The lockout is on

Before you start cringing while you lament the lockout, try to keep one thing in mind: It hasn’t canceled any games, regular, postseason, or World Series. Yet. If there must be a “work stoppage” for baseball, let it happen during the off-season. Let yourselves be fooled not one moment, either, that baseball has ceased going to work entirely.

About the only work that’s been stopped is contract offerings and signings between the owners and the players. Be advised that team front offices and staffs will continue going to work and players will continue their customary off-season routines preparing for the season to come.

That slightly surreal rash of tradings and free agency signings leading up to the deadline for the lockout—right down to the Red Sox trading Hunter Renfroe to the Brewers to bring home Jackie Bradley, Jr., he of the modest bat but the immodest outfield defense—is halted. That portion of the annual winter meetings involving the Show is pre-empted.

The lockout, as The Athletic‘s Evan Drellich observes, was somewhat inevitable “for months now, even years.” It’s the first “work stoppage” Major League Baseball has seen since the 1994 players’ strike.

That strike was pushed and provoked by the owners then. This “stoppage?” “Players have grown increasingly dissatisfied with club behaviors and the CBA that enables at least some of them,” Drellich writes, “and owners have shown little interest in making the concessions the players seek.”

Talks broke off a few hours before the Wednesday/Thursday midnight deadline after the owners refused to consider any economic proposal from the players unless the players agreed “in advance” to cease certain demands. Those demands, Drellich writes, include the time it takes a player to achieve free agency and changes to the current revenue sharing system.

The players believe with plenty of good reason that the current revenue sharing ways enable too much tanking, teams refusing to rebuild on the fly in favour of just throwing in the towel, allowing the major league product to perform like the St. Louis Browns while (it is alleged) they rebuild from the ground up.

Now hear this: Only two teams are known to have tanked successfully, meaning they tanked to rebuild and ended up in the Promised Land: the Astros and the Cubs. The Cubs tanked to build their 2016 World Series champion within just a handful of seasons; the Astros tanked likewise to build their long-since tainted 2017 World Series champion.

Time was when teams tried to urge certain star players out of the lineup the better to enable them to reach particular milestones before the home audience. It’s a lovely thing to behold when a man does it at home, but when his team tries maneuvering him into it it besmirches the competitive mandate.

That kind of tank usually drew a fury of indignation against the team that put coffers ahead of the honest competition, ahead of the presumption that a team must and does put its best possible lineup forth in the best interest of winning an honest contest.

Today’s tanking teams put coffers ahead of an honestly competitive season. In perhaps one of the top five perversions of “stop us before we over-spend/mis-spend/mal-spend again,” the owners would rather see a small handful of teams abuse their fans than demand such teams do what needs to be done to ensure at least an effort to compete.

Commissioner Rob Manfred audaciously calls it “this defensive lockout,” needed because the Major League Baseball Players Association’s vision for the game “would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive.” If you believe that, my Antarctican beach club’s sale price has just dropped another hundred grand. “It’s simply not a viable option,” Manfred’s statement continues. “From the beginning, the MLBPA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.”

The union says the lockout was anything but “defensive”—“It was the owners’ choice, plain and simple, specifically calculated to pressure players into relinquishing rights and benefits, and abandoning good-faith bargaining proposals that will benefit not just players, but the game and industry as a whole.”

“This drastic and unnecessary measure,” says a statement from union director and former first baseman Tony Clark, “will not affect the players’ resolve to reach a fair contract. We remain committed to negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that enhances competition, improves the product for our fans, and advances the rights and benefits of our membership.”

Do you notice that the owners through Manfred didn’t mention the fans but the players through Clark did? Do you notice the owners didn’t mention enhancing competition but the players did? The player are also concerned, rightfully enough, with younger players getting their major league earnings due and with younger players no longer subject to arbitrary whims that include suppressing them in the minor leagues when they’ve shown themselves Show ready.

“There’s also a feeling among players that front offices have become very good at manipulating the system to their advantage,” says the union’s chief negotiator, Bruce Meyer. “We want to make changes designed to incentivize competition for players, and remove disincentives for that competition. We want to find ways to get players compensated at an earlier stage of their careers when the teams are valuing them the most. And we want to preserve the fundamental principles of a market system.”

Tanking to one side, both sides have a couple of troublesome competition proposals. The owners are said to want a fourteen-team postseason; the players are said to prefer twelve.  Both should be rejected out of hand, no further questions asked, because postseason competition needs no further dilution than has happened in the wild card era.

