There’s A ‘Pitching Crisis’ In Baseball Today. It’s Nothing The Game Hasn’t Seen Before

David B Morris
12 min readApr 11, 2024

How It Shows How The Nostalgia Factor Will Always Hang Over Baseball More Than Other Sport

In today’s New York Post, a prominent sportswriter wrote the second in a series of column about the pitching crisis facing baseball today. Mainly the fact that before the 2024 season even began many of the best pitchers in baseball are facing season ending surgery.

Some of his points are valid about the problems involving pitching and some aren’t. Because I want to give credit where it’s due, I’ll start with the valid ones.

Pitchers do seem far more prone to injuries than they were several years ago. I’ll be honest, this has always seemed like something that relative: of all the positions in baseball, pitching has always been the most fragile and the most likely to have a career-ending injury. It seems more prominent then before, but that may only be for other reasons.

The other, more valid, criticism is the argument that so much of the problem with pitching and much of baseball today has to due with analytics. As someone who has supported that claim in private and has done so in previous columns, I agree with this fully. Ever since ‘Billyball’ took over the major roughly twenty years ago, baseball has focused to much on home runs and relief pitching rather than anything else. The box office and popularity of the game have dwindled immensely over the years. And because baseball has him rigid when it comes to making any changes — something the sportswriters will back up at any opportunity — the game has been in decline for a while.

When the pitch clock came around last year, it was regarded by almost everybody as the worst thing that could happen to baseball and there are still many who argue that it has done immeasurable harm to the game. To be clear one of the biggest complaints fans — and even some owners have had over the last several years has been that it has become excruciating to watch a ball game.

This is a consensus I’ve been well onboard with for nearly a decade, particularly in the late innings when it seems to take two to three minutes for one batter to be dealt with by a pitcher. Seriously, there were long periods during the postseason when the tension would be so great that I couldn’t bear it. I would change channels from the game, channel chase for a while, then return to the game and find that exactly one pitch had been thrown in the course of a minute. Games were averaging between three and a half to four hours for nine innings. I’m a big fan of the game and the boredom factor was becoming a problem for me as long ago as 2011. But when it comes to sportswriters, they would rather their beloved game die of boredom among the purists then be given new life among a new generation of fans.

So even though the pitch clock managed to do much to resolve many of the problems that so many fans had had with baseball over the years when it came to attendance and ratings, the old fogeys who still think that Field of Dreams was a documentary of how baseball should always be played rather than a celebration of a time when it was segregated remained stern against it. Now this sportswriter is arguing that because of the pitch clock, the injuries that are dominating the pre-season are the cause of it. Correlation has never equaled causation, but sportswriters will always do that when it comes to anything new.

And because of this, the sportswriters goes back to the old nostalgia faster: that games in the 1970s and 1980s had pitchers throw for longer starts and that the games were shorter, that analytics have robbed us of the pitching matchups that fans (read him) long for and that for this to be resolve, changes have to be made. Either to make pitchers pitch longer or give them shorter contracts.

All of this fits part and parcel with the sepia tone that sportswriters have had since sports-writing: that baseball was better before. They’ve been saying it almost since baseball became a professional sport. These days, of course, the nostalgia factor is tricky because tot saying it was better prior to a certain era means that it was better when only white people played so they’ve stuck with the 1970s and 1980s. The fact that this just happens to cover the period before free agency — when ballplayers started getting the power to negotiate with management which as sports-writers have always thought ruined the game — is not a coincidence.

The problem is that even if you allow for the haziest of the Ken Burns documentary footage, he acknowledges that the greatness of the stats that these ‘armchair historians’ happened under the worst of circumstances. I’ll give a few choice examples.

Addie Joss

One of the great pitchers of the 1900s was Addie Joss of the Cleveland Naps. He won 20 games or more between 1905 and 1908, peaking at 27 wins and a perfect game in 1908. Then in 1910 he developed spinal meningitis. He struggled to pitch through the 1910 season; somehow managing to throw a no-hitter. But when he arrived at spring training in 1911, he collapsed and died just two days after he turned 31.

