Published Aug. 25, 2018

On Aug. 23, Cole Hamels pitched a complete game for the Chicago Cubs.

There was a time when this news would be the same as “dog bites man” or “check is in the mail.”

A complete game? Pssh. What else ya got?

But this is 2018, so Hamels’ feat was splashed all over the Internet. For the Cubs, it was truly a “man bites dog” moment.

Hamels, who was acquired from the Texas Rangers on July 26, pitched the first complete game for the Cubs this season. And we’re in the shadows of Labor Day. The accomplishment was just the 12th such in the National League this season, spread over 15 teams.

Welcome to today’s game.

A story about Hamels’ performance on Cubbies Crib literally had the subheadline, Breaking Down Hamels’ Complete Game. 

I wonder if they’ll have a parade down Addison Street?

210 no-names

The complete game is breathing its last breaths. It’s gone the way of the drive-in movie theaters and T-Rexes. I wonder if the sports networks will start to break into their regular programming with updates, if a starting pitcher has gone seven innings. Will he return to the mound for the eighth inning? Oh, the drama!

It’s a bullpen game now, more than ever.

There are 30 big league teams. If you presuppose that every team has five starters, and most pitching staffs have 12 arms, that means roughly 210 relief pitchers are, collectively, deciding ballgames on a nightly basis.

And no one knows who they are.

Quick—name two relief pitchers on every team other than the one you follow. Heck, not even quick—take your time.

Can’t do it, can you?

Yet these 210 no-names are responsible for the outcomes of games regularly.

It would be like if NBA games were decided by the garbage time players every night. Take out all your starters early in the fourth quarter and let the scrubs determine the victor.

OK, I’m exaggerating. Slightly.

But you get the picture. Out of the bullpen they come every night—these often tall, lanky men wearing numbers like 56 or 68 or 71. They all throw hard and from all sorts of different angles.

They start pouring out of the pen circa the fifth inning and they don’t stop parading to the mound until the final out is made. When you factor in how long games routinely are, by the time they’re over, the starting pitcher could have showered, changed and taken his girl to dinner after he threw his last pitch.

They say a starting pitcher goes to the mound every fifth day. That may be true, but since he usually only pitches five-plus innings, he’s always about four-and-a-half games removed from his last outing.

Look, this isn’t the game of my day (I’m 55 years old). I get it. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Twelve outs, at least, are needed from a team’s bullpen on any given night, or so it seems.

And it’s not like bullpen performance is consistent from game-to-game, much less from week-to-week or, heaven forbid, year-to-year.

Image result for manager changing pitchers

Don’t mention ‘bullpen’ in Detroit

The teams with the best bullpens are usually the teams that are vying for the playoffs, but bullpen performance is like special teams in hockey: it has ups and downs—good and bad stretches that no one can really predict or see coming.

Tigers fans know this more than any team’s fan base. Mention the bullpen in Motown and chances are you’ll be greeted with an eye twitch.

It has been generally accepted that the Tigers’ inability to shut games down that should have been shut down, contributed mightily to the team’s coming up short in October from 2011-14, when the Tigers won the AL Central division in those years.

David Ortiz’s grand slam off Joaquin Benoit in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS, oh-so-symbolized by Torii Hunter disappearing over the short right field wall in Fenway Park, is a nightmare playing on an endless loop in a typical Tigers fan’s brain.

But Ortiz’s slam is just one of many instances when the Tigers relief pitchers pulled defeat from the jaws of victory.

Team management tried like mad to fix the problem. They traded, signed and converted. They dug their hands into the hat of the minor league system, hoping to come out with a rabbit. Usually they pulled out rabbit droppings.

So I’m not saying that bullpens are overrated. They’re just overused.

Starting pitchers aren’t even expected to go deeper than six innings in today’s game. Worse, they’re discouraged from such.

Are pitch counts a thing? Depends on who you ask.

Not even about pitch counts anymore

But it’s not even about pitch counts anymore, per se. The new thing revolves around “the third time around in the order.”

Apparently it’s been deemed by the metrics people, who have infiltrated and taken over the game in a bloodless coup, that the third time around in the order is fraught with danger for a starting pitcher. The numbers, in some cases, would appear to support that theory, but I wonder about the times when the numbers wouldn’t support. Managers seem to defer to the theory, whether it truly applies to their guy or not.

Old friend Jim Leyland, almost five years removed from managing his last MLB game, recently spouted off about the ceiling that managers have for starting pitchers. His annoyance is that it goes beyond the big league level.

“My problem with it really is, that’s the way we’re grooming [starting pitchers] in the minor leagues,” Leyland was quoted at Bless You Boys. “They throw 75 f–king pitches in the minor leagues. They say if they throw 75 they’re OK, but if they throw 76 they’re going to get hurt. Who the heck ever came up with that? It’s ridiculous. They don’t pitch innings anymore.

John Smoltz, Glavine, Maddux, they all pitched innings in the minor leagues. Now they’ve only got so many starts left because they’re supposed to watch their innings? I don’t buy any of that. They’re supposed to f–king pitch.”

Sure, Leyland is Old School. But he’s right that by the time a pitcher makes it to the big leagues, his arm’s muscle memory simply isn’t acquainted with going deep into ballgames. So it’s not like today’s MLB managers are taking kids who are used to throwing 90-110 pitches per start and ratcheting them down.

You take those 75 pitches that Leyland refers to, and if that becomes the baseline, you are naturally going to see starters who don’t see the final out of the fifth inning, unless it’s from the dugout.

I miss pitching duels—between starters, not bullpens. Oh, the drama when two starting pitchers match each other, pitch-for-pitch. Even if you like your game with a lot of offense, it’s hard not to appreciate two warriors duking it out on the same mound on the same night.

So here we are in 2018. We have over 200 no-names tasked with guarding leads and keeping their teams in ballgames, nightly. The starting pitcher, anymore, has become the opening act. The comedian charged with warming up the audience. Don’t worry: if you don’t like him, he’ll be gone before long.

Who knows? Maybe in the near future, the starting pitcher will be like the greeter at a restaurant. You see him briefly, nod, and then he’s out of the picture for the rest of the night. You might pass him on your way out.

He’ll be the one in street clothes, showered and shaved.

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