“We’ll see whether Nolan Ryan can succeed at it. I don’t know if it’s possible, but that’s what he’s trying to do.”
With those words Hall-of-Fame manager Earl Weaver summed up the idea that today’s major league pitchers might actually take to the mound with the mentality of going nine innings.
Weaver joined his former lefthander with the Orioles, Mike Flanagan, and me in the broadcast booth at a recent spring game to talk baseball.
Ryan began the nine-inning experiment last year when he became one of the owners and operating partner of the Texas Rangers. Ryan wants pitchers to change their mindset.
Today, it’s six innings and out for many pitchers and for a lot of reasons. Many starters say there is a bullpen there to be used and they don’t have to go nine.
Weaver talked about one of the other concerns. Pitchers and agents “talk about protecting a career by not throwing out an arm in fewer seasons than they might be able to play if they don’t complete games. It’s about protecting the property,” he said.
Weaver also noted that in his case, longevity as a manager with one club, 17 years with the Orioles, gave him authority that many of today’s managers don’t have. “I think it makes a difference that the players knew I was going to be around for a while,” he smiled.
“We believed in throwing a lot and long tossing for our pitchers,” he said. “In spring training we started the pitchers with a couple innings the first game, four the next and then seven. After that, they were on their own.”
He fully recognizes that he had the advantage of having more than a few of the great starters of all time with Jim Palmer, Flanagan, Mike Cuellar, Scott McGregor, Tippy Martinez, Mike Boddicker and Dave McNally.
Still, it was the mental part of the Oriole pitching tradition that pushed the starters to want to finish.
“They took great pride in going the distance and no one wanted to come out of a game,” said Weaver.
“That’s what Ryan wants to do in Texas. Get the pitchers thinking that way. But I’m not sure that can happen again in today’s game,” Weaver said.
There were 93 complete games in the AL last year and 72 in the NL. Last year the combined percentage of games that were complete games was three percent.
The drop has been steady over the decades. By decade years, the percentage of complete games listed in Baseball-Reference.com went: 1950s: 40 percent; 1960s: 27; 1970s: 22; 1980s: 20; 1990s:10; and 2000s: 5.
Attempting to reverse that mentality will not be easy.
Does it matter to the fans? Probably not. The complete game is a rarity that builds excitement like a possible three-homer ballgame might, but it’s not essential to the fans’ concern about their teams winning games.
Yet, as Weaver says, that reversal is exactly what Ryan wants to do in Texas, and Ryan is not an easy man to dissuade from a decision.