes. To compete with better hitters the pitchers need to be better too, and it forces them to put more into every pitch. It wasn’t that long ago that the fastball didn’t come close to being a 100mph pitch. In fact, looking at old tapes, one might surmise that the fastball of the 1920s and 1930s might make a change up of today.
Because of the changing game, the stress on the arms, shoulders, and knees (a pitcher needs to land too), have become much greater. Every pitch, while working at the highest stress levels of the human arm becomes a potential injury. It is no secret to most coaches and managers that most injuries occur to the tired and overworked players. Injuries, especially rotator cuff injuries (our first sports medicine column, which covers these will be out this week), come from repetitive and/or high stress movements of the shoulder. To the modern power pitcher, each pitch is both repetitive and high stress. This is what makes Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens so special; the fact they have showed the ability to handle that physical stress for as long as they have – it is especially impressive with Randy and Curt as they both have consistently thrown among the highest totals of innings in the majors each season.
Perhaps another factor is a little more ugly. Before the players union really became strong, and the reserve clause (the next topic of our “What Every Fan Should Know” column) was challenged and defeated, owners thought of players as disposable commodities. If a pitcher blew out his arm, the owners could just walk away, they usually didn’t have a big investment, or a long-term contract that needed to be honored. The player was just cut loose or could be re-signed at a lesser price and could try to pitch through pain. Many pitchers did try to continue pitching or were cut with “dead arms” (almost certainly rotator cuff type injuries).
I’m certain there are other factors, but I hope these are food for thought when you ask why a pitcher now only pitches 200 innings, or why they get 5 days of rest. It is because we protect them, they are valuable men who have a lot invested in them, and because we want them to be able to produce consistently and long term. That perhaps is the biggest change of all; once the owners were forced to treat them as human beings and not as easily disposable assets, the pitcher was no longer someone you abused by sticking him into the game and using him until his arm was ready to fall off.