May

21

David, you are obviously much more knowledgeable about the game of baseball than I, so I'd like to ask your opinion on Gibson and Koufax.

How do you think they would have fared in today's modern game and how would they have been used by their teams?

David Lilienfeld writes:

Thank you, but I doubt the premise of your question is true. Gibson and Koufax would likely still anchor their respective teams, but neither would likely get more than 25, maybe 26 starts, tops. I doubt that their arms would have been as strong–they wouldn't have developed to be, they would also throw only 100-110 pitches/game (sorry, having seen the great Orioles pitching staff of the late 1960s/early 1970s, I'm a big believer in strong arms that throw complete games). Their control would continue to have been outstanding. The thing about both Gibson and Koufax is that they pitched enough innings and in enough games that when they got tired and they knew the bullpen staff was pitched out arm sore, they would suck it up and make a go of it. They would change their set-ups, mix-up pitches more and so on. But a pitcher can only be that mature if given the opportunity to play–and that's something verboten today. So while both of these folks would have excelled, I doubt they would have been the dominant forces that they were in their day.

Take a look at their records, or throw in Jim Palmer and Denny McLain too, if you want. They routinely pitched more than 270 innings–good seasons and bad. It wasn't until Koufax started throwing more than 220 or so innings that he came into his own. Heck, even in his last season, when his elbow had been so threaded by arthritis that he needed to soak it in ice for 2 hours after each game, he threw 27 complete games. I guess you could say that his career would have lasted longer if he hadn't pitched as much as he did–except that that's how he found his groove.

It's not as though this was something that characterized only the greats of the day. Jim Kaat started 42 games one season–and he played for more than two decades. Never mind that he won 280 games and was never elected to the HoF. Take a look at Steve Carlton. These guys were good, sure, but I think that, like Koufax, part of their greatness was that they were worked hard.

I'm sure there are those on this list who will say everything's fine with how pitching staffs are managed today, that I'm a dinosaur for taking such a risk with someone's arm to let them pitch so many innings, start so many games–that that experiences really isn't necessary for pitching excellence, never mind greatness along the likes of Koufax and Gibson. Much as I think the days of someone as competitive as Frank Robinson are passed, so too are the days of the dominant pitcher. Consider Jim Lonborg, who pitched more than 270 innings in his CYA year (1967). During the World Series, he pitched game 7 on two days rest. Two days! Would any manager even think of doing that today? I doubt. it. I could hear the players union rep going to court about it violating some contract clause. His wife might complain that he's being asked to do the impossible–3 days rest is pushing it as it is. Nope, the days of the strong pitcher are done.

Koufax and Gibson: we likely won't see their likes again anytime soon. Probably not in my lifetime, at least. And I doubt that if they came up today, they wouldn't be nearly as dominant, good as they might be. They would never be given the chance in the first place. It's almost five decades since Koufax retired, and people still talk about the devastating Koufax curve. The same is true of Gibson and his fastball. You need someone with the insights of a Branch Rickey to go back to the four man rotation that produced a Koufax, a Gibson. Do you see a Branch Rickey around? Me neither.

All of which may not be surprising. 100 pitches isn't very many, after all.

(Sorry for the long-winded answer, but pitch counts are a tender topic for me. I don't like coddled arms–just a sign of a pussy-wussy approach to managing the bull pen.)

Stefan Jovanovich comments:

Koufax and Gibson would most certainly be stars no but so would Bob Feller and Christy Mathewson (Tom Glavine as a right-hander). What has changed in baseball is that starters can't start at 80% and then work up to full capacity the way they did in the good old days. Matt Cain's innings pitched have matched the old timers but what he and other top-line starters have painfully discovered is that they now have to pitch the first and second innings with intensity. The technology revolution has allowed all hitters to diagnose their own swings and pitchers deliveries the way only a genius like Ted Williams once could do with only his own eyes. Felipe Alou sat down with his son Moises when the Giants got their first screen analyzer; his comment was "I never understood my own swing". The pitch count is stupid because it is a hopelessly crude metric. 75 pitches at Coors is a solid performance; at AT&T the same effort should produce 95-100. But no one now can go as long as pitchers once did; hitters aided by video study won't let them.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felipe_Alou

David Lilienfeld replies:

Respectfully, Cain doesn't have the innings pitched numbers of past cohorts. And I disagree on the "new" need for intensity. You don't pitch an ERA of 1.1 without that same intensity, and while analysis of one's swing is helpful, pitch selection is moreso. You could have an optimal swing, you still couldn't hit a Koufax curve. Palmer's slider wasn't quite so devastating, but if he was on his game, it didn't much matter how good a hitter you were, you weren't going to hit the ball.

The thinking these days seems to be that with all the money being paid to pitchers, no one wants to risk an injured arm from over use (!). Hence the five man rotation.

Maybe we're just going to have to agree to disagree.


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1 Comment so far

  1. steve on May 22, 2013 1:54 pm

    athletes today are bigger better stronger better training better travel better nutrition better CHEATING in short everything is better. Indoor parks, short fences, fast turf grooming, The quality and consistency of the baseball has improved. Rules have changed no more head hunting no brushbacks no throwing at batters. Mound is lower and was lowered after Gibson had a 1.12 ERA.

    Depth of quality is lower my opinion. It is now dominated by spanish Venezuela, DR. Cuba America. Blacks play basketball, football, Whites play golf and go into management.

    That said Koufax was a craftsman as was Gibson. They had gas plus pinpoint accuracy and could vary their speeds. Their pitches were lively. Feller was a phenom.

    Comparing eras is entertaining but there is no way to fairly compare.

    But it makes interesting conversation especially in sports bars where men with 40inch bellies, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer and eating fat foods talk about such things.

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