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Watered Down Baseball: What Happened to My Game?

On May 1, 1920, the Major Leagues would witness the longest game in the history of the sport. The Brooklyn Robins battled the Boston Braves in a game that would eventually end in a 1-1 tie, due to the fact that it was getting dark out, and stadiums were not built with lights at the time.

The two starting pitchers are names that are not really recognizable now, and they are Leon Cadore and Joe Oeschger. The amount of innings to be played that night fell just short of the equivalent of three games, at twenty-six innings. What is even more remarkable is that both starting pitchers finished the game. That’s right! Twenty-six innings pitched by each one of them, and surely they did it proudly, trying to earn their team a win.

Nowadays in baseball, if a pitcher goes six innings we give him a medal, but back then, pitchers were actually expected to finish the game that they started.

This is a feat known as pitching a complete game, a stat that is a rarity today, except for the likes of Roy Halladay, who was probably born in the wrong time frame. People make such a big deal about him because he eats up innings and has led the majors in complete games year after year. But had he played even just thirty years ago, baseball fans and analysts would be saying, “So what?”

This is not a knock on Halladay, more like the highest of compliments. It is truly a shame that this sport does not have more of him. But the fact of the matter is, this league we all love and watch now is watered down baseball, ruined by the owners and general managers by dolling out huge sums of cash to the players, and ruined by the managers for not playing real baseball.

What do we consider a solid season by a starting pitcher in present time? Maybe two hundred innings and ten to fifteen wins. If any pitcher consistently puts up those numbers, they will earn a major contract, be on the all-star team, and be looked at as a top pitcher. But fifty years ago and beyond, those stats were nothing major.

A pitcher today is considered a freak if he goes above and beyond those numbers. So what’s wrong with this situation is that we award them for doing something that was considered normal in the early days of baseball.

Let’s take a look at Christy Mathewson, one of the first inductees into the Baseball Hall-of-Fame. In the 1908 season, he threw thirty-four complete games, while amassing 390.2 innings, all while winning thirty-seven games. Quite remarkable, don’t you think?

Want to know what is even more shocking than that? His arm did not fall of during the season. And Mathewson was not alone; in 1903 he set his career high with thirty-seven complete games and was not even the league leader.

That is the major problem: managers being too protective of their pitchers. Today if a pitcher goes six innings, we pat him on the back saying he did the best he could, and then the men in charge of baseball had to worsen the matter by awarding him a stat; that ridiculous piece of new-age garbage known as the “quality start”.

A quality start is categorized as if a player pitches six or more innings and gives up three runs or less (which makes the ERA 4.50, not a great number in itself), he is awarded that. So now already the pitcher has in my mind that once he gets to the sixth, he can come out of the game. Fifty years ago if a pitcher wanted to come out that early in the game, either he had to be dying or his wife was giving birth.

But this problem did not just evolve on its own, in fact, it all started when closers became a mainstay in baseball.

Saves had always been a stat, but they were rarely used because teams really did not have much of a bullpen back then. As a manager you had your five starters (sometimes teams opted to go with only a four man rotation) and maybe two or three pitchers to have in case of emergency. If those relievers were not available, then you just used a starter to come in and finish the game.

Take a look at pitching stats from the early days of baseball. You will see that most pitchers have saves, but none hardly ever have more than ten. That is because these pitchers were workhorses, and saves were meaningless to them. Getting back to Mathewson, in 1908, he started forty-four games as the team’s ace. But he would also make twelve relief appearances and earn five saves.

Most likely those saves were the kind earned when one pitches the final three innings of a game and the team wins, a situation hardly seen in baseball today.

The Oakland Athletics are really the team to blame, as they started the whole movement of a pitcher pitching solely to close out the game, and that is where the term closer came from. It all started with Rollie Fingers and then Dennis Eckersely, and by the time the latter replaced the former, a league wide hysteria had caught on.

All of a sudden managers realized that they did not need their starters pitching every inning. Originally it was not that bad. Closers were there to pitch two, maybe three innings. But then managers got another idea into their heads; the set-up man.

If one situational reliever was not enough, they now had one for the eighth inning, and some even had another one for the seventh. Shortly, “lefty specialists” would become a mainstay in every bullpen, in addition to the above lunacy.

