Bill Madden: Good riddance to the Padres' Johnny Wholestaff approach, and beware to anyone who lets Travis d'Arnaud leave
So how are you enjoying these new age baseball playoff games of “we hardly saw you” starting pitchers along with the usual high volume strikeouts?
It certainly seems rather ironic that in the week the baseball world lost Bob Gibson, perhaps the most durable and uncompromising competitor of them all, the first 65 games of the postseason were completed with only 12 starting pitchers pitching into the seventh inning, four into the eighth and, of course, zero complete games. There’s no better example than Gerrit Cole, the New York Yankees’ $324 million ace, being lifted from the biggest game of the year Friday night after only 5 1/3 innings and 94 pitches.
Gibson’s death merely underscored how drastically the game has changed and, from a fan’s perspective, certainly not for the better. From 1959-75, Gibson started 487 games and completed over half of them. It was the same in the postseason, where he completed eight of his nine World Series starts. But the Gibson stat line I really love was his historic 1968 season: 331 2/3 innings, 31 of 37 starts finished and never removed from a game in the middle of an inning. Of the six starts he didn’t finish, all were the result of his Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst pinch-hitting for him late in the game with the team losing.
They’re just not making pitchers like Gibson, Tom Seaver, Juan Marichal, Nolan Ryan or Fergie Jenkins anymore. For a brief shining moment in the 2014 postseason when the San Francisco Giants’ Madison Bumgarner pitched two complete game shutouts and hurled five shutout innings of relief in Game 7 against the Kansas City Royals, we were reminded of the once true greatness of starting pitchers. Now? The starting pitchers in this postseason are averaging just over 4 1/3 innings per start. In the Yankees-Tampa Bay Rays ALDS series, both managers, Aaron Boone and Kevin Cash, were burned by “openers.” The Yankees’ decision to have J.A. Happ follow Deivi Garcia in the second inning of Game 2 had disastrous results, while Cash starting Ryan Thompson instead of the more accomplished Ryan Yarbrough put the Rays in a 2-0 deficit in the second inning of Game 4 from which they never came back.
It all begins in the minor leagues, almost from the moment these pitchers are signed. So often, the ones with 95-96 heaters are immediately moved to the bullpen and not allowed to develop the secondary pitches necessary for a starter. (The theory being, without having to worry about length, they’ll throw even harder.)
Baseball wonders why attendance continues to decline and they can’t get a grip on the length of games. Thursday night, the Los Angeles Dodgers eliminated the San Diego Padres 12-3 in a game that took 4 hours, 4 minutes, largely because Padres manager Jayce Tingler set a Major League record by using 11 pitchers. What was the point of that? To give each of them a taste of the postseason? Granted, they were without two of their top starting pitchers, Mike Clevinger (who left after one inning of Game 1 of the NLDS) and Dinelson Lamet, but Tingler wound up using his bullpen for 37 out of 52 innings in the Padres’ six postseason games.
Another reason for starters not lasting as long anymore: Hitters have changed their approach, leading to more strikeouts. Or as one longtime scout put it: “Today’s starting pitchers have to work a lot harder because the hitters are all flailing away with those upper cut swings, trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark, and instead of getting quick outs, the counts are longer and longer.”
On the subject of strikeouts, a bit of a segue here. While the Rays have built an excellent roster through trades, their one glaring flaw is their 27% strikeout rate. That’s the second-highest in baseball, which even Cash concedes is too much. And a hefty percentage of those strikeouts came from their windmill catcher Mike Zunino, who hit .147 with 37 strikeouts (as opposed to 11 hits) in 84 plate appearances in the regular season and another 10 strikeouts in 16 postseason plate appearances.
Last winter, the Rays made an executive decision — as always based on money — to let Travis d’Arnaud leave as a free agent and turn their catching over to Zunino. D’Arnaud, who rejuvenated the Rays after being purchased from the Dodgers in mid-May last year, hitting 16 homers with 67 RBI in 92 games and doing an excellent job handling the pitching staff. He went to his fourth team in two years, signing a two-year/$16 million deal with the Atlanta Braves in the offseason. He’s been worth every penny of it, hitting .321 with nine homers 34 RBI in the regular season and leading the Braves with seven RBI in their three-game sweep of Miami in the NLDS. More importantly, the Braves’ pitchers have an 0.92 ERA in their sweeps of Reds and Marlins in the postseason with d’Arnaud catching four shutouts.
As it is, the Rays have the 28th lowest payroll in baseball. Adding d’Arnaud’s $8 million salary (prorated $2.9M this year), would have put the Rays about even with the Florida Marlins’ 27th lowest payroll, which, considering what d’Arnaud would have contributed as opposed to Zunino, makes the Rays’ decision look extremely shortsighted now. Just as egregious was the New York Mets’ decision to flat-out release d’Arnaud in May of last year and absorb his $3.15 million contract without allowing him time to fully work his way back from Tommy John surgery. Would d’Arnaud as their catcher instead of Wilson Ramos made the difference of four wins the Mets needed to make the postseason? Hard to say, but certainly if they hadn’t been so hasty last year, they wouldn’t still be facing a gaping hole at the position.
(Bill Madden is a baseball writer and columnist for the New York Daily News.)
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