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Myths and Legends: The Pitcher's Duel

Mike SteffanosFriday, September 1, 2006
By Mike Steffanos

As we head into the Labor Day weekend, I realize that most of my readers and almost all of the other bloggers will be taking the weekend off. I know there are a few of you diehards out there that appreciate having something to read over the holiday weekend, so I'll try to give you something every day.

As I was watching those three games against the Rockies, with the softball-like scoring (and defense, at least on the part of Colorado), I was reminded of a question I got asked by a baseball friend who is a lot younger than I am. We were watching a game one time, featuring a decent amount of scoring but some really solid play, and he looked at me and said, "You must hate games like this." Not sure where the heck that came from, I asked him why he thought I would hate what was obviously a terrific game. His answer was to the effect that "old timers" like myself must find any game with a score higher than 3-2 to be somehow blasphemous.

After knee-capping the little bastard for insinuating that I was old (I prefer to think of myself as more fully realized as a human being), I explained to him that I have no rose-colored nostalgic picture of the brand of baseball played in the late '60s - early '70s that was so completely dominated by the pitcher. There were good games and bad games back then, too. Watching your team play sloppy and lose 5-2 back then was every bit as demoralizing as the sensation Colorado fans must have felt watching the first two games of this past series. A taught, well-played 6-5 game is every bit as exciting as a taught, well-played 3-2 game was back in the day. Actually, I find today's game a little more exciting because of the increase in scoring opportunities.

For a while in the '90s, baseball completely sold out to the long ball, to the detriment of the game, but the pendulum has swung back, and I think we have a fairly nice balance right now. If Major League Baseball enforced their own rules instead of allowing teams like the Phillies and Astros to build undersized bandboxes and there weren't so many "cheapy" home runs I think I would be a little happier, but I can't complain about a few more homers in the game. It was somewhat ridiculous when I first started watching baseball that an "elite" home run hitter would hit 25-35 dingers, now maybe it's a little silly that a guy like Morgan Ensberg was made to look like a superstar last season primarily because of the park he played in. It all balances out, I guess.

Baseball in the '40s and '50s was a much more offensive game than it was in that time period when I began to watch, so it's not like the low-scoring baseball I grew up watching was somehow "more traditional" than what I see now. One thing that differentiated the baseball I grew up with from baseball today was that the strike zone that umpires called was much larger than now, to the point of silliness sometimes. There was nothing quite like seeing your team's rally snuffed out by a strike 3 call that was 6 inches outside, especially when you were lucky if your team had 3 or 4 real opportunities to score in the whole game.

If there is anything that bothers me about today's game, other than some of the little league ball parks being built, it's the length of time that it takes to play the games. Sure, some of this is due to the increased offenses, and managers like Tony La Russa, who slows the game to a crawl through over-managing the bullpen. A lot of it has to due with the "Money Ball" emphasis on taking pitches and drawing walks. While I do believe it's a good thing for a batter to take pitches and work deep counts, there are a lot of guys whose approach seems to be a little passive. I've never seen as many called third strikes as I've seen in the past few years as guys are going up to the plate literally looking to walk. It certainly is within the rules, but it gets tedious to watch at times. I remember when the Padres came to town I felt that their hitters went a little overboard taking pitches, even to their own detriment at times.

Still, I understand that taking pitches is within the rules. Perhaps then we can cut down a little on batters who need to call time and reset themselves after every single pitch. Put a limit of one on the number of timeouts a hitter can call in one at bat. Put a clock on pitchers who take an excessive amount of time to pitch. It was refreshing to watch Dave Williams pitch over the 3 starts he gave us, because he wasn't messing around out there. Throw a pitch, get the sign, throw the next pitch -- it was beautiful. Train pitchers to pitch like that, and don't allow batters to slow at bats down to a crawl with timeouts. The games will be much faster with just those changes. Get rid of the DH (I know it will never happen) and you could really pick up the pace.

Give the inside pitch back to the pitcher. Take the damn body armor off hitters. If you want to crowd the plate, than you better be prepared to deal with the bruises. The way it is right now, power hitters hang their arms over the plate, intimidating pitchers from going inside. They start feeling the need to nibble with perfect pitches, and that slows the game down, too. Oh yeah, and don't award a batter first base if he's hit by a pitch that he makes no attempt to avoid, or a pitch that's only a couple of inches inside that hits him because he is diving across the plate. Then again, if you remove the stupid football pads, you'd probably see less of these two things, anyway.

I freely admit that I have no desire to go back to the olden days of low-scoring ball games, but there is simply no excuse for so many 9 inning games to run well over 3 hours, and the ones that exceed 4 are patently ridiculous. If we could pick up the pace a little, I think we have a pretty good game right now.

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Comments (7)

I once watched five tense, low-scoring affairs in a row. They were good, then great, then unbelievable. In the sixth game, the two teams broke out and scored 19 runs between them. Because the pattern had been stubbornly maintained and then suddenly exploded, the hitters' duel, as it were, felt like the greatest game I ever saw.

Even if my team lost.

That was the 1999 National League Championship Series. Granted there was a little something riding on it, but it proved to me that slugfests are awesome...if you don't see them every night.

Good point -- I didn't mean to give the impression that I felt high scoring games were inherently better than low-scoring games. I just appreciate that there is a little more offense today. A 4-3 pitchers duel can be every bit as exciting as a 2-1 game back in the day. I appreciate a few more runs, and a well-pitched, well-played game is still a joy, and a high-scoring, poorly played game is decidedly not a joy.

What? You mean there are no absolutes? But I read somewhere that absolutes are either always great or always terrible.

Mike as usual you have uncanny insight.

The selig era among its other damning notables is the mobile strikezone. THERE IS NO CONSISTENCY in what umpires call from yr to yr.

Sometimes its the 'high' strike or the 'low'strike. Sometimes the outside pt of the plate (or Glavine's world), or the inside strike. In response hitters simply take tooooo many pitches.

Ten yrs ago the cry was for faster moving games. Next yr I feel that a change again will come. Hitters need to 'avoid' being hit, also the high low and inside strike need to come back.

The one part I especially agree with you about here is the delight of seeing scoring without the long ball. A couple games ago, when the Mets played some great station to station baseball, I was here in St. Louis, but I imagine it was extremely fun to watch. Truthfully, Reyes leading off with a hit, stealing a base and coming home on a timely Lo Duca single is just as exciting as watching Beltran or Delgado smack a home run.

There are absolutes, Greg, I'm just messing with your mind.
micalpalyn -- There was no consistency back then, either. If you took 20 umps, you had 20 different strike zones. I think the high strike still doesn't get called often enough, and also the true curve ball doesn't get called for strikes anymore.

Matt -- I agree with you on that. I always thought the triple was more exciting than a home run, too.

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