Why he did lie to his teammates all that time? Because he knew if his secret was revealed, the owners would fire him and if they did, his wife and family would starve. His teammates were terrified that their owner would not let them go to Joss’ funeral, so they all skipped town. Later than year, in order to provide for Joss’ family, the first ever all-star exhibition was held to raise money for Joss’ widow.

There’s always discussion of how tough ballplayers of the first half of the 20th century were. How they played hurt, how their was no such thing as a disabled list back then, how players hid their injuries so they play baseball. It’s sometimes said that they did it because of the love of the game. That’s not the real reason. If you got hurt in baseball, you were discarded by the management. You might get replaced by a better hitter or pitcher in the rotation. And if you did, your income, which was always smaller than you needed to live on, was gone. No pension. You had to go back to the coal mines or the bars or the farms and after their careers ended, many ball-players, including quite a few of Hall-of-Famers not only did, but died in poverty and starvation. Many ballplayers, after their careers in the majors ended, played in the minors for years afterwards. It wasn’t just because they loved the game: they needed the money to survive. And many of them still perished in alcoholism or disease or poverty.

We hear the stories of how so many of the great stars managed to pitch unthinkable numbers over the first twenty years of the century. I’ve written about the records of the Alexanders, Mathewsons and Johnsons. However they were the lucky ones. Because players were asked to throw as long and as hard as possible, they were far too often used up at a very young age. Rube Waddell set a record in 1905 with 348 strikeouts for the A’s. He was out of baseball four years later at age 32. Ed Walsh won 39 games and pitched 464 innings in 1908. He was essentially washed up at the age of 31. Amos Rusie had won 245 games by the time he turned 27. He never won another game after that. And those are the pitchers who managed to make it the Hall of Fame. Imagine all of the pitchers who had similarly brilliant careers for one or two years during this period and were used up by the time they were in their early twenties.

This didn’t change when the lively ball came along. If anything, it just made pitchers more expendable. If you couldn’t survive a few outings getting beat up by the cannonades of home runs during the 20s and 30s, I imagine your career was very short indeed. The few superstars of this era — the Lefty Groves’, the Carl Hubbell’s and the Bob Feller’s — managed to survive because in addition to being starters, they also doubled as relievers. These were the aces to be clear, back then the bullpen was a starter who wasn’t working and the occasional reliever such as Johnny Murphy or Firpo Mayberry. How many starters had their careers destroyed because they were working every other day will never be known; none of the ones who did it complained, and of course they were far too often the critics of the ones that came later.

Managers were fine using pitchers until their arms were used up. Indeed Sandy Koufax famously had to retire at the age of 31 because he felt he could no longer lift his arm. Over the five years of his peak, Walter Alston had been using him on two days rest and he never publicly complained. His retirement at 31 was as close to saying that — as well as a public statement made years later that had Tommy John surgery existed when he was younger, his career might have been saved.

The first ever free agent was a failure.

When we reach the 1970s and 1980s — the era this sports-writer remembers with fondness — it is true that pitchers dominated the game. It’s also true that many of them had their careers used up a lot earlier than they wanted. Catfish Hunter, the first free agent, pitched 30 complete games and 328 innings in 1975. His career was over four years later. That should have been a warning sign right there about how foolish it was to give any pitcher a long-term contract but George Steinbrenner never was accused of being that smart.

The year before Mike Marshall had won the National League Cy Young Award for LA, the first reliever to win the award. He had pitched in 106 games and had thrown 212 innings. He’d won 15 games and saved 21. He never pitched that well again.

Throughout the history of baseball there are far too many one and two year wonders. The Yankees dynasty is filled with pitchers who had good years, held out, tried to come back to fast and injured themselves, ending promising careers. It’s kind of shocking that we view that particular period in 1950s and 1960s as the good old days for baseball. How many Koufax’s and Spahn’s had their careers destroyed simply because their managers insisted that they pitch longer than they should or they hid their injuries because they were afraid they would be dropped from the rotation — and it would effect the salary for the next year? Baseball is all about remembering the greats, the what-if’s are just entries in the encyclopedia. Their careers might have been longer had they not been forced to play by ‘the handbook’ of the era. If you were in pain or injuries, management’s attitude was ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ Players were straw men for the team, easy to dispose of when they were no longer useful.

