Dirk Hayhurst is a retired major league pitcher, a national MLB correspondent and the author of “The Bullpen Gospels.”
“Baseball is like church,” former major league infielder and manager Leo Durocher once said. “Many attend, few understand.” And pitching is one of the most lionized, misunderstood and mythologized aspects of the game, even among other pitchers — hence those pointless titanium-infused necklaces they’re always wearing. Here are five myths from the mound, dispelled in time for opening day on Sunday.
1. Pitchers feel bad about beaning batters.
It looks nasty. It sounds — that dull thud — nasty. And boy, does it ever feel nasty. But that look of contrition on a pitcher’s face after putting a batter on the ground with a 90 mph fastball to the ribs, those conciliatory hand gestures — don’t mistake that display for an apology. That throw might very well have been intentional; the pitcher just doesn’t want the opposing hurler to hit one of his guys in retaliation.
Every pitch has to have a purpose, even if you’re creating that purpose after the fact as a way to save face. When you’re on the mound, you must project authority. A pitch to the ribs can’t be an accident, even when it is; a pitcher must make it something useful. Show that you’re contrite if you don’t want to start a fight. Be stone-faced if you want the opposing team to spend more time trying to figure out what you’re thinking than what you’re throwing. And flash a “there’s more where that came from” smile when you want to show the baseball-consuming public that you’re a bulldog who doesn’t back down — just be prepared to buy your best hitter a drink after he gets beaned.
2. Umpires are inaccurate.
Major blown calls — such as the one that cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game in 2010 — tend to increase public sentiment that umpires need more monitoring. In one survey after that call, 78 percent of baseball fans said the use of instant replay should be expanded for umps. Players obviously agree. One year at spring training, officials representing MLB’s umpires came to tell us about some rule interpretation changes. One of our players heckled, “Why are umpires always screwing me over on balls and strikes?”
Laughter broke out among the player herd, but the displeased ump rep launched into a lecture: Turns out umpires get cross-checked, graded, evaluated and trained extensively on calling balls and strikes. Then they get reviewed and punished and cross-checked again, according to the rep. In fact, he puffed his chest out and declared that umpires miss only about five balls and strikes per game. One study of a six-year period shows that umps call balls and strikes incorrectly about 15 percent of the time. Whether that number strikes you as high or low depends on which uniform you’re wearing. I think it’s terrible. But other numbers are not on my side. Another study, of the 2013 season, put the rate of missed calls on balls and strikes at 8 percent. And analysis of calls (excluding balls and strikes) from the same season showed that umpires collectively made only one clearly reversible error every 6
Still, that umpire rep’s heartfelt speech garnered no sympathy. The same player who asked about getting hosed by umpires followed up with, “Okay, but why do you always use all five missed calls on me?”
3. The closer is the most important pitcher in the bullpen.
No single pitcher influenced my desire to be a big leaguer more than the No. 2 on the all-time saves list: Trevor Hoffman. That influence had nothing to do with how he pitched — though he was darn good at it — and everything to do with how he came onto the field in the bottom of the ninth inning: The stadium lights went out, a spotlight came on, and the spine-tingling chime of the lone bell in AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” split the darkness, whipping the Padres home crowd into nacho-spitting frenzy.
For all the theatrics, though, baseball closers aren’t, statistically speaking, the most important pitchers in the bullpen. Since 1944, teams entering the ninth with the lead have won 95 percent of the time — closer or no closer. Teams with one-run leads? 85 percent of the time. Two runs? 94 percent. Three? 96 percent. In fact, it’s hard not to close a game.
The save stat, recorded as an S next to the names of the folks who collect them, wasn’t created by Major League Baseball. Not even some “Moneyball” acolyte who speaks in regressions and weighted averages can take credit. It was the invention of Chicago reporter Jerome Holtzman, who created the save in 1959 as a way of noting who was good at not blowing leads. Today, the last guy to take the mound and not suck makes millions for a completely arbitrary stat. Hoffman, who made more than $70 million in his career, once said of Holtzman, “I benefited quite a bit from him thinking that a reliever’s value was something that could be quantified through a statistic.”
The truth: The most important portions of the game are pitched around the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, when a lineup turns over for the third time and teams have a chance to send their best hitters to bat. There is a name for pitching success in this part of the game: a hold.
4. Players want a clean game.
There are two types of cheating: steroids and gamesmanship. The former involves sticking needles into one’s butt cheek. The latter involves Eddie Harris-style shenanigans best encapsulated in his line from the movie “Major League”: “Crisco. Bardol. Vagisil. Any one of them will give you another two to three inches’ drop on your curveball.”
As far as needles go, players do desire a ’roid-free game, or at least they do now. “Obviously there’s a want [among] the majority of the guys in the game to keep baseball clean,” Astros catcher and MLB Players Association rep Jason Castro said of drug use.
As for gamesmanship — which covers pitching aids from Crisco to pine tar — that’s governed by baseball’s “we all know you’re doing it, just don’t make it so obvious we have to say something” clause. Take the case of Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda, who put so much pine tar on his hands in a game against the Red Sox in 2014, he looked as if he fell into a bucket of the stuff. Cameras zoomed in on it. Radio men described its gooey details. Even the umpires could see the blatant brown splotch on his palm. But no one complained, so it didn’t exist.
Pineda did get in trouble during a rematch two weeks later when, after days of cheating accusations from the media, he had the audacity to take the mound with tar smeared across his neck. The problem wasn’t that he cheated. Pitchers cheat. Pine tar on your hat, Firm Grip under a belt loop, sunscreen and rosin mixed into an on-the-fly form of baseball-to-finger Fixodent — it’s understood. The problem was that Pineda made it so obvious the Red Sox had to act, which resulted in his suspension.
When asked about calling out Pineda, Red Sox manager John Farrell said, “I think there are probably ways you can be a little bit more discreet.” Note the distinct absence of “Pitchers shouldn’t cheat.”
5. Today’s pitchers are babied.
Every now and then, usually after some young, well-compensated pitcher’s arm explodes, an old pitching warhorse bellows from the grave, “Back in my day, we never had arm injuries!” After Mets phenom Matt Harvey’s arm blew up in 2013, angry pitching elder Tom Seaver railed: “Imagine if these computer geeks who are running baseball now were allowed to run a war? They’d be telling our soldiers: ‘That’s enough. You’ve fired too many bullets from your rifle this week!’ ”
Yes, and you walked to school uphill both ways in the snow — we get it. Today’s pitchers do get hurt more often, but not because they’re babied or trained in skimpy throwing programs that prevent the building of arm resiliency (or the winning of wars). The arm-injury rash and its contrast to the perceived endurance of past warhorses result from several things: increased speed, overuse and awareness of injuries. Today’s pitchers have the same ligaments as yesteryear’s; it’s all the other stuff that’s changed.
Pitchers now throw harder and more frequently than ever before. The average MLB pitching velocity climbed from 90.9 mph in 2008 to 92 mph in 2013, and that’s over just six years. Extra abuse on young ligaments, compounded over time, means more stress and more injuries. MLB’s obsession with velocity has trickled down into youth baseball, a recipe for more problems.
Before the option of Tommy John surgery, if a pitcher’s arm failed, he was tossed out of the game and replaced. Attrition made MLB teams invite players to spring training by the hundreds. Only those with unnatural resiliency made the grade. It’s easy to point to those who endured, but history has no record of the countless faces whose careers never had a chance.