Not long ago, there came a proposal for four-division leagues that might require expanding the leagues to another team each. I’ll see and raise: expand each league with one additional team each (and, this time, please do make damn sure there’s a real market for major league baseball in the new locales), but return each league to two divisions.

You’d actually have something resembling baseball the way it once was, after its first expansion: eight-team divisions, two in each league. Now, eliminate the damn wild cards and make it plain enough that either you’re playing for first place or it’s wait till next year, and don’t even think about tanking any longer.

Then, you remove the number one reason why the postseason loses its audience the deeper it progresses—saturation. Today’s postseason involves a maximum forty-two games. This still isn’t as crazy as the National Basketball Association’s maximum possible 98 postseason games, but it’s insane enough. In two divisions of eight teams each, baseball could (should) re-align itself to best-of-five League Championship Series and leave the World Series its best-of-seven self.

Guess what? In that re-alignment, you’d have a maximum of seventeen games, and the postseason wouldn’t even think of sneaking into the wee small hours of the month of November.

No, I’m not angling to become baseball’s next commissioner, but I’m only too well aware that the postseason has become a plaything through which the common good of the game becomes even more equal to making money for the owners and provoking the players to demand their cuts of it, too.

“[B]oth sides, after years of discontent, could be interested to test the other’s resolve,” Drellich says of the lockout now on. “The owners, as well, might believe that the free agents who remain when the lockout concludes will feel pressure to sign quickly, and therefore, at a discount.”

Don’t believe for one nanosecond that the owners should get away with crying poverty. Not when such new deals or extentions come forth as those recently handed to a Mets trio of Mark Canha, Eduardo Escobar, and (especially) Starling Marte; plus, Sandy AlcantaraJavier Baez, Byron Buxton, Wander Franco, Avisail Garcia, Kevin Gausman, Jon Gray, Robbie Ray, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien (is it me, or did the Rangers just drop about $512 million on new signings including Seager?), and (especially) Max Scherzer.

Unfortunately, the mid-level players often get bypassed during collective bargaining issues and often bear the brunt of whatever new CBAs cost. The talks usually involve “a league minimum and free agency eligibility,” as ESPN’s Buster Olney observes. “The players’ middle class, which has seen salary diminishment as a lot of teams apply analytics and identify cheaper replacement-level players, while other teams adopt the tanking strategy and cut payroll dramatically, has mostly been left out of those conversations.”

Scherzer isn’t the only player concerned about that plus making sure the owners can’t further suppress real competition and the full free agency picture. “Unless this CBA completely addresses the competition (issues) and younger players getting paid,” Max the Knife says emphatically, speaking as a member of the union’s eight-member player subcommittee, “that’s the only way I’m going to put my name on it.”

More competition issues? How about pushing the owners to push Manfred away from that ridiculous three-batter minimum for relief pitchers? How about pushing them to make the designated hitter universal, once and for all time, and eliminate the single most automatic out in the game? And, to make it so without one insane owners’ proposal that it be tied to a six-inning minimum for starting pitchers?

How about knocking it the hell off with monkeying around with the baseball itself (yes, MLB used two different sets of balls with two different actual weights in 2021—unbeknownst to anyone), then just develop and use a viable ball that favours neither pitcher nor hitter but makes it as level a confrontation as possible?

People thought Pete Alonso (Mets first baseman) was talking through his batting helmet when he waxed last June about MLB manipulating the balls themselves on behalf of impacting free agency. An astrophysicist discovered not only the different ball weights this year, but spoke to one unnamed pitcher who suspected the possibility that MLB might send different-weighted balls to stadiums hosting certain series: say, deader balls to sets between lesser teams but livelier balls to those hosting, say, the Yankees vs. the Red Sox.

I’d say that demands a full-throttle investigation. If people could and did go slightly mad over pitchers using that new old-fashioned medicated goo, they ought to go slightly more mad over ball cheating by baseball’s administration itself. The MLBPA should bring that up—and stick it in the owners’ ears.

The best news about this lockout is that it did happen during the off-season. Assorted analyses say strikes in sports are becoming things of the past. The bad news is that unreason isn’t going to become a thing of the past any time soon. Not, at least, until baseball’s ownerships today continue to prefer manipulation over competition, and the players increase their concern that competition be diluted no more.

The Mets bet Max (the Knife)

Max Scherzer

Shown pitching against the Mets in New York in late August, Max the Knife is a Met now . . . and lucratively.

Lose a shot at bringing a solid pitcher back to the Mets? Lose a followup shot at luring a pitcher who resurrected himself in San Francisco? Go forth and sign a three-time Cy Young Award winner to what might well be his final major league deal—at a record average annual value for pitchers, future Hall of Famers or otherwise.

