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Let the pitchers pitch
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Forsyth County News

Let ‘em pitch.

Not just Stephen Strasburg.

Everybody.

Let ‘em pitch.

Evolution isn’t necessarily a good thing where pitching is concerned. Unless you think that throwing fewer innings with more injuries is moving in the right direction.

I’ve listened with contempt as the debate rages over the Nationals’ decision to sit Strasburg once he reaches 160 innings pitched. Are they really going to jeopardize the first postseason play in our nation’s capital since 1934? And will Congress intervene?

Or might they jeopardize Strasburg’s future by letting him continue to pitch?

Isn’t Strasburg now two years removed from his Tommy John surgery? As Tom Glavine candidly noted on Sunday’s Braves telecast, "He should be cured by now."

The Strasburg case only hints at the larger issue involved: the limitations placed on all pitchers in the game today. The theory being, apparently, that the more you throw, the better chance there is of getting hurt.

Funny. Back when the Braves enjoyed their greatest success, and Leo Mazzone was their pitching coach, they threw more than any other team. They started throwing before spring training. The theory being, the more you throw, the less chance there is of getting hurt.

Think back over those years and recall how few games the Braves lost to arm issues. John Smoltz had the occasional balky elbow, but, for the most part, the rotation stayed intact.

In short order, we’ve evolved to the point where the Braves have gone to a six-man rotation in order to keep everyone healthy. Am I missing something here?

Ironically, the Braves began this adventure with Tommy Hanson taking the sixth spot in the rotation against the Dodgers on Friday night.

It was those same Dodgers who, in 1966, were the last National League team to deploy a true four-man rotation.

And it was a dandy: Sandy Koufax (41 starts), Don Drysdale (40), Claude Osteen (38) and rookie Don Sutton (35). Only Osteen failed to reach the Hall of Fame.

They started 154 out of 162 games. Joe Moeller started the other eight. Four came in doubleheaders, two in late September. Moeller’s first start came on June 5 — the Dodgers’ 50th game!

And check out the innings pitched that year: Koufax, 323 (with an arthritic elbow which would cause his premature retirement after the season), Drysdale, 274, Osteen, 240, and Sutton, 226. Currently, only Detroit’s Justin Verlander and Seattle’s Felix Hernandez are on pace to even reach Sutton’s total.

The heavy workload didn’t seem to bother Sutton. He pitched over 200 innings in each full season throughout his entire 23 year, until he was 42 years old in his last full season. That year he pitched 192.

The last American League team to go with a Fab Four were the legendary ’71 Orioles, they of the four 20-game winners. They had Mike Cuellar (38 starts), Jim Palmer (37), Pat Dobson (37) and Dave McNally (30) start 140 of their 158 games.

Throughout the ‘70s, the four-man rotation phased out, with only aces who pitched that way throughout their careers (like Juan Marichal, Chris Short, Dean Chance) going every fourth day, joined by a quartet pitching on four days rest.

In the ’70’s, pitchers made 40 starts in a season 46 times. In the ’80’s, it happened twice. It hasn’t happened since.

It used to be that pitchers went to spring training and built up their arm strength. They’d go three innings in the first exhibition game, and by the time the season began, they’d be going nine.

Now, they build their arms from three innings all the way to six. No one expects them to pitch more. And you can’t expect someone who has never thrown a lot to suddenly do so. You have to build up to going nine innings in a game and 200 in a season.

But did you notice how strong Kris Medlen was in the ninth inning of his first career complete game last Thursday? Did you notice that his first complete game came after his Tommy John surgery, and didn’t necessitate it?

Pitchers aren’t being asked, or expected, to pitch at length. That’s part of the problem.

The other problem is pitching philosophy. Everybody today nibbles. Tom Seaver, speaking on the MLB Network a few years ago, caused a stir when he revealed that there were pitch counts back in his day.

They were higher, of course; 140 to 150 in Seaver’s case. But as he said, "We never reached them, because we never spent 10 pitches trying to get out a .220 hitter batting eighth. We threw strike one, a set-up pitch, and the out pitch. And that was it."

This past June, the Rockies, in desperation, went to a four-man rotation, but with a twist: they limited their starters to 75 pitches.

"We are trying to create a mindset with our young starters that if you want to stay in the game, you need to throw more quality and consistent strikes," GM Dan O’Dowd told the New York Times. "We are challenging them to do that."

At least the Rockies got half the equation right.