So maybe pitchers aren’t getting injured more often then before. Maybe they’re just being honest about it now because they have a union to protect them. Of course sports-writers have always been willing to follow the management line that players are overpaid, even when they were making $5000 a season. That says more about them then the players honestly.

And that gets me to the other point: the idea that the fans come to see pitching matchups and they’re being robbed of that. As a fan, this is complete horseshit. It might have been true back in the deadball era when there was no offense to speak off, but it hasn’t been clear since Babe Ruth came along and it hasn’t been true in my lifetime.

Pitching duels are nice in theory. Anyone who has watched a baseball game in their life knows that far too often aces facing off can lead to blowouts and that the least likely pitchers can throw 1–0 to shutouts. I can imagine the average fan getting the impression that a 1–0 game is part of the reason baseball is dull. But it’s all folderol because a pitching duel takes away the possibility that the other eight players in the lineup will just go along with it. That never happens.

As a fan of the game, the struggle I care about the most is the pitcher versus the hitter. It is those clashes I would have liked to see more if I could go to the past, even to the era of the deadball. I would have liked to see Honus Wagner bat against Christy Mathewson or Grover Cleveland Alexander, or Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker face off against Walter Johnson and Rube Waddell. I would have loved to see Ruth and Gehrig and the rest of murderers row go up against Lefty Grove, Bob Feller go head to head with Hank Greenberg or Ted Williams or Stan Musial face off against Warren Spahn.

Carl Hubbell.

The greatest moment in All-Star History may have come in 1934 when Carl Hubbell struck out, in order, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin. The National League lost that game but no one cared who the winning pitcher and losing pitcher was. It was one of the greatest pitchers going up against a line-up of Hall-0f-Famers.

Pitchers duels are nice ideas in theory but they have rarely played out in practice. In the 1986 World Series where the Red Sox faced off against the Mets, the world held its breath in anticipation when Dwight Gooden, winner of the 1985 Cy Young Award, faced off against Roger Clemens, who had just completed his first Cy Young season. At the end of the fifth Gooden had been knocked out of the game and Clemens had lasted two-thirds of an inning less. The Mets managed to win the World Series despite Gooden going o-2 with a 6.00 era. (I don’t think I need to tell anyone why.)

Yes the purists will argue we no longer live in the days when Harvey Haddix could pitch a perfect game for twelve innings and lose in the thirteenth or Juan Marichal and Warren Spahn would pitch against each other for sixteen innings. But moments like those were exceptions rather than the rule and I can’t imagine that they were something the average fan might want to enjoy. In the 1960s, Ford Frick increased the strike zone which led to a golden age for pitchers. By 1968, Carl Yastrzemski led the American League with a .301 average and attendance was horrible for all the teams. Pitchers were setting records for complete games and one out of every five games was a shutout. It didn’t lead to millions of fans coming to the park. This led to rules to lower the strike zone, expansion and divisional races — all of which purists argued would destroy the game. Just like you know, radio would, and night baseball would, and of course, integration. Baseball may be the most conservative sport imaginable. Kind of surprised that most of the teams are in deep blue states.

At the end of the day, this argument made by the Post sportswriter is just another in the long, endless march to argue towards the rose-colored view of baseball’s past rather than the reality of what it was back then. It’s also part of the argument that any change is an offense to the sport and that whatever improvements might be happening to the game short or long term come at the expense of its soul. Well, baseball is not a human being; it is a business. Only fans can think of it as a game. Sportswriters want to think of it as an institution, and like all institutions needs to be a constant with no changes or it will lead to the destruction of the game as they know it. That none of the few changes have done this makes no difference; this change will and it already has. It’s just them who can see it.

I personally think its easier to watch baseball now. It takes less time, but the pleasure is still there. There is more excitement but the tension has not lessened with the decrease in delays between pitches. This is an adjustment period and I personally think its helping the game. It’s still the game I recognize, even with the pitch clock and the designated hitter for both leagues and the injuries still plaguing pitchers at a ridiculous rate. The sportswriters are arguing that this will be the death of baseball. The reason I’m not worried is because I recognize that too.



David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.