When you say it that way, it sounds so simple that a refugee from the Delta Quadrant could have done it, despite knowing about as much about baseball as a veterinarian knows about astrophysics. But this is baseball, these are the Mets, that’s Mets owner Steve Cohen, and this is Max Scherzer.

Never mind that Cohen first found an immediate way to atone for squandered time after his particular (and not yet detailed at this writing) rift with former Met Steven Matz’s agent dovetailed with Matz signing a nice four-year deal with the Cardinals.

Signing Starling Marte (center field with a big bat), Mark Canha (just about any outfield spot and an on-base machine), and Eduardo Escobar (solid third baseman who can play second, solid batter) turned Cohen almost overnight from a sad gag to a definite big-market player. Even if it means moving Brandon Nimmo to a corner outfield slot and saying goodbye to a Michael Conforto whose walk-year collapse didn’t look great for himself or the Mets.

Never mind, too, that Cohen and/or his designated hitter couldn’t quite close the deal with righthanded pitcher Kevin Gausman, who turned a career year with the Giants into a nice five-year deal with the Blue Jays—who lost Matz to free agency—that’s the second most lucrative in their franchise history. (George Springer’s five/$125 million beats Gausman’s five/$105 million.)

Signing Scherzer qualifies thus far as the largest, loudest splash on this off-season’s open market to date. Maybe even louder than the ten-year/$325 million the Rangers handed now-erstwhile Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager the day before. In two swell foops (as the lady once said on the radio) the Mets swept up both the single best center fielder available and the pitcher whose 5.9 wins above replacement-level player in 2021 led all free-agent pitchers this time around.

It may also be the least expected. Remember: Scherzer’s conditions for being traded from the Nationals to the Dodgers last July included that he go to either a west coast contender or those guys in his native St. Louis who just bagged Matz. New York was thought to be near the bottom of his baseball bucket list. The Yankees weren’t even a topic, really.

Remember when Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said he signed his first free agency deal with the Yankees because George Steinbrenner “hustled me like a broad?” Cohen and his minions must have hustled Scherzer like ten ladies and their ladies-in-waiting.

Landing Scherzer means the Mets bring aboard as respected a clubhouse figure as exists in today’s game, a guy who does his best to keep the dysfunction away and also serves as a kind-of de facto second pitching coach, sitting with younger arms while they review video of their past performances and helping them analyse and prepare.

It also means the Mets just landed the guy who led the entire 2021 Show with the lowest walks-per-nine innings rate (1.8), the lowest walks-and-hits-per-inning pitched (WHIP) rate (0.86), posted a better than splendid 2.97 fielding-independent pitching rate, and mostly looked better than his usual self after becoming a Dodger at the 2021 trade deadline.

Mostly.

Max the Knife isn’t quite a kid anymore. At 37, it’s very possible that he’s just signed the final big contract of his major league career; it could even be his final major league deal, period. He pitched mostly like his classic self until his final two starts of the regular season, when he got pried for five runs by the Rockies in Coors Field (23 September) and then for six runs (five earned) by the Padres at home (29 September).

Scherzer recovered from those to pitch well enough in the postseason until former Dodger Joc Pederson yanked a two-run homer off him in the fourth in Game Two of the National League Championship Series. With his shoulder and arm feeling exhausted, Scherzer would have been that set’s Game Seven starter—if the Braves hadn’t yanked four runs out of Game Six starter Walker Buehler while the Dodgers had no answer past two runs off Braves starter Ian Anderson and reliever Luke Jackson.

Nobody would have counted Scherzer out for the seventh game that never came. Just two years earlier, he shook away a terrible neck issue to start Game Seven of the World Series, keep the Astros in check enough despite having nothing left in the tank otherwise, and leave the Nationals room to win the Series with a record fourth road win in the set. He really has been one of those pitchers who can survive on will when the stuff deserts him.

The Mets must be hoping that Scherzer has enough left in the tank to help yank them back into the races to stay. Either that or that he still has that iron will to survive on the mound when the repertoire goes from Kind of Blue to Milli Vanilli.

Assuming both a healthy Scherzer and a healthy returning Jacob deGrom, the Mets in theory would have a 1-2 punch at the top of their starting rotation equal to none today but comparable to several of the past. Sandy Koufax/Don Drysdale. Randy Johnson/Curt Schilling. Heady and three-out-of-four Hall of Famer company to keep.

