Tuesday, August 17, 2010

At What Price History?

The Common Man is swamped today, and wanted to leave this alone. But the more he stews and thinks about it, the angrier he gets. So with apologies to Fire Joe Morgan, let’s take a moment to answer the batshit insanity that is Joe Nelson of KFAN radio in Minneapolis.

On Sunday, as most of you know, Kevin Slowey threw seven hitless innings against the Oakland A’s, and was lifted after throwing 103 pitches. Slowey also had been battling elbow tendonitis that had caused him to miss his previous start. As the Twins did not want to risk losing Slowey during a pennant race, and replacing him with Nick Blackburn or Glen Perkins, they chose to pull their #4 starter. Slowey’s 106 pitches were already his second most of the season.

This made Joe Nelson so angry he seems to have literally lost his mind. As in, he wrote this post without using his brain, just his angry brain stem and the residual anger in his nerve endings, which allowed his fingers to keep typing. The points he makes are that untethered from the reality we live in.

Nelson writes,
“I am so sick and tired of the 'What if' mindset that baseball managers have grown accustomed to using. We don't live in a 'What if' world. We live in the real world. Kevin Slowey also lives in the real world and he had a real chance to throw a real no-hitter. Now that chance is gone because the pitch count and possibility of injury said he couldn't go on any longer. Give me a break! That's the worst ideology of all-time.”

Let’s leave aside the question of which ideologies are worse. After all, this blog is not about politics, and TCM really doesn’t want to delve into the relative merits and demerits of pitch counts, Fascism, Religious Fundamentalism, and Jingoism, among others. If Joe Nelson wants to equate the monitoring of pitch counts to the White Power movement, that’s entirely up to him. But let’s remember that, while Joe is sick and tired of the “what if” world, Ron Gardenhire has to live in that world. His job is not to let Kevin Slowey pitch until his arm falls off, finishes the game, or allows a hit. He’s not supposed to make history. He’s supposed to win baseball games. And he has to decide whether it’s worth the risk to Slowey’s short term and long term health to keep pitching. And he’s not just doing that for Slowey, he’s doing that so that the Twins reduce their risk of running out inferior pitchers every fifth game.

“I am shocked at how many people are buying into this pitch count crap. The pitch count has been worse for baseball than the steroid era. There have only been 268 no-hitters in the history of the game, and the freaking pitch count stood between Kevin Slowey and number 269.”

Again, Joe’s exaggeration makes his point rather silly. Pitch counts are worse than steroids, he says. To be fair, I don’t know what Joe thinks about steroids. KFAN’s blog doesn’t have any kind of useful search function. Maybe he doesn’t care much about them. If that’s the case, The Common Man would applaud Joe Nelson for his enlightened position. Indeed, maybe we can all agree that steroids are bad things and should be eliminated from the sport, but that it’s disingenuous to be angry at hitters and pitchers for taking them when we were oohing and ahhing at each home run and strikeout.

That said, there are a number of things (aside from the pitch count) that stood between Slowey and his no hitter. The first, and most important, was that he had at least six Oakland A’s standing between him and the no-no. Indeed, given how tired he was and how his control had been spotty all day, there’s a good chance that he never would have made it through those last two innings. Also, Slowey’s control was a huge factor that stood between him and the no hitter. He ran many deep counts and walked three (his second highest total of the year). Frankly, though his results were excellent, Slowey never looked particularly comfortable on the mound, nor like he was pitching particularly well. And by the time he let one slip and nailed Mark Ellis in the back, it was clear that Slowey had slipped.

Nelson then goes on to compare the pitching motion to swinging a bat and asks,
“Too [sic] my point, why aren't we using a swing count? It's not like the motion of throwing a baseball is more violent than swinging a bat. Both require the use of the entire body. Sure, the release of every pitch changes the impact on the arm, but every swing applies varying degrees of pressure on the knees, hips, arms, shoulders, wrists, and back. If we’re going to be so tied up in the pitch count then we better start acknowledging the importance of a swing count too.”

First, and most importantly, let’s acknowledge that swinging a bat is not like throwing a pitch. The pitching motion is entirely unnatural, as Joe would feel if he’s ever thrown a baseball. The shoulder is not designed to hurl missiles overhand at 90 MPH. Nor is the elbow designed to snap off sliders and curveballs. Meanwhile, the motion of swinging a bat occurs entirely below shoulder level, and is generally performed from a strong center of gravity to disperse the force and torque from the swing. Of course, batters can get injured swinging, but they’re far more likely to get injured running the bases or on defense, where they can pull and strain muscles, tear ligaments, and break bones. The highest injury risk while batting seems to come from being struck by the baseball.

