How does the saying go? Professional athletes are bigger, faster, and stronger than ever before…right? Even taking PEDs out of the equation, better conditioning programs, nutritional habits, legal supplements and evolution have combined to create a new breed of athlete that is far superior to those of the past. This is basically accepted as an axiom in sports. Linebackers hit harder, basketball players tower above 7ft (even when they are from China), and baseball players throw harder and hit farther than ever. Why then is it newsworthy that Joe Girardi plans to use a three-man rotation in the ALCS?
A pitcher from the distant, inferior past like Christy Mathewson can pitch 3 shutouts in 6 days in the 1905 World Series. Bob Gibson — from the the less-distant, less-inferior past — can pitch his way to a World Series MVP award by winning three games in the 1967 Fall Classic. It seems obvious then, that the modern day — bigger, faster, and stronger — pitcher should easily be able to handle the added workload of a reduced rotation, especially if an ancient, noddle-armed, historical shadow like Mathewson could.
In that World Series season of 1905 the aforementioned Mathewson threw 336 2/3 innings for the New York Giants (going 31-9 with 1.28 ERA). He had thrown over 300 innings three out of his four previous seasons and he would go on to top the mark seven more times (throwing 390 2/3 in 1908, the only time he led the league in the category). In total, Mathewson would accumulate 4780 2/3 innings over a 17 year career (roughly an avg. of 281 innings per season), with an incredible 373-188 record and a 2.13 ERA. For all those years Mathewson was able to handle the work load of an essentially three-man rotation without breaking down, either at the end of any season or at the end of his career (and this was before pitch counts and bullpens).
In total, Mathewson pitched in 4 World Series and finished 5-5 with a 0.97 ERA in 11 games totaling 101 2/3 innings. While his Giants won only one of these contests (the 1905 series against the Philadelphia Athletics), Mathewson was consistently stellar in postseason play. His regular season innings pitched were juxtaposed to his postseason success.
1905: 338 2/3 innings. 3-0 with a 0.00 ERA.
1911: 307 innings. 1-2 with a 2.00 ERA.
1912: 310 innings. 0-2 with a 0.94 ERA.
1913: 291 innings. 1-1 with a 0.95 ERA.
These are the stats of a pitcher from the turn of the century, compiling nearly twice the innings per season than the average modern day pitchers does, and still he was able to attain some of the best postseason statistics of all time.
By the 1960s baseball had shifted to a 4-man rotation, typically with a spot starter/long relief man and, in some cases, a multi-inning closer (think Hoyt Hilhelm or John Hiller). Even with these changes, pitchers regularly threw well over 200 innings each season, many times topping just over 300 as Bob Gibson did twice.
But during this time there were no pitch count considerations. And while injuries were down from the old days (when pitchers threw excessive amounts of pitches included in those high total inning counts), the reduction in afflictions was wrongly attributed to the expansion of rotations thereby limiting a certain amount of fatigue (far less than pitch counts) therefore limiting injuries at minimal efficiency, but enough to push the logic in the wrong direction.
Bob Gibson's career also lasted 17 years for a total of 3884 1/3 innings. That's an average of just over 228 innings a season, a number lowered by his first two seasons (75 2/3 and 86 2/3 IP) and his last (109 IP). But even using the slightly misleading 228 number as an average consider that the leader in innings pitched this season was Justin Verlander at 240. One of baseball's best pitchers, 26 years old and in his prime, and yet that 240 number was about 40 more innings than he has ever thrown in his career. Baseball has developed such a phobia about injuring their bigger, faster, and stronger young pitchers that they do things like cut off Joba Chamberlain after 157 1/3 innings (and maybe rightly so as he was obviously tiring towards the end of the season). Oh, and as for Gibson, in his three World Series appearances he was 7-2 with a 1.89 ERA and 92 Ks in 81 innings.
So what is the conclusion that can be drawn? Either the way modern managers handle their pitchers is ridiculous and unnecessary or players are not, in fact, bigger, faster and stronger today. And forget the argument that because Mathewson (or Gibson) didn't throw as hard as a Verlander or a Sabathia there was less wear and tear on their arms back then. I'll give credence to the argument that Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia likely throw harder than Christy Mathewson or, say, Mordecai Brown. But a few miles per hour does not explain the logic behind decreasing the innings pitched (by 100-200 innings a season), frequency of appearances, and number of pitches thrown in those appearance of these supposedly well condition, nutritionally supreme, and evolutionarily advanced pitchers. Nor does it explain the controversy raised by the idea that a manager would want to throw only his 3 best pitchers "on short rest" in the most important series of the season thus far.
By switching to a three-man rotation of CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett, and Andy Pettitte and moving Joba Chamberlain and Chad Gaudin to the bullpen, Girardi is finally implementing — perhaps without even really knowing the scope of the decision –the ideal structure for a pitching rotation. Bill James talks
extensively about the research indicating that the probability of a pitcher injuring his arm expands exponentially after 100 pitches — as does Rany Jazayerli here – citing fatigue, not frequency, as the main cause of arm injury. I won't delve into the details here but it is covered in Bill James's Historical Baseball Abstract if you're interested in the guts of the medical science. The point is that baseball has gotten it only half right. Pitch counts? A good thing. 5-man rotations? Unnecessary at best and detrimental to success at worst.
Sabathia posted 230 innings this season. Burnett finished with 207 and the veteran Pettitte with 194 2/3. Even without regulating pitchcounts, none of the three would approach the typical seasonal innings for pitchers from baseball's early days, even with the added postseason work. And these guys are physically superior, remember? The Yankees, unlike Mathewson's Giant's, Brown's Cubs, or Gibson's Cardinals, have the luxury of a stacked bullpen (and a procedure in place to use it) that can allow these pitchers to be on a pitchcount without degrading the team's quality at the position. This accounts for both schools of thought regarding the cause of pitching injury (the frequency of pitching versus volume of pitches thrown argument). There is really no logical reason not to stick with the team's three best pitchers, especially in a crucial playoff series.
With an excellent long man in Joba Chamberlain and a more than capable innings-eater (for a blowout situation) in Gaudin the Yankees can easily regulate strictly the number of pitches thrown by their starters, allowing Girardi to pitch them at a higher frequency without the injury risk normally associated with the practice. If AJ struggles and runs his pitch count up early, Joba can effectively relieve him, allowing the starter to be ready for the next "short-rest" start with minimal risk of detriment, either to the game or the pitcher.
Beyond being an excellent decision for the playoffs, Girardi has demonstrated the mechanism that can maximize the potential of the best pitchers on every team in the season as well. Very few teams have high-caliber pitchers in their 4th and 5th slots of their rotations. By pitching their 3 or 4 best pitchers more frequently but limiting their pitch counts strictly at the 100-pitch threshold, teams will get more frequency out of their elite pitchers each season (theoretically increasing their chances for victory more frequently), adding roughly 14 starts per pitcher with a three-man rotation and nine starts in a four-man rotation, without increased risk of injury because of the pitch counts.
To maximize the efficiency of this structure a good long-man is important to have (likely two) and an effective setup-man and closer also help, but these are areas which modern teams already need to fill successfully to win. The Yankees' success this season can be attributed as much to the work of Alfredo Aceves, Phil Coke, Phil Hughes, and Mariano Rivera as it can to that of AJ and CC.
It may be a shot to the pride of a lot of 4th and 5th starters in the league to make the move to the bullpen but that should be the least of concerns for a team trying to maximize their daily potential to win. So far, it seems that both Joe Girardi and Joba Chamberlain understand this, and that knowledge and acceptance will likely result in continued success this postseason for the Yankees.