In theory, too, it could be enough to cause division-rival Nats general manager Mike Rizzo, now navigating a rebuild on the fly without even thinking about tanking, to rub his head with sandpaper (since he has no hair to tear out) and mutter loudly, “If I’d known he’d end up a Met, maybe I wouldn’t have traded Scherzer at all.”

But . . .

“Scherzer could outperform 95 percent of pitchers his age through MLB history and still underperform relative to the contract,” writes Smart Baseball author Keith Law at his usual stand for The Athletic.

Good for him for getting paid, but the idea in free agency is to pay for expected future production, not past production, and the base rate for pitchers his age is not promising. They either lose effectiveness, or they get hurt. Maybe Scherzer is an outlier, just like the race isn’t always to the swift or the battle to the strong. That’s just the way to bet.

The Mets are laying a $43.3 million a year average annual value bet. As Law points out, no pitcher 37 or older has had a 5-WAR season since Bartolo Colon at 39 for the 2013 Athletics; only three since World War II (Hall of Famers Johnson and Phil Niekro, plus Roger Clemens) have delivered 7-WAR seasons at 38+; and, only twelve times have 38-year-old-plus pitchers posted 5+ WAR seasons since the turn of the century.

They’re banking on Jenny Diver, Suki Tawdry, Miss Lotte Lenya, old Lucy Brown, and company forming that big line on the right now that Maxie’s coming to town. For every Met fan and observer wondering if their boy Cohen’s done something else rash, there may be ten counting on Scherzer to become the kind of outlier the Johnsons and Niekros were at his age.

They might even be banking on Scherzer spinning a third no-hitter, this time for them. He has two already, both in 2015, the second of the two against the Mets. When he nailed his 3,000th lifetime major league strikeout last August, bagging San Diego’s Eric Hosmer in the second, Scherzer also took a perfect game into the eighth—when Hosmer exacted revenge by breaking it up with a double to deep right.

Assuming next season won’t be compromised or delayed by any coming lockout, (and it sure feels as though enough of the owners are landing their free-agent signings in a big hurry and rash to secure themselves further before any lockout—a rash which also puts the big lie to any claims of financial ill health), there’s something else to consider.

The Mets are scheduled to open against the Nats. How delicious would it be to see their next manager have to decide whether to open with deGrominator or Max the Knife? Already the National League East would look many things with boring not even close to being one of them.

Enjoy the lack of NL DH while you have it, if you must

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton, a pitcher who thinks his breed at the plate, instead of throwing to it, is a waste of lineup slot.

Guess what you didn’t hear if you watched the World Series on Fox Sports Friday night. You didn’t hear as much about what happened in the bottom of the second as you should have heard. More’s the pity.

Right then, right there, in Truist Park, in Game Three, occurred a textbook example of what can happen when the life of a rally may depend upon a) a pitcher with a pool noodle for a bat looming on deck; or, b) that pitcher having to swing his pool noodle bat when there’s a chance to put runs on the scoreboard.

Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud was on second with a two-out double. The Astros ordered starting pitcher Luis (Rock-a-Bye Samba) Garcia to signal the intentional walk to Dansby Swanson. (Remember, you don’t have to make the pitcher throw four wide ones for the free pass anymore, which is a good thing for not adding wear on the arm.)

Looming on deck—Braves starter Ian Anderson. Rookie. Promising young pitcher, but swings a bat that might as well have been made by Ronzoni. Hit 54 cents on the regular season, hit zipadee-doodah in the postseason approaching the plate now. The net result? Garcia struck him out to end the threat and the inning.

What a surprise.

Neither Fox broadcaster Joe Buck nor John Smoltz—the Hall of Fame pitcher who pitched many a splendid game for the Braves in his career—spoke much if at all about the deeper significance of Anderson’s wasted plate appearance.

Oh, they’ve mentioned the coming of the universal DH, which is liable to begin next season, but if you were looking for the deep take you didn’t really get it. Especially from Smoltz, a pitcher who finished his career with a .159/.226/.207 slash line at the plate. They spoke more of Anderson having the maturity of a 65-year-old in his demeanor than they spoke of what his second inning plate appearance really indicated.

This year’s pitchers batted a whopping .110 with a .150 on-base percentage. Since the last decade of the dead-ball era, they’ve batted .162. It has been, it is, and it’ll always be the single most guaranteed lineup waste in baseball. It isn’t even close.

“For every Adam Wainwright,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said before Game Three, “there’s ten [pitchers] that can’t hit. They don’t hit anymore at a young age, they’re specializing in pitching or whatever at a young age, so after experiencing it last year, I’m all for the DH.”