Closers were not all that bad, and in fact, I was fine with them until a few years ago when I realized just how over-hyped they are. Just listen to what people say:

“Not just anyone can be a closer.”

“It takes a special pitcher to close out a game.”

“You need to have a certain mindset to work the ninth inning.”

It has gotten so bad in recent years that closers have started to believe them. They have to have a special song when they run on the field, grow crazy facial hair to be intimidating, and come up with some manipulated version of the sign of the cross to jump around and do upon getting the final out.

When people argue that it takes a special person to be a closer, what about all the “star” closers that get injured every season and some journeyman nobody comes in and pitches lights out?

Take Dustin Hermanson for example, a middle of the pack starter and a below average reliever. After he left San Francisco in 2004 to join the Chicago White Sox, this sub par pitcher became the team’s closer and was lights out, saving thirty-seven games with an ERA of 2.04. The next season? He appeared in six games before being demoted to the minors, where he has never returned from.

Then there is Ryan Franklin, who bounced from the majors to the minors for his entire career, and last season becomes the most feared closer in the game. He even had to grow a crazy goatee to try to scare people. And what happened when the playoffs rolled around? How elite was he then?

The final example of this counter argument saying that anybody can close comes with David Aardsma of the Seattle Mariners. This was a player who played on four different teams in four years, and a guy who could not hit a cow if he was standing on the milking stool. Yet last season, he saves thirty-eight games and this season he finds himself owned by 86% of all fantasy baseball managers.

All of this hype for one inning wonders, and they only pitch one inning because they want to come into the ninth with a nice fresh, clean slate to pitch on. All this build up of closers only being able to pitch one inning has made them mentally unstable to come in during the eighth inning. How many times do we see elite closers come in early with men on base, only two allow them all to score before getting the outs?

And why does a save only have to come in the ninth inning? Tell me, what is more valuable; a closer coming in with nobody on base in the ninth inning and getting three outs, or a reliever coming into the seventh inning with the bases loaded and getting the outs he needed?

Why can’t the save be awarded to the pitcher who actually “saves” the game? It could be a discretionary stat, decided by the official league scorers. But then again, that would not be fair to the closer, because he is getting paid the big bucks to pitch his one, glorious inning.

So now the middle relief pitchers got upset, and Major League Baseball had to instill the biggest travesty this sport has ever seen, with a little stat known as the “hold”.

According to this fantastic stat, if a pitcher enters the game with a lead and exits with the lead, he is awarded the stat. These are two scenarios that can lead to a hold. Please tell me what is wrong with them:

1. Pitcher A enters the game with a 10-0 lead and retires three batters. His team wins the game and he is awarded a hold.

2. Pitcher B enters the game with a 10-0 lead and gives up nine runs. His team holds on for the win and is awarded a hold.

How on earth can baseball award a pitcher for a poor performance? It is because everything has to be individualized, and everyone must have a stat. There have been instances where a pitcher has come into a game, walked a batter, and left being awarded a hold. A pitcher not even recording an out and getting a positive stat?

Managers are even losing games or putting them at risk because of over-reliance on their bullpen. Take yesterday afternoon, for example. The Athletics were leading the Giants 1-0 after eight innings. Gio Gonzales had pitched all eight innings, allowing only two hits and one walk. He only had ninety-five pitches, but was lifted in favor of closer Andrew Bailey, who in his one inning would throw thirty pitches and allow two baserunners.

Although the A’s still won the game, how come Gonzales could not finish it out? Was it because he was approaching 100 pitches?

This is the new thing now, pitch counts. When I first started watching baseball in the late 90′s, I don’t remember them being mentioned. Now the hysteria has even gotten so bad as the YES Network now has a pitch count display on the main scoreboard, so that every second in the game you know where your pitcher is.

I don’t see this as counting up pitches, I see it as counting down to how much longer a pitcher has left to go. At the hundred pitch mark, apparently, a pitcher’s arm will just fall off. It is taboo to allow someone to throw much more than than that. Why, I ask? Why?

Take the New York Yankees and last season’s embarrassing treatment of Joba Chamberlain.

Starter, reliever, starter, reliever.

It got so bad that it seemed like almost every month they were changing him around. Then it got worse and they created the “Joba Rules”, which monitored his pitch counts and innings totals. Eighty pitches, and he was done. Getting close to the innings limit? Skip his starts every few weeks and only allow him go four when he does. (Thank God for bullpens!)

