One of the beauties of baseball is the ability to second-guess the manager. It’s what we as fans love to do, and with baseball you can usually pick five or six things per game that you might have done differently.
It’s easy for us to sit in our recliners and holler at the television when the manager does something we wouldn’t have done, and then it turns out we would have been right. Usually, they are right. But when a move backfires on them, it certainly allows us the chance to scream a bit about a bad decision.
A common move that is easily scrutinized is the removal of a starting pitcher. Fifty years ago starting pitchers finished what they started, and pitch count was not even relevant. But now, once a starter gets close to that 100 pitch count in a game, sirens go off in a manager’s head to get someone warmed up in the pen.
The specialization of relief pitchers is another reason for this change. Now there are long relievers, lefty specialists, seventh inning relievers, eighth inning relievers, ground ball specialists, and closers. And they each seem to have a defined role that sometimes makes you wonder if they need to be out there every game.
It’s amazing how careful teams are with starting pitchers. Has the caution used in limiting pitches eliminated arm injuries? No. We’re seeing more elbow injuries than ever before, to the point you almost wonder now if every pitcher is eventually going to have an elbow or shoulder problem.
But yet teams still try to be careful with workloads. And it doesn’t even to seem to matter if a pitcher is on the cusp of a complete game. If a manager feels that dreaded pitch count is too high, he’ll make a switch.
Take Atlanta’s game last Saturday in San Francisco, with Tim Hudson pitching a gem for the Braves.
Hudson had a three-run lead in the ninth inning with two out. There was a runner on base, but the tying run was only in the on deck circle. His pitch count was at 113, but Hudson had just struck out Nate Schierholtz. Buster Posey was coming on to pinch-hit.
But instead of allowing Hudson to finish his work, manager Fredi Gonzalez pulled him in favor of closer Craig Kimbrel. Posey flied out to center field to end the game.
Even if Posey had hit a home run off Hudson, Atlanta would have still led by one run. But Gonzalez still wanted his closer in there, even though Kimbrel had pitched the previous two days.
Using Kimbrel in that situation made him unavailable for the series finale on Sunday. The Braves actually needed Kimbrel then, since it was a much closer game. But since he had pitched on Saturday, his third day in a row, there was no way he was going to be out there on Sunday.
Hudson was not happy that Gonzalez pulled him one out away from a complete game. He was obviously careful with his post-game comments, and heck, Gonzalez even admitted that he knew Hudson was probably mad at him for taking him out.
Of course, it’s not just Gonzalez. We saw his predecessor, Bobby Cox, be even more crazy about pitch count. Remember a game in Houston two years ago? Tommy Hanson had pitched eight shutout innings against the Astros. He had not walked a batter, had struck out seven, and had thrown 98 pitches.
Cox shocked Hanson when he walked over between innings and congratulated him on his performance. He was pulling Hanson with a 1-0 lead, even though his pitch count was ‘only’ at 98 and he had been dominating.
Rafael Soriano promptly came in and gave up two runs to blow the lead and the victory for Hanson. And you knew that night Cox had made the wrong decision.
But it’s all because of the overprotection of starting pitches, which is crazy. Pitchers who throw hard are bound to get hurt. Delaying the inevitable by saving a few pitches does not always make sense.
Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn completed 382 of the 665 games he started in his career. But those days are clearly over, and relievers are now more important than ever.
Gonzalez proved that Saturday by bringing his closer in, even though his starter probably would have done the job anyway.
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on
WPLA Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, GA and The Atlanta Baseball Talk Show. Shanks writes columns for The Macon Telegraph. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.