Wainwright is the Cardinals’ grand old man who’s actually batted .193 in sixteen seasons to date, including ten home runs and 51 total extra-base hits over the span. For a pitcher, that’s splendid and outlying plate production, in most generations. He’s even managed to knock 75 runs home.

It’s a wonder Wainwright doesn’t threaten first degree murder every time he has to bat—he lost a full season of his career to an Achilles tendon injury incurred . . . running the bases.

You want to ask Smoltz’s longtime, Hall of Fame rotation mate Tom Glavine about it? The New York Times did. “Take the brutality, so to speak, of what pitcher hitting has become, and I still feel like it allows for way more strategy in the National League,” lamented the .203 lifetime-hitting lefthander. “I’m hoping that that part of the argument will certainly be a strong one, but it seems now that there’s more momentum than ever to get rid of it.”

The brutality of what it has become? How about the brutality of what it always was? Then-Pirates owner William Temple Chase wasn’t just talking to hear himself talk when he lamented his five main 1891 Pirates’ pitchers hitting .165 as a group and proposed that off-season that the game should adopt what we know as the designated hitter. (It failed by a single vote.)

“Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball,” said the ancient paper Sporting Life in agreement with Temple. “It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.”

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you I was a great hitter,” Glavine continued, “but as a pitcher, I was certainly a good hitter, and I felt like my ability to do that was an advantage every time I went out on the mound. I wasn’t necessarily going to get an RBI base hit or whatever, but I knew two things: Number one, if I had to bunt, I was going to get the bunt down, and number two, I wasn’t going to be an automatic out.”

Glavine was an out for 80 percent of his lifetime plate appearances. Getting the bunt down simply meant that thirteen percent of the time he was a wasted out while he and his Braves and Mets were at it. How is a pitcher bunting not normally an automatic out, anyway? Beating those bunts out for base hits isn’t exactly a constant thing with them, either.

How about if the National League had taken its head out of its colon in the first place—pitchers wouldn’t have to worry about wasting outs, and managers wouldn’t have to watch helplessly when their pitchers a) ended rallies, or b) injured or winded themselves running the bases on the rare occasions when they picked up base hits.

This time, I won’t apologise for beating a dead horse, because in this case the horse was and remains right, and the bottom of the second in Game Three Friday night proved it.

“It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out as if he thinks he’s Ty Cobb,” wrote now-retired Thomas Boswell in 2019. “But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.”

If and when he does it, that is. Scherzer was 0-for-2021 at the plate, including four hitless postseason plate appearances and one sacrifice fly that doesn’t count as an “official” at-bat in the scoring. Forget Ty Cobb, Max the Knife didn’t even get to run it out as if he thought he was Ralph Kramden.

The word also is that, when the owners and the players start talking turkey to work out the next collective bargaining agreement, they may consider allowing the universal DH—at a price: the owners and commissioner Rob Manfred may actually demand that a team surrender its DH for the rest of the game unless their starting pitchers go a minimum number of innings.

Brilliant. As if the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers hasn’t screwed things up enough often enough? (Not just because too many managers are leaving them in beyond the third batter with opposing rallies in the making, either.)

Suppose they do impose a six- or seven-inning starters’ minimum in return for the universal DH. What happens to every starting pitcher who has a bad start and gets shot early, often, and full of more holes than a hanging target in a police shooting range?

Forget about blowing the poor sap’s ERA to infinity and beyond. You’re going to force him to stay in for a minimum six- or seven- and maybe sink his team so far that the Navy SEALs couldn’t get them out alive?

Baseball’s the thinking person’s sport. Those who govern and play it should start thinking again. At least one starting pitcher now lost for the rest of the World Series does some thinking.

“I’m always late to the on-deck circle, just because I need to unplug for a minute, and I like to worry about the job that I have to do on the mound,” said Braves pitcher Charlie Morton to the Times. “That’s what I’m paid to do, that’s what I’m prepared to do, spend the vast majority of my time doing. They’re paying guys lots of money and guys are working their tails off trying to be good hitters, and I’m up there taking at-bats.”

They used to say a player’s only as smart as his batting average. Morton’s a Ph.D. better than his lifetime .127 average.

Starters-as-relievers postseason? As new as Lysol.

Walter Johnson

Hall of Famer Walter Johnson—a starter used in relief to help win the 1924 World Series.

Baseball’s capacity to amuse is almost as profound as the game’s ability to inspire. It’s amusing to see the gnashing of teeth and the wringing of hