Sunday, April 03, 2011

You Starting Pitchers Get Off My Lawn!!

Pat Jordan is approximately 100-1000 times the sportswriter I ever was, so it pained me to read his latest effort in today's Sunday Times Magazine. Jordan's treatment of the Philadelphia Phillies four top starters, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee is a well-written example of the most well-trodden topic path in baseball writing there is -- the contention that today's game is infinitely inferior to that of yesteryear.

This literary genre was undoubtedly invented by some writer covering the SECOND game in baseball history, whenever that was. It's an evergreen aimed at readers seeking reassurance they will remain evergreen, or at least that when they drift into memories of better days, the days really were better.

Maybe they were, maybe they weren't. That's an unanswerable question as far as baseball goes. What I can say is that Jordan's piece is eminently unfair to four excellent pitchers whom he uses as whipping twirlers to voice his dislike for what's happened to pitching, and by extension pitchers, in the past 40 or 50 years.

A bit of back story for those who don't know. Jordan WAS a pitcher, a high school phenom turned promising farmhand turned sore-armed looker for another career. He's written eloquently about that, and a whole bunch of other things, too. Baseball's loss was journalism's gain and then some. That's why I found Jordan's pitching screed so disturbing. One doesn't like to see admired professional role models fall victim to old fart's syndrome.

Here are, in order, Jordan's main complaints with the Phillies' four aces.

1. They're not as good as Warren Spahn was. No kidding. As Jordan is doubtless aware, there weren't any pitchers as good as Spahn when Spahn was pitching. Spahn is one of the three or four best lefties ever to pitch, and certainly one of the most underrrated superstars of baseball history. Comparing any pitcher, even Halladay, to Spahn is as pointless and unjust as if I were to criticize Jordan for not being as good at his trade as was Charles Dickens.

2. They don't pitch complete games or have the finishers' mindset of guys like Tom Seaver or Jim Palmer. Pitchers, like the rest of us, are products of their time. The Phillies' corps has been brought up and lived their whole baseball lives in the reality of the La Russa-Duncan Pitching Staff Theory. Starters aren't used to finishing games because managers don't let them. It's the way the game works anymore. Again, this would be like me ripped Jordan for not using a manual Underwood to write with.

3., except this is sort of a sidebar. Nolan Ryan is not impressed with Cliff Lee's fastball. Gosh, that's not exactly what the President of the Texas Rangers was saying about Lee last September and October. Sour grapes much, Nolan?

4. As the article's closing argument, Jordan quotes Mike Schmidt, acknowledged as history's greatest third baseman and the greatest player in Phillies' history, all 129 years of it, to the effect that while the current Philadelphia pitchers are excellent, he wouldn't lose sleep or fear them as he feared Ryan.

If there's one thing I know, it's that the memories of old ballplayers, even and maybe especially the ones who were heroes of my youth, need to be checked against the cold agate of historical fact. A quick trip to offered some illumination on the Schmidt-Ryan matchup.

Schmidt had 56 at bats against Ryan, struck out 16 times, and had a .179 batting average. Those numbers would give any hitter agita.

But Schmidt had five homers in those 56 ABs, more than any other Hall of Fame slugger managed to get off Ryan, and 15 RBI. Assume a 450-500 at bat season of Schmidt v. Ryan, and that projects to 30-40 homers and 100-110 RBI -- almost an actual average Schmidt season.

Schmidt also had an All-Star OPS of .887 against Ryan. That's because his .179 batting average gets hidden in a .405 OBP. Mike Schmidt, you see, FACED Nolan Ryan many more than 56 times. He had 21 walks off of the terror-inspiring Von Ryan's Express.

So roughly once out of every four times Ryan saw Schmidt step in the batter's box, he walked him. Schmidt drew many walks, and Ryan's wildness was as legendary as his fastball. Still, this suggests that in their baseball relationship fear was a two-way street.

Speaking as a Phillies fan, I have no interest in whether or not their starters measure up to Warren Spahn. I'm concerned about how they measure up to 2011. Speaking as a former sportswriter, reading articles that say today wasn't as good as yesterday or that yesterday wasn't as good as today makes me sad. Nobody can beat the ineffable mystery of time. Why try?


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