Join me in a hypothetical, starring a manager who has shown a past willingness to use his starters in limited relief on their “throw” days, Bobby Cox.
It’s Javier Vazquez’s turn and Derek Lowe’s throw day (or, if you fear I’m jinxing Vazquez, I think you might be able to flip them). The Braves are up 2-0 with nobody out as Vazquez takes the mound for the two outs in the top of the third inning. He throws an obvious strike, which the ump calls outside. Vazquez detonates and is ejected.
You supply the reason – his bullpen is short, or it’s overworked, or Lowe really needs to work on something in a game situation, or the All-Star break looms and he’s going to get too much rest – but, for whatever purpose, Cox summons Lowe, intending to have him throw no more than 25 pitches. Lowe does so with maximum efficiency, and exits for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the fifth, the Braves now up 4-0. They win 6-0.
By the rules of scoring, Lowe is going to be credited with the win. The starting pitcher, Vazquez, is, alone among all pitchers, required to finish five innings with an unvanquished lead. Of course we have just constructed the scenario in which two pitchers, both of them starters, have produced nearly identically: Vazquez has thrown 2.2 scoreless, Lowe 2.1.†
Now, obviously, in this case Lowe is literally, if not traditionally, a relief pitcher. But this hypothesis is designed to show a scenario in which merely the act of being the relief pitcher earns Lowe a win, while merely the act of being the starting pitcher disqualifies Vazquez from a win. And it is built to underscore the point: why does this rule exist?
In the He-Man Days of the Complete Game the inference was obvious to us. Starting pitchers who didn’t make it through five were not only not worthy of getting a victory, they were not really worthy of being starters, and should suffer the ignominy of that halfway house that was known as the bullpen. Certainly we have lost nearly all of that bigotry towards the reliever, that he is necessarily a failed starter. If that still existed, it was certainly killed off by the conversions of guys like Righetti, Smoltz, and Lowe himself, from starter to closer (and in two cases, back again).
There was, as I recall from the ’60s, a certain lingering fear that the Five Innings Rule was necessary to protect against a statistical armageddon. You could construct a scenario based on the 1972 Phillies where there is a horrific team with one unhittable pitcher with a rubber arm and the a chance to win 30 games in a season. Why not start him every third day for the last month of the season, and pull him after three innings or the attaining of a lead, whichever came first? Our alternate-universe Carlton could’ve won 30 or 35 that way.
Certainly that fear has to be gone by now. Faced with going down 3-1 to the Indians in the 2007 playoffs or starting Josh Beckett on short rest, Terry Francona bit the bullet and took the former. In their life-or-death battle last September, the Mets had to be talked into letting Johan Santana pitch on three days’ rest rather than four – by Santana. The likelihood of abuse in a world without a Five Innings Rule seems almost nil.
There was certainly also the belief that a reliever coming in for a starter struggling with a lead before five innings had been completed, was probably going to pitch as long, or nearly as long, as the starter. How often is that true?
And I’m not of the opinion that a sudden elimination of the rule would lead to managers yanking starters even earlier – or at least any earlier than a batter or two, usually in the fifth. Ask all 30 managers what one wish they’d ask of a Baseball Genii and I think all 30 would answer “starters going seven every night.”
All these ruminations come from the Mets-Rays game in New York this afternoon. Jeff Niemann of Tampa Bay did not pitch well by any stretch of the imagination (4 IP, 4 BB, 3 H, 2 ER). But he left for a pinch-hitter in the top of the fifth, losing 2-0; they rallied in that inning to lead 4-2. If the Rays had held onto the lead (they did not; Lance Cormier coughed it up) Niemann would have been ineligible for the win even though he was technically the pitcher of record when the runs were scored, and Cormier or one of the others who pitched even more poorly than he did, would necessarily have gotten it.
Just a thought here: is the Five Innings Rule a meaningless vestige of the past? Should it be eliminated? Modified to four innings? Left to the Official Scorer’s discretion?