Sunday, April 19, 2009

Fourteen runs in the second inning. Fourteen!

The Yankees suffered (or did they? See below) the worst possible insult in their brand new ballpark. Having previously scored nine runs in one inning, Cleveland did even better, scoring 14 runs in the second inning alone, as they beat the Yanks 22 to 4. This game raises an interesting question: how is it possible that the Yanks have never been maltreated like this before, in their 100+ years of history in baseball?

I beieve there's an interesting answer to this question, but let me advise you that I may not have any idea whatsoever what I'm talking about. I suggest that we divide the long, long history of baseball into three eras:
  • Up to about 1940: Leave the starter in, even if he obviously had too much to drink last night.
  • To about 1990: Quick hook, get the relief pitchers in there at any sign of trouble.
  • To the present: don't use up the pitching staff if you can help it.


Now let me explain: Historically, baseball relied much less on relief pitchers. There's an anecdote about Bobo Newsom, a journeyman pitcher who played for many teams for many years, compiling a roughly 50/50 record of wins and losses. One day he was losing 15-0 (see? No reliance on relief pitchers). A teammate said, “Just don't have it today, eh, Bobo?” To which he replied, “How's a guy going to win when his team doesn't score any runs?” Now you may ask why those starters didn't sometimes give up 20 or 30 runs, or 15 in an inning? I suspect that in the old days, every lineup had a few really bad batters, making it easier for a bad pitcher to get out of trouble. There also used to be a bit of courtesy (misguided in my view) that you don't beat up on a team when they are obviously defeated. That courtesy might make a team less likely to try to score more than seven or eight runs in one inning.

Eventually, teams fielded excellent relief pitchers, and used them quickly when a pitcher just didn't have it. Some managers are famous for their 'quick hook', their tendency to relieve a pitcher the moment he appears shaky.

Modern pitching strategy has changed, because teams now have excellent statistics about what happens, over whole seasons, when pitchers are overworked. I heard about the Yankee's game on the radio last night, and then I couldn't wait to see the box score. The game might show Cleveland, in that 2nd inning, trouncing one Yankee pitcher after another. But I suspected that modern baseball strategy was at work. And it was.

Just two pitchers – the starter and the first relief guy – absorbed those 14 runs. The starter was obviously left in there too long, but that happens sometimes; you think he's having a rough start and will settle down, and all of a sudden it's too late for that. The poor relief pitcher who followed him was stuck. His job was to use up some innings so that the rest of the staff could rest. If you follow live baseball games, you will often hear announcers explain that a pitcher is being left in to finish the inning, no matter how many runs it takes, to “take one” for the staff. And that's what obviously happened here.

Now Cleveland did score eight more runs, but I suspect that rest of the Yankee pitchers were not exactly bearing down in concentration, pitching in a lost cause. So all this game proves is that the Yankee's starter, and his first reliever, had a terrible time; even though it looks like an embarrassment for all of baseball history.
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