A theory on big league pitching

10 11 2009

A friend recently asked me why Major League Baseball teams burn through so many pitchers per game. I explained that relievers have become more specialized over the years, both as a result of managers tending to overmanage to justify their rising salaries and because players seem to be more injury-prone than ever.


"You pansies could beat the real Cincinnati Reds if your balls would drop." -- Typical overbearing parent who's contributed to increased stress on kids in amateur sports.

The latter point led me to think why pitchers are so much more fragile. They’re not all taking steroids and HGH, which build up the body to the point that the body’s structure can’t handle the increased weight and eventually starts breaking down. (That is truly a sentence coming from someone who has never even sniffed a medical book.)

The conclusion I came to, and this is not groundbreaking since plenty others have likely elaborated on it, has to do with innings. Not only the number of innings. The stress of innings. And that is linked, in my mind, to cultural changes in our amateur sports landscape over the last 30 or 40 years, perhaps even the last 20.

A kid in the ’60s or ’70s competed in Little League ball in the ’50s or ’60s. At the time, baseball was revered as America’s unquestionable national pastime. Every kid wanted to be Sandy Koufax or Micky Mantle. But there wasn’t a mindset that boys should train from an early age to prepare themselves for high school and college sports, which in turn would make them more appealing to big league scouts.

Sure, boys back then wanted to be professional baseball players when they grew older. Yet it was more of an innocent desire, with the reality that they would eventually become a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist. (This was back when our federal government actually made a big deal about educating kids in math and science.)

Therefore, all the innings logged in Little League and high school didn’t carry the weight they do today. Kids weren’t trying to put themselves in position to become pros. Games, while I’m sure competitive, probably weren’t treated with the intensity they are today. And there surely weren’t traveling amateur squads playing year-round like there are today for even pre-teenagers.

Since salaries began exploding in the ’90s, through the ’00s, there hasn’t just been a wider scope of kids who want to play professional baseball — there’s a larger range of parents who want to cash in on the potential million dollar arms they created. So now, you have parents angling to get their kids into as many leagues as possible. Kids play more organized games now. Everything is more competitive, more cutthroat. There isn’t time to be wasted on sandlot ball, where kids imagined what life could be like as Willie Mays in center field. Now kids expect to become the next Matt Kemp or Carlos Beltran in center field. Those guys aren’t just their heroes — they’re potentially future competitors, in their minds.

Young boys who pitch prepare themselves from an earlier age to throw hard, to throw fast and to log copious amounts of innings. As a result, they don’t just throw more. They do so under harsher conditions, under more pressure and with more intensity than ever before. As a result, we see more big league ballplayers who have pitched longer and under more stress than ever before. This isn’t a new phenomenon, obviously. But it sure is a disturbing one.




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