Down With The One-Out Specialists

The column that started it all; originally posted on the Boston’s Sports Guy website.
Hi. This is my debut column here on the Boston’s Sports Guy website as The Baseball Crank. Bill Simmons has been generous enough to spare some room in his corner of cyberspace for my column, which will be a rant of irregular schedule and questionable wisdom, probably starting out every other week but hopefully (day job and long-suffering wife permitting) working up to a weekly spew of bile. Some of you (those who read Bill’s “Ramblings” column in college, back when we actually had to print words onto paper) may remember my byline there as the “Angry Young Man.” Of course, I’m not as young these days, plus I don’t really want an irate letter from Billy Joel’s lawyers, so I’ll be writing here as The Baseball Crank. (For you history buffs, “crank” is what they called fans around the turn of the last century.) I had also considered being the “Cranky Old Fart,” but that will have to wait just a bit longer.

Also, full disclosure: I am not a Boston sports guy myself, although I did spend seven years in school in Mass. I’m a Mets fan living in Queens, and I’ve been a Mets fan since they were managed by a nitwit named Joe Torre (there’s no justice, but that’s another topic). But I will promise not to mention Bill Buckner in this column (except, well, two things: one, all you true Red Sox die hards know that the real goat was the Steamer, Bob Stanley, and two, one of my all-time favorite baseball moments was in 1990 when Buckner – who by then qualified for a handicapped parking space – was credited with an inside-the-park home run when Yankee outfielder Claudell “Washington Slept Here” fell into the right field stands at Fenway and was held there by enterprising Sox fans while Buckner hobbled around the bases. Claudell came out of the seats with mustard on his shirt, which is the closest he ever got to getting his uniform dirty).
This week’s topic is a pet peeve of mine: we’ll call it LaRussa-ism (I believe Bob Ryan coined the term), because he’s the one who popularized it, although Whitey Herzog was as much responsible its invention as LaRussa. I speak, of course, of the ever-increasing tendency of managers to use multiple pitchers in an inning, often just to face a single batter apiece. The absurd result of this is an entire breed of pitcher who averages well below one inning pitched per appearance. The master of this practice today is Bobby Valentine, who in one instance in last year’s playoffs brought in a pitcher halfway through an intentional walk so that he could be immediately removed if the opposing manager pinch hit for the next batter. Not everyone is addicted to this practice, of course; Davey Johnson’s pitchers with the Dodgers have set major league records by being the first pitcher to hit the same batter with a pitch twice in one inning (Orel Hershiser) and the first pitcher to give up a grand slam to the same batter twice in one inning (Chan Ho Park).
Anyway, this may be perfectly good strategy for the managers; the platoon advantage is an important thing, and the one-batter reliever can pretty much cut loose with everything he has. Or, as some have argued, it may not; each fresh pitcher is that much more likely to be off his game than the predecessor who was throwing the ball just fine, and the fielders can get awfully stiff sitting through three guys warming up in one inning (especially if one of them is the glacially slow-moving Dennis Cook). But the entire business stinks from the fan’s perspective, particularly if (1) you have to go to school or work in the morning and were hoping to get to the ninth inning before 11:30 or (2) you’re at the park, it’s the top of the eighth inning, and suddenly the game slows to a crawl just as they’ve stopped selling beer. Who goes to the ballpark to watch Matt Whisenant warm up? By shuttling pitchers in and out of games, what we get is more innings (or pieces of innings) thrown by marginal talents against pinch hitters, and much longer games.
My solution? Don’t just grouse about long games; change the rules. Require that, instead of one batter, each new pitcher must face at least three batters before he’s removed. In most cases, this would limit the manager to one pitching change during each inning, unless the roof is really caving in. You would need exceptions, of course, if the pitcher was hurt or got ejected (we won’t get into whether managers would order headhunting to get a situational lefty in the game to face Barry Bonds), or had to be pinch hit for. After all, nobody wants to see Whisenant or Sean Runyan bat, either, and forcing managers to double switch more would also be a bad thing.
Yeah, a few careers would be ended, but really, four decades of Jesse Orosco is enough even for me. And the managers would scream bloody murder, but the college basketball coaches said the shot clock was the end of the world, too. Fans have a right not to be forced to sit through the four-corner stall, and this is no different. In fact, this rule would help restore some of baseball’s tradition – in the 1870s, you couldn’t remove any player, even the pitcher, unless he was hurt – by reducing the number of specialists and keeping the game in the hands of people who can actually play all-around baseball, at least to the extent of being able to at least try to pitch an entire inning at a time.