For starters, Orioles workhorse Sutcliffe is exception to the rule

Phil Jackman

July 08, 1992|By Phil Jackman

Think for a moment where the Orioles would be had they not hustled out during the off-season and signed Rick Sutcliffe. Now there's a pitcher, a throwback.

The veteran of 13 seasons climbs the old turtleback (alias pitcher's mound) whenever it's his turn and expects to go nine innings. Anything less isn't satisfactory. Yes, a throwback, an anachronism, certainly someone all young pitchers should be striving to emulate under threat of dismemberment.

Slowly but surely over the years, the pitching art has changed. You've heard the line before, supposedly uttered by managers: Give me as many innings as you've got and we'll come and get you.

In a word, it's stupid the way baseball's teachers approach the position everyone pretty well agrees constitutes between 75 and 80 percent of the game.

Imagine a football coach suggesting to his quarterback that if he gets the team into scoring territory he has done a good job.

Picture a hockey coach being satisfied with his top skating line HTC giving him two strong periods. Golf tournaments are won over 72 holes, not 70, 63 or after a course-record round shot on Saturday.

It hardly seems the same game they're playing these days when one gets around to thinking about the way teams used to go about structuring their pitching.

Time was when the guy on the hill was king. You had a rotation, you had a good team. Some defense, a clutch hit now and then and you were not only in most games, you had a shot at the whole works.

Take the 1967 Chicago White Sox, for example. They didn't hit, didn't have any power and probably didn't have a Gold Glove on defense. But they led the league in ERA and shutouts, manager Eddie Stanky had a knack for making a run stand up for a week, and they led the league right up until the last week before faltering.

The combined ERA for the 10-team American League that summer was 3.23. While the Mighty Whiteys were the hitless wonders of 1967, the next season the AL was a hitless league. The combined ERA of the teams was 2.98. The league batting average was .230. In 810 games, only 1,104 home runs were hit.

Something had to be done to help the poor hitters. They lowered the mound. Over the next two seasons, the batting average gained 20 points, the ERA went up more than half a run and home runs moved ahead about 600 per campaign. But the pitchers regrouped and once again the bats went silent.

Even lousy teams had decent starting pitching in 1971. California, fourth in the West, had four flingers toss 208 innings or more, same as the Orioles and their four 20-game winners. All told, 32 pitchers threw 200 innings and three went over 300 innings. There were 537 complete games. The league ERA in 1972 was 3.07. Time to penalize the pitchers and legislate more offense into the game again. Welcome, designated hitter. In 1973, the Orioles led the league with their staff mark of 3.07.

For some reason, it seems, teams and their pitchers haven't been much interested in grabbing the upper hand against the hitters. Either that or managers and coaches are totally committed to backing up five five-inning starters with a stopper, a lefty to get a left-handed batter out, two setup men, a long man and a guy to make sure no one leaves anything behind in the bullpen when the game is over.

Ridiculous. How many of these people doing middle relief and mop-up simply lack big-league credentials?

An ESPN feature on the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Montreal && Expos, presently embroiled in back-to-back-to-back doubleheaders as a result of the L.A. riots, brought home the point Monday night of how unreliable starting pitchers have been allowed to become. One would think the respective managers were facing an invasion from outer space. Both teams are shuttling in pitchers from the minor leagues each day, hoping to get a few precious innings out of them before shipping them back.

Recall the days of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. These two, together with Johnny Podres, Bob Miller and reliever Ron Perranoski, combined for 1,140 innings and an 84-45 record. Koufax, 25-5 that year (1963), averaged eight innings a start (311 innings) and had 20 complete games, which didn't even lead the league.

A hundred years ago, a typical owner would call a pitcher in and say, "I'm paying you such-and-such to pitch for my team. That means pitching whole games. If you can't do it, I'll get someone who can."

Maybe a little bit of this old-time moxie is the way ballclubs of today should start handling things. Over the last decade, the ERA of AL clubs averages out to 4.07. Through the first half of this season it's 4.03. Only about 225 complete games will be turned in this year, a one-in-five ratio.

Seriously now, how many managers want to go to their bullpens 80 percent of the time?

Yeah, it's a good thing the O's went out and got Sutcliffe. His 10 wins combined with four complete games and 130 innings, which comes out to nearly seven innings per start, serve as a splendid example for what starting pitchers should aspire to.

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