“I don't want to see Cal Ripken Jr. get hurt because he took too many swings and I sure as hell don't want to see Nolan Ryan go down with an injury because he threw too many pitches. Oh wait, they're retired! And they never got hurt because of overuse.”

Oh good, I love it when we bring out two of the most durable major leaguers of the last 40 years and use them as stand in representatives for all players. In reality, durability is a skill. And Ripken and Ryan are extreme outliers who don’t make good examples. And even if they did, it’s generally believed that, by playing through injuries to protect his streak, Ripken occasionally cost his team wins. Worn down and hurting, he simply was unable to keep up his usual excellent standard of play. See, for instance, 1989 and 1992. Virtually every other player in league history has asked for and received time off from time to time when they felt sick or achey. Let’s not penalize Kevin Slowey because he’s not Nolan Ryan, otherwise you’d have to trash every other pitcher on the Twins too.

“If the pitch count is going to take away an opportunity for any starting pitcher to throw a no-hitter, than a swing count better take away the next opportunity for an every day player to come up with a big hit in a late game situation. For example, let's say Albert Pujols is due up in the bottom of the ninth with the game tied. In the game Pujols is 3-3 with three home runs, but he's already taken more swings than recommended for the week - and he missed the last game due to back stiffness... Are you going to take him out of the game? NO FREAKING WAY.”

This is a terrible analogy, even if we accept Nelson’s ridiculous statement that throwing a baseball is no more traumatic than swinging a bat. If Pujols was legitimately injured or tired enough that he was hurting his team, then you damn well should pinch hit for him. Again, a manager’s job has to be to win the game in front of him, as well as all the games he can before the season’s over. Slowey was tired, and he had been hurt. It was a stronger strategic play to bring in a reliever. End of story.

“There isn't a pitcher in major league baseball with a higher risk of injury than any batter - regardless of the number of pitches thrown.”

Joe is just talking out of his ass here. He has no idea what he’s saying. According to WebMD, pitchers spend almost twice as many days on the disabled list (63 to 37 percent), which is amazing given that pitchers tend to comprise fewer than half of the players in the major leagues. Also, pitchers tend to suffer twice the number of injuries to the upper extremities (arms and shoulders) than hitters. The reality is that pitchers are at a larger risk of catastrophic injury than hitters, and that they can be much harder to replace given the specialization of pitching roles that has happened in the last 25 years.

And finally,
“Tendonitis is easily healed with short periods of rest... just like the last period of rest Slowey received. He missed one game and bounced back pretty well from it, wouldn't you agree?”

Again, Nelson doesn’t know what he’s talking about. According to Will Carroll, the recovery “Depends on your definition of short and the severity of the tendonitis.” Obviously, Slowey was well enough to pitch after 9 days off. But pitching beyond his reasonable limits would likely worsen the condition, lengthen Slowey’s recovery time, and could lead to a cascade effect. The Twins need Slowey to hold off the White Sox, and having him out for any period of time would be a significant obstacle to that.

Gardenhire and Slowey should both be lauded for their decision making and professionalism in the wake of Slowey's start. Both wanted to see history, but understood the risks inherent in the situation, and made the safe bet. It's a clear choice. To Joe Nelson and any other Twins fans who would rather see that no hitter than see the Twins in the playoffs, TCM challenges you to justify that position.

The Common Man concedes that Nelson is probably not a fool. Frankly, TCM would feel better if he was. Fools can be dismissed as such. Rather, TCM suspects Joe Nelson is a cynic who is willing to sacrifice a young man’s health and his team’s playoff chances so that he has a no hitter to write about. He’s creating controversy where there should be none, and is probably doing so intentionally. If Gardy had left Slowey in to fail, he likely would be calling for the manager’s head. That’s the nature of the cynic, to find an opportunity and exploit it, regardless of whether he looks like a buffoon or not. Though it’s nice when they also look like a buffoon doing so.

1 comment:

Bill said...

Forget swings--let's take an educated guess and say that Kevin Slowey himself probably takes two thousand steps each day. So you're telling me he can't handle two thousand little pitches? NO FREAKING WAY.