A couple weeks ago, friend of the Fungo Lynn Henning wrote why it made sense to give Justin Verlander an extra day of rest heading into the three-game weekend series against the Indians.
In the column, Henning pointed to specific examples in Tigers history where heavy workloads resulted in truncated careers – among them Mark Fidrych.
Here’s the gist:
[L]et’s talk about some past Tigers history that might help put the Verlander decision in better perspective.
Denny McLain won 31 games in 1968 — the only man in the past 77 years to have done so — and 24 the following season.
He won two Cy Young Awards during those two seasons. He won Most Valuable Player in 1968.
He pitched a combined 661 innings — no misprint — during those two campaigns.
He was 25 years old at the end of the ’69 season.
He won 21 games, total, the remainder of his career. His arm had been fried during those two colossal seasons.
I knew pitchers 40 years ago regularly went deep in games and threw a lot of pitches, but McLain’s output in 1966 was staggering.
On Aug. 29, 1966, McLain threw 229 pitches in the Tigers’ 6-3 win over the Orioles. He gave up eight hits, walks nine and struck out 11 Orioles to notch his 16th win. According to the Baseball Reference.com box score, McLain faced 43 batters in the game.
He was just 22 at the time.
In that game, McLain set the Orioles down in order only one time, the bottom of the second. In every other inning he faced, on average, about five hitters per inning.
Did I mention he was only 22?
Three days later, on Sept. 1, McLain faced the Indians in Cleveland and again went the distance, facing 39 batters. He retired the side 1-2-3 twice in the game but otherwise had a similar pattern to his previous start. (The Tigers won, 4-2.)
[callout title= McLain By the Numbers]
13-4 – McLain’s record in the first half of 1966
7-10 – His record in the second half
.214 – Opponents’ batting average against (lefties hit just .199 off him in ’66)
21 – The number of starts McLain made (out of 38) on three-days rest
1.13 – His ERA in the one start he had on two-days rest (one ER over eight innings)
6.16 – His ERA in the first inning
2.52 – His ERA in the ninth inning
8 – The number of starts to begin the season in which McLain pitched seven or more innings
On Sept. 6, McLain pitched nine innings, allowed 11 hits, two runs and struck out six, in an 8-2 win over Washington at Tiger Stadium. He faced 38 Senators hitters in this game, his 18th win.
McLain’s 1966 campaign concluded with him making three starts in the span of eight days. On Sept. 23, he didn’t make it out of the third inning, surrendering eight earned runs on seven hits.
Three days later he went eight innings, allowed one run on four hits against 30 Angels batters on the way to his 20th win.
On Oct. 1, the next-to-last day of the season, McLain would pitch 3 2/3 innings, allowing four earned runs on seven hits. He took the loss, his 14th, 5-2 to the A’s.
Fourteen and a third innings in three days. Totals like that can certainly make it a bit easier to appreciate today’s pitch-count obsessed mindset in baseball.
All told, McLain threw 264 1/3 innings in 1966. Forty years later, a 23-year-old Verlander threw a comparatively meager 186 innings – and there was talk then that he was approaching overworked status.
There’s no chance the Tigers would put such a ridiculous workload on Verlander – or, in a more apt comparison, Rick Porcello, and Lynn Henning’s column makes a good case for why pitch counts matter, even though I admittedly roll my eyes when I hear them mentioned during games.
And a closer look at a season from 45 years ago explains Denny McLain’s precipitous fall from a 31-game winner at the age of 24 to the loser of 22 games three years later, and his departure from baseball when he should have been entering his prime.