Saturday, June 6, 2009

Steve McCatty and the "Good Old Days"

There's been a lot of talk since Randy St. Claire was replaced by Steve McCatty as pitching coach about the "good old days" when teams didn't worry about pitch counts and pitchers expected to go nine every time out.

Rob Dibble in particular has been vocal about how pitchers today are babied and waxing nostalgic about the 1980 Oakland A's starting rotation of McCatty, Matt Keough, Mike Norris, Rick Langford and Brian Kingman. They were five young stars, and together they graced the cover of Sports Illustrated on April 27, 1981 with a headline, "The Amazing A's and their Five Aces."

Here are the ages and key stats for the five in 1980:
  • McCatty (26): 221.6 IP, 3.38 ERA
  • Norris (25): 284.3 IP, 2.54 ERA
  • Langford (28): 290 IP, 3.26 ERA
  • Keough (24): 250 IP, 2.92 ERA
  • Kingman (25): 211.3 IP, 3.83 ERA
Together, the groups pitched 94 complete games that year. Four times, an A's starter pitched a 14-inning complete game. Langford started one game that season on two days rest and at one point threw 22 complete games in a row. Norris said of manager Billy Martin, "He made you feel as if you had feminine tendencies if you wanted to come out."

To listen to Dibble, you'd think this was all just the way it should be, and that McCatty will hopefully lead the team to a throwback era where men were men and pitchers finished what they started.

Well, if you've been paying any attention to the last 40 years of sports medicine, you know where this is going. All five of the A's aces were done as effective major league pitchers within three years of that SI cover.

Norris declined for two seasons, had shoulder surgery after the 1983 season, and, but for a brief comeback at age 35 in 1990, he was done at age 28.

Langford pitched through pain (not very well) in 1982, had elbow surgery in 1983, and was done as a starting pitcher at age 30.

Keough started feeling shoulder pain in May of 1981 when he slipped on a wet mound in the middle of his throwing motion. He gutted out that season, but his ERA jumped to 5.72 in '82, and he was out of baseball at age 30.

Kingman didn't get hurt, but Martin, showing that he was as dumb about stats as he was about pitcher health, blamed Kingman for losing 20 games in 1981. He had a 3.83 ERA that year but got a minuscule 2.87 runs per game of support, and, of course, Martin made him pitch deep into every game, so he always got the decision. He apparently didn't get along with Martin (can't imagine why) and eventually got himself sent to the minors and then traded. He was out of baseball at age 29.

For McCatty, the shoulder pain started in '82. Here's how he described it to SI in 1983: "Nineteen eighty-two and-three were the most miserable years I've ever been a part of. I pitched when it felt like my arm was going to come right out of the socket. I'd have tears in my eyes, and in my mind I'd say to the guy at the plate, 'Hit this one, for God's sake, so I don't have to throw another.'" Still, he pitched. The injuries eroded his effectiveness quickly, and he was out of baseball by 1986 at age 31.

Now, it's certainly possible and in fact likely that none of this reflects on McCatty the pitching coach. When it comes to pitcher abuse, he played in the dark ages, and we've come a long way. If anything, I would guess his experience taught him just how dangerous it can be to pitch tired.

But when you hear Dibble and others complain about how wimpy pitchers are and how big player salaries have made teams too cautious, remember Oakland's amazing five aces. Talent is a terrible thing to waste, and I for one am glad that those "good old days" are long gone.


Souldrummer said...

As always, it's a balance. Reading McCaddy's comments on the link that you provided is instructive. He liked to go long and he liked Martin's approach; he regrets that he tried to pitch through pain.

It's about winning games. If you've got a good bullpen whose ERA is lower than that of your starters like the current Mets, by all means shorten the games and have them go 6 or 7. But when you've got Hanrahan and a McDougal prayer you want to try to stretch these guys. We'll really see the philosophy of this team when we have to decide whether a total innings approach or an effectiveness approach governs who is getting starts by the end.

I must say I really hope these guys make it impossible for Olsen to get innings when he gets back. Like you, I can't stand the man and would rather see Ballester called up than have to witness Olson again.

Steven said...

I think saying that the player liked Martin's approach is to excuse the manager of his responsibility.

The point is that 30 years ago, baseball knew (or acted like it knew) almost nothing about the physical limits associated with pitching and routinely asked pitchers to do things that would cause injury in many if not most cases.

This is bad management. The player's job is to go out and compete, not think about managing his injury risk. The player's job is to like the manager's approach regardless of what the manager's approach is! And especially when you start making it an issue of manhood and toughness, the pitcher has no choice.

There's nothing about those 1980 A's to admire from a coaching perspective.

I've said for a while that Manny should let guys pitch deeper into games, but I was thinking more about Olsen and Cabrera, two guys whose only redeeming value is their endurance. And I think with the young guys he shouldn't pull them at 70-80 pitches. That's silly when he does that.

But four 14-inning complete games in one season??? That's just treating your pitchers like cannon fodder.

Hendo said...

Agreed, it seems silly not to expect young guys to be able to throw 90 or 100 pitches. At the same time, it seems silly not to expect older guys (26+) to be able to go at least seven innings even if it sometimes takes 120 pitches or so. Constant, chronic overuse is what needs to be avoided.

If the Nats don't torch the young guys on the staff, which they say they won't, then -- if nothing else -- we should be expecting them to have to lean less on the bullpen in succeeding seasons.

Does it bear mentioning that Dibble's last effective season was at age 28?

John O'Connor said...

At lease Matt Keogh parlayed all this into marrying former Playboy Playmate Jeanna Tomasino (the brunette in the ZZ Top videos), though they are now separated.

Deacon Drake said...

There are so many other things that play into pitchers fatigue other than innings and pitch count. The problem is that there are too few good pitching coaches that can identify these symptoms. Nobody could with Scott Olsen, but he was clearly hurt. The easiest thing to measure is a raw number.

It is a lot harder to monitor each pitch, watching to see if he is shortening his stride to the plate, dropping his hand, elbow, shoulder, etc. Kyle Davies looked crisp in the eighth inning, despite going over 120 pitches. The Mets probably could have let Livan throw another CG (man, he really wanted to exact some revenge on the Nats) but chose to shut him down with the score 7-0.

In spring training, everybody attributed CC Sabathia's slow start to his workload last season, overlooking the fact he had just signed a new contract and showed up at camp out of shape, and started even slower last year.