Chamberlain is now the set-up man for Mariano Rivera, the spot he should have been in all along. But it is safe to say that the Yankees ruined what was their most promising pitching prospect since perhaps Mariano himself.

Not only that, but he was built like a brick you-know-what. At 6-2, 230 pounds, Chamberlain was not some frail little stick. Let him pitch, or will his arm just fall off? Why couldn’t they let him mirror Tim Lincecum who is big enough to be confused with the bat boy? All he has been able to do in two seasons pitching without a leash is win two Cy Young awards.

He came up from the minors gunning it at 99-101 MPH. How he is lucky if his hardest fluctuates between 94-96. He struggled as a starter last season, and he is struggling now, with an ERA of 4.50. (But that’s okay, cause he has nine holds)

So I ask, what happened to this great game? Starters no longer pitch to help the team win, but they pitch to earn wins themselves. Closers do not pitch to seal the win for their team, they pitch to earn a save. And now relievers do not pitch to help out the team, but to get a hold.

All of this individualized, and all of it for the stats. There is no longer any winning for the team, just winning for personal stats. It will only get worse, and in years to come I wonder how many more will be invented so we can give another mediocre pitcher his own stat.

The way this game has dipped in recent years is embarrassing. What happened to durability in players? In the 1900′s when players were overweight chunks of fat whose only off-season exercise consisted of raising a beer glass to their mouths, they never got injured. Now players have personal trainers and a staff of team doctors and there are more injuries now than ever before. This really is cause for another article, but it adds to how watered down this sport has become.

Give me back the real baseball players we once had.

Give me back my game.

Please visit my blog, “From New York to San Francisco” .

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Interview With Morgan Ensberg, Former Member Of Astros, Padres, Yankees

Does everyone remember the EA Sports video game MVP Baseball 2004 ? The reason why I ask, is because when I think back to that game and all the players on opposing teams that used to burn me whenever I played it, the name Morgan Ensberg came to mind.

I would send Jason Schmidt to the mound for my Giants, and when it was time to face that Houston Astros lineup, it was a difficult challenge. Quite frankly, I never had a problem getting Biggio, Bagwell, Berkman, and Kent out, but Ensberg always gave me trouble. It was in 2004 that EA Sports would have to boost his ratings, after he had his first breakout season in 2003, when he hit twenty-five homeruns.

That next season, he would achieve his career high with thirty-six, make the All-Star team, and help lead his team to a National League Pennant and a trip to the World Series, where ultimately they would fall to the Chicago White Sox. At the end of the season, he would be awarded the Silver Slugger Award for third basemen.

In 2006, Ensberg would continue his solid play, cranking another twenty-three homeruns. 2007 would see him splitting time with the Astros and Padres before he finally finished his career the next season with the New York Yankees.

Since then, Ensberg has been writing on his own blog, Baseball IQ and has expressed an interest in wanting a career in broadcasting. I asked him about this and more in our email correspondence show below:

GC: This has been something on my mind of late, and that is players getting injured much more frequently than they did in years past. Even with the players being in better shape, they seem to not have the durability anymore. Why do you think this is a problem and what are some of the causes?

ME: I didn’t realize players were injured more than they were in the past.  But it sounds like you are trying to make a connection between steroids and injuries. I hate to speculate as to why guys are getting hurt when I don’t have any facts as to what type of injuries you are talking about specifically.

GC: In 2005, you had a chance to make the World Series as a member of the Astros. Even though the team fell short, can you describe for us what the experience was like?

ME: It was stressful.  There was a ton of media in the locker room and on the fields.  It was fun once the games started, but there is a bunch of outside stuff that makes it really difficult to keep your routines.

GC: You have recently announced that you would like a career in broadcasting, after starting what has developed into a very successful blog. Do you have any aspirations of working for ESPN or the MLB Network?

ME: I would love to work for either those two or FOX.  My real goal is to just get a job.  Beggars can’t be choosers.

GC: When you look down the road, can you see yourself as a manager or coach in either the Major Leagues or minors?

ME: My passion is teaching the game.  I love being on the field.

GC: As a member of the Astros for seven seasons, what was it like to play alongside future hall-of-famers Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell?

