In 1912, the American League team from Washington had a 24-year old stud pitcher on their hands. He was arguably the best pitcher in the AL, or even in all of baseball. He had pitched 1350 innings for them already in his five years with the team. That included an incredible 370 in 1910 as a 22-year old. Did Washington coddle their young pitcher in 1912? Doesn’t look that way. Walter Johnson pitched 369 innings for them that year, winning 33 games. Did it ruin the rest of his career? Well, he pitched another 15 seasons after 1912, winning an additional 302 games. Sounds pretty good to me. Looks like there wasn’t any need to limit his innings, or rest him for next year.
But, people could say, Johnson was a rare pitcher. One of the few who could handle that sort of workload. You can’t assume that everyone could thrive under those conditions. And, that’s a true statement. So, let’s look at another extreme. In 1912, the Red Sox had a stud 22-year old pitcher who might have been the best pitcher in the AL, if Johnson wasn’t. He had pitched 650 innings for the Sox the previous four years. That year, he pitched an amazing 344 innings. He promptly blew out his shoulder. (Probably tore his rotator cuff, but they didn’t know about such things back then.) Never reached 150 innings again in his career after 1912. But, in 1912? He went 34-5 with a 1.91 ERA. One of the best seasons ever. He had three of the four Boston wins in the World Series. The Sox walked away with the championship over a NY Giants team that won 103 games in 1912. What if the Sox had rested Smoky Joe Wood during the 1912 season? What if they had shut him down? What if they scaled him back to 75% when he started showing signs of shoulder trouble? What if they saved him for 1913? No way do the Sox win the World Series that year.
Was it worth it? I think so. Ask Dodgers fans if it was worth it to them to get only a short burst of Sandy Koufax, along with his three World Series rings, as opposed to ten yeas of 75%. Is it even a question?
What does any of this matter in 2012? Well, the obvious correlation is to Washington’s current young stud, Stephen Strasburg. The Nationals plan to limit his innings, for the future. But, I have to wonder. How would a worst case of Smoky Joe Wood sound? Let it fly, see the greatest pitching year you’re likely to see, win a championship. Sounds pretty good to me. Maybe you luck out, and he can do it again. Maybe you don’t.
A more relevant example for this blog, though, is Carl Crawford. He was recently shut down by the Red Sox so he could be ready for next season and beyond. It’s not a perfect example, since Crawford has an injury. But, it’s a similar problem. They need to sacrifice the present for the future. Right now, the Sox are 7 games out of the playoffs. With Crawford, the Sox have a much better chance of closing the gap. He’s going to miss a month of a season either way. The choice is having him miss September of 2012, or April of 2013. Why not take the chance this year with a healthy Ortiz, Lester coming around, Gonzalez remembering how to play, and Beckett showing good signs? Why save Crawford for the unknown?
Since it’s an actual injury, I do have to give the Sox a little slack. They say his injury is getting worse by playing. I’m not sure what the problem is. Getting worse to the point that he may need Tommy John? He’s getting that anyway. Getting worse to the point that his recovery time is longer? That’s could be a factor. Getting worse to the point where it may cause other issues with other body parts? That’s problematic. So, it’s possible that shutting down Crawford is, in fact, the right move. I just can’t be sure.
What I can be sure of is that teams, especially the Sox, spend way too much time worrying about next year.
If we assume that every player has a fixed number of bullets in his gun, whether it’s pitches, or at-bats, or whatever, why are we saving them? Don’t we want as many of those used up when the player is young? In his prime? Why are we sacrificing 25-year old games in exchange for 35-year old games?
Why did the Sox protect Pedro so he’d be able to pitch for the Mets?