The Lost Art of the Start

Major League Baseball once again made history while no one noticed.

The Houston Astros had a no-hitter the other night!  In the Game Four of the World Series no less!

And we barely celebrated.  Womp womp!

There are a few reasons for that.  Please allow me to decipher.

Go ahead and ask me the name of the pitcher that threw the no-hitter.  Well, I can’t, because there were four.

Four no-hitters, you ask?

No, four pitchers that combined for the no-hitter.  That’s the way the game is played these days.  Long gone are its Don Larsen moments.  While baseball has always been a team game, a sport that has historically celebrated its players’ individual accomplishments has seen that become a thing of the past.

That seems odd to say in a year we witnessed the individually statuesque Aaron Judge break a 61-year-old record, Roger Maris’ American League single season home run total of 61, set in 1961.  Yes, you read that correctly.

But as significant as that number was to anyone who grew up watching the sport, Major League Baseball grasped for a past that was far too distant.  The game has changed dramatically and not only because fans no longer watch as religiously as they once did.

We’ve talked endlessly about how metrics have changed the game and how starting pitchers, on pitch counts, never go the distance.  Twenty years ago, there was no way a manager would even consider pulled a starting pitcher who’d given up no hits through seven.  Robbed of the chance to chase history, they’d have to be removed from the mound kicking and screaming.  That is no longer the case.

In every, single Major League season from 1990 back to the inception of record-keeping, the league leader in complete games reached double digits.  Robin Roberts threw 30 complete games in 1952.  Warren Spahn went the distance 22 times in 1962. Steve Carlton threw 30 in 1972.  In the American League that same year, Gaylord Perry threw 29 complete games.  In 1982, Carlton threw another 19 complete games.  In 1992, Jack McDowell threw 13.  Since 1999, only one pitcher in either league, James Shields, finished the season with double digit complete games.  Sandy Alcantara’s six complete games this season was the most a pitcher has had in either league since 2016.

For a reminder of how things used to be for one such horse, I highly recommend watching the new documentary “Facing Nolan” about one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in history.  The Ryan Express may be an extreme example but even in his late forties (when he still threw no-hitters), there was no way you were pulling him off the mound until he determined his job was done.  Managers didn’t even try.

The art of the start had waned so dramatically that after not allowing a single hit after 97 pitches in a World Series game, Astros starter Christian Javier barely put up a fight as his manager walked to the mound to relieve him of his duties.

Javier, who makes less than $1 million a year, will be coming up for a new contract soon.  Imagine how much he’d demand in upcoming negotiations with only the second World Series complete game no-hitter in history on his resume.  I’m not crying conspiracy that Major League Baseball teams intentionally pull starting pitchers to keep their salaries down.  They do it to preserve their arms, allegedly.  There are plenty of starting pitchers making LeBron-type money.  This year, the New York Mets made Max Scherzer the game’s highest-paid, starting pitcher.  He made $43 million in 2022.  Scherzer has thrown 12 complete games over his 15-year career.

Pitch counts and metrics have altered the game and assured that certain Major League records will never be broken.  If starting pitchers are being pulled at 100 pitches, or perhaps 120, there’s no way we’ll see a Don Larsen-like performance ever again.  We’ve seen the end of days where single pitchers toss no-no’s.  No-hitters are now combined efforts and while it always took the nine players on defense to help record history and ensure that all batters are properly retired, there was only one man on the mound dictating that action.  Not so much anymore.

I hate to keep sounding like the old curmudgeon who talks about how glorious things were back in his day but the fact that a World Series no-hitter barely made news proves my point as to the diminished importance of the starting pitcher and the changing nature of the game.

Some seventy years later, baseball historians still fawn over Don Larsen’s perfect game as if it was stuff of lore while this year’s combined no-hitter barely got mention.

The start has become a lost art.

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