ME: It was great playing with those guys.  In the end, I was able to play with Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Jeff Kent, and Lance Berkman.  Those are some great players right there.

GC: Finally, I would like to ask you about steroids in baseball. Do you think that the league has been too harsh on players and has wasted time with their various investigations into steroid use, or do they have an obligation to keep the sport clean, although they started to enforce rules that were never set in stone originally?

ME: I am embarrassed that baseball players went down this path.  In my opinion, I think that guys made a decision to put their health in danger over the opportunity for money.  It just goes to show you how powerful money can be.  Steroids are illegal drugs.  If someone is doing them then I think we should get the police involved.

I would like to thank Morgan for taking the time to conduct this interview.

Morgan Ensberg is a former member of the Houston Astros, San Diego Padres, and New York Yankees. Over nine seasons, he appeared in 731 games, registering 110 HR and 347 RBI. He was a member of Houston’s 2005 NL Pennant winning team and is a one-time All-Star.

Please visit my blog, “From New York to San Francisco” .

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MLB Hottest Players: Edition No. 2

We will be closing in on the thirty game mark in the 2010 Major League Baseball season, and we still have players continuing to surprise, and star players that are struggling. This weekly list does not take the top five best statistical players, because it would virtually be the same people every week. This list focuses on some stars, but also on the underdogs who are having a good week.

Robinson Cano

The New York Yankees’ homegrown second baseman has been nothing but a stud so far this season. He is currently ranked number one overall in offense, according to Yahoo, and owns a league best .387 batting average while hitting in a loaded lineup. He has also shown great power, hitting nine home runs and his defense has been superb as well, committing only one error so far this season.”It’s a ribbee…for Robbie!”

Paul Konerko

After struggling the last two seasons, Konerko looks to be back on the right track this season as his twelve home runs leads the majors. Fantasy owners are still not sold though, because the numbers on him show him only be owned by 79 percent of managers, a number that was in the 90′s two seasons ago. Konerko has also been good in the field, with his one error, and if he keeps up this pace, he could very well have a forty home run season. And don’t forget, “You can put it on the boooooooooooard! Yes!”

Kelly Johnson

Here is another hidden gem making his way onto the list, a player Yahoo ranked 889. He currently finds himself sitting in eighteenth, but offensively is the third best second baseman behind on Robinson Cano and Chase Utley. He deserves a mention because he does not play in a stacked lineup like the other two. He is currently tied for second in the league with nine home runs, and has eighteen RBI’s with a .310 batting average. [Keep with trend and insert Braves announcer call here.]

Barry Zito

The last edition featured Tim Lincecum, but this time another Giant will get a chance. Could it be that Barry is back? The one time ace and Cy Young winner who has had three miserable seasons in San Francisco has finally found his game. He is currently 4-0 in five starts, and the one start the team lost, Zito gave up only one run. The plague with his tenure with the Giants has been run support, but they have been much better at it this season. His ERA is now an incredible 1.53. He started the season at less than 10 percent owned by fantasy managers, and he now sits at 83 percent. Don’t let us down, Barry!

Ubaldo Jimenez

Fellow NL West counterpart gets the nod as the other hot pitcher in the majors right now. Two weeks ago he tossed the first no-hitter in Rockies history, and he still has not looked back. He currently has a 5-0 record with a league best 0.79 ERA. He has become the ace that the Rockies have sorely lacked throughout their franchise history. Only question is, will the thin Colorado air allow him to stay this successful?

Also of note: Tim Lincecum and Roy Halladay have shown no signs of slowing down. It’s fun to do a comparison of the two, but even more fun to combine their numbers. The pair has a 9-1 record with an ERA of 1.37 and 82 strikeouts in 84 innings. Just give them a share of the Cy Young already.

And what’s up with Javier Vazquez? The ace of the Braves last season is struggling mightily with the New York Yankees, having a 1-3 record with a bloated ERA of 9.78. Fans are quick to overreact, saying that he cannot pitch in New York, even if he was 14-10 with them in his first stint.

It could be nerves, it could be a hidden injury; no one really knows. But one thing is for sure, it cannot get any worse. This could be a good time to buy low on him in fantasy leagues, if dealing with an impatient owner. His ERA won’t stay at ten all season.

Please visit my sports blog, “From New York to San Francisco” .

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