Veteran baseball people were barely done scratching their heads at the sudden rush to declare Opening Day starters in February – to tentatively hint at a violation of the mix of superstition and inchoate fear they call “tradition” – when injury claimed a pitcher who was merely scheduled to start the Spring Training opener.
Adam Wainwright may not only miss pitching in this Cardinals’ camp; he may not experience Spring Training again until 2013. The ligament damage near his elbow is profound enough to shelve him until sometime during the ’12 season, and could have as big an impact on a team and a franchise as any such injury in recent history, maybe since Sandy Koufax’s retirement put the Dodgers into a funk that lasted eight seasons. Not only does it neuter a Cardinal team that fell behind Cincinnati last season, and Milwaukee last off-season, but it could even impact the team’s ability and willingness to commit huge money to Albert Pujols next off-season.
The larger question pertains to the feeling that these injuries happen more now than they did ‘in the past.’ This question itself has been around long enough to become a baseball tradition of sorts. Surely they don’t happen that much more often. Koufax quit before his fragile elbow might have snapped like a twig. Don Drysdale retired in mid-season just three years later. 1958 Cy Young winner Bob Turley blew up a year later. And countless careers ended as did Mel Stottlemyre’s: with a run in, a man on, and nobody out in the top of the 4th at Shea Stadium on June 11, 1974 (he’d come back for two more innings two months later, then pitch a little the following March, but his rotator cuff was gone).
But the reality is that more pitchers today are warned in advance of these potentially career-ending events. Wainwright isn’t necessarily a victim of some awful turn in pitching mechanics, but rather the beneficiary of greater understanding of their impact, and far greater options in terms of repair. Given how little pain he reported, if this ligament issue had sprung up in Spring Training 1911, he would’ve tried to pitch through the pain, because contrary to today, his livelihood depended on not resting an injury. He might’ve struggled to an 11-12 record this year, had constant pain, started ’12 0-3 and wild as anything, and gone to the minors, never to be heard from again.
Still there is the nagging suspicion that we are doing something to our pitchers that makes Complete Games chimerical dreams, and the four-man rotation and the nine-man staff as comically antiquated as the horse-and-buggy. Denny McLain spent August 29, 1966 – as The Sporting News merrily noted – “struggling to a 6-3 decision over the Orioles…McLain allowed eight hits, walked nine, and struck out 11.” He threw 229 pitches. Two seasons later McLain started 41 games (and won 31 of them). Three years later, he started 41 games (and won 24 of them). The other stat – 51 Complete Games in the two seasons – was not repeated not because of arm problems but due to a suspension for associating with gamblers (the arm problems came a year later).
We know pitchers no longer “save” anything for the 9th Inning (that went out with Jack Morris; it used to be true of the top 25 starters in each league), and that without a fastball in the high 80’s you will now never get signed, and unless something else about you is spectacular, even that will only get you a career serving as the Washington Generals to the Harlem Globetrotter Prospects in the minors.
But I have long wondered if one tiny change of rituals might have contributed just enough to the wear-and-tear on pitchers to have actually made a difference. The ritual is represented by the smiling fellow at the left, Galen Cisco, the long-time pitching coach who hurled for the Red Sox, Mets, and Royals from ’61 through ’69.
On August 7th, 1964, Al Jackson of the Mets gave up three runs in the first inning. The next day it was two off Cisco; a day later, one off Tracy Stallard in the first. Then came two consecutive scoreless firsts, followed by a doubleheader in which Jackson surrendered one in the first of the opener and Stallard three in the first of the nightcap. Finally on August 15th came the deluge: six first inning runs off Jack Fisher. So as they sent Cisco out to start on August 16, manager Casey Stengel and coach Mel Harder did something radical.
Cisco promptly retired Tony Gonzalez, Dick Allen, and Johnny Callison, and an ecstatic Lindsey Nelson told his Mets radio audience: “Galen Cisco, who warmed up in the bullpen, where there is a mound, in an effort to be better prepared in the top half of the first inning, gets them out in order!”
Your inference is correct. In 1964, starting pitchers did not automatically warm up in the bullpen. When I first heard this old tape I was flashed back to the summer of my tenth year, and the newfound joy of seeing a doubleheader from behind the screen at Yankee Stadium. There, in my mind’s eye, are the starters in the nightcap, Stan Bahnsen of the Yankees and Joe Coleman of the Washington Senators, warming up, on either side of the plate, throwing to catchers whose butts are pressed up against the backstop.
Years ago, Cisco, by then pitching coach of the Phils, insisted to me that he had been no trailblazer, and he had warmed up in the bullpen before August 16, 1964, and that other pitchers had, too. But I know I saw Elrod Hendricks, wearing a mask, warming somebody up long before a game at the new Yankee Stadium, dating it no later than 1976. I was on the field and I had to walk all the way around he and his pitcher. I photographed Goose Gossage throwing, and throwing hard, to somebody in front of the visitors’ dugout in New York that same summer, and it was four years later that I got trapped in a space beyond the third base camera well at Shea Stadium because Scott Sanderson and another Expo twirler were airing it out, pre-game.
Somewhere in the twenty year span of the ’60s and ’70s, the idea that relievers warmed up in the bullpen because they had to “get ready fast,” but starters should warm up from a rubber just on the foul side of either the first or third base foul line, changed into what we see today: everybody warms up in the pen, before, during, or after a game, and again between starts.
Ever had a workout with a trainer? Or just a well-led class at a gym? From yoga to weights, if the guy or gal wants to punish you, they’ll have you do whatever you’re doing, on an uneven surface. Incline or decline, it’s tougher if you’re not on flat ground. To really burn you, they’ll even have you stride downwards or upwards as you lift that weight or try to balance on one foot.
This is not offered as an explanation for all of the woes of the modern pitcher. But a warm-up pitch thrown from a mound is a distant cousin of a pitch to Pujols with two on and nobody out in the 5th. A warm-up pitch from the flat ground is a distant cousin of…playing catch. In short, if Denny McLain had 229 pitches in him on one day in August, 1966, he didn’t use up 20 or 30 or 50 of them before they played the Anthem.
Maybe that’s why Casey Coleman of the Cubs is really one percent likelier to get catastrophically hurt (and 90% likelier to not throw a Complete Game) than his dad Joe did that night in the Bronx (WP: Coleman, 7-7. CG. 11 K, 2 BB, 2 H, Time: 2:37).
Just a thought.