Peter Gammons: Without depth and durability, genius is fragile

Jon Lester craft

As we wait to see if Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine are elected to the Hall of Fame Wednesday, as expected, one of the most underappreciated elements to their remarkable 300 win records and their greatness was their durability. In a 15 year period, interrupted only by The Strike that cancelled the 1994 post-season, the Braves made the playoffs 14 times, which meant that while most players had 4 ½ months to prepare for spring training, Maddux, Glavine and John Smoltz had one extra month of pitching and one less month of rest and recover every year.

Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald wrote a superb piece talking about the strain an intense post-season puts on a pitcher the next year with Orel Hershiser. Now, Orel’s 1988 was astounding. The scoreless streak. The trip out of the bullpen in Shea Stadium between starts. Jim Kaat and I interviewed Hershiser after his Game Two win in Dodger Stadium and asked him about whether or not he worried about the damage it might do to his career, and he replied, “this might be the one chance I get at something like this in my lifetime, so I’m going for it, and figure out the cost sometime later.” Which is what happened.

From 1988 with the Cubs until 2006—19 years—Maddux pitched between 199 1/3 and 268 regular season innings. He pitched in the post-season every October from 1995 to 2003, 13 starts.

Beginning with 1995, when he won the clinching game of the World Series with an eight inning, one hit shutout of the powerful Cleveland Indians, Glavine pitched in eight consecutive Octobers. In that eight year stretch, he threw between 198 2/3 and 241 regular season innings. He once said, “it’s something you learn to adjust to. It sometimes requires trying to win without your best stuff.”

Lauber went on to point out that Jon Lester is coming off a season in which he threw a career-high of 213 1/3 regular season and 34 2/3 post-season innings. As we know, there is no such thing as a Lester outing in which he isn’t intense and leaves it all out there, which makes one wonder if there will be an aftershock. Same with Koji Uehara, whose regular season 74 1/3 innings was a high, followed by 13 2/3 innings on down to the final out of the World Series. Same with John Lackey, who at 35 came off Tommy John Surgery, threw 215 1/3 innings and threw the series clincher, after throwing a total of 160 innings since 2010.

And one doesn’t know for certain about what to expect from Clay Buchholz. He threw 129 innings including the post-season. He’s never thrown 190 in a season.

So when some of Ben Cherington’s lieutenants gauged interest in Boston’s veteran starters at the Winter Meetings, it wasn’t to try to move Jake Peavy, Ryan Dempster, Lackey or Felix Doubront. It was simply to get a feel for what market might exist, if they suddenly had a need. John Farrell will go into the spring with six starters, plus Allen Webster, Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo, Brandon Workman and Steven Wright.

If there were a modern team that the spring after winning the World Series appeared to be a sure thing the following spring, it was the 1987 Mets. But Doc Gooden had his issues, and dropped 70 innings. Ron Darling was the one constant, throwing 30 fewer innings, but Bobby Ojeda dropped from 30 to seven starts, Sid Fernandez from 204 to 156 innings, and the Mets did not repeat.

In the spring of 1985, after the Cubs won 96 games and the division, Jim Frey thought his given was the starting pitching that had carried them to a 2-0 lead over the Padres in the NLCS. Dennis Eckersley made 25 starts, and two years later was gone. Cy Young Award winner Rick Sutcliffe started but 20 games and won seven. “By the end of May, every one of our starters was on the disabled list,” Frey said later in the season. “All of a sudden, I wasn’t so smart.” The Cubbies won 77 games.

Workloads are constantly monitored, and beginning with pieces by Jeff Passan and Tom Verducci have been the focus of the workload of Tanaka, going back to his high school days. Only three modern pitchers had thrown more innings before his 25th birthday, he reportedly threw more than 130 pitches in 13% of his starts, and had thrown a ton of innings and pitches as a teenager. Does Wally Bunker come to mind?

Cherington has been consumed with the alternatives depth provides. He went into last season with Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey as his potential closers. Both went down. Daniel Bard struggled. Uehara then became the most dominant closer in the American League from July 1 through the World Series.

Uehara and Junichi Tazawa go into spring training as the relievers at the end, with Andrew Miller and Craig Breslow. But Cherington signed Edward Mujica, Workman pitched the eighth inning of the World Series clincher, traded for Burke Badenhop, signed 38-year old Japanese submariner Shunsuke Watanabe and 27-year old Cuban Dalier Hinojosa, is still in on Korean Suk-Min Yoon and Cuban Raciel Iglesias and could put any one of a number of system starters in the pen, like Anthony Ranaudo, Barnes, Drake Britton, Rubby De La Rosa, knuckleballer Steven Wright or even Doubront. Assistant GM Allard Baird is known for seeing players from Cuba, the independent leagues, Korea and the Japanese Industrial League in a week’s work, so their rosters are in constant development stages, with no one putting it past young lefthanders Henry Owens and Brian Johnson to move into the passing lanes this spring.

When a team’s general manager, assistant general manager Mike Hazen, manager John Farrell are all former farm directors and the man in that current position, Ben Crockett, is a future GM, pitching development and depth are constantly part of the mission statement.

Farrell’s credo is the obvious “you never have too much pitching,” and delegates considerable authority in pitching coaches Juan Nieves and Dana LeVangie to keep everyone fresh and figure out where they fit.

The Red Sox are coming off a franchise turnaround season, one which began with controversy over Terry Francona and ended with ownership standing on the record of three world championships in their dozen years. Privately, they concede that they won because of their pitching depth, David Ortiz’s great run, defense and baserunning. Lesser the importance of Lester, Lackey and Uehara and, well, without a warehouse of depth, the reminders of the 1986-87 Mets and 1984-85 Cubs come back to remind them that genius is fragile.

Just ask Alex Anthopoulos. On this date, last year, he was acclaimed mayor of Toronto. Now…

All of which reminds us how great Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz were all those years.

  • SocraticGadfly

    Adam Wainwright threw a full 300 innings last year, counting postseason. I hope the Cards keep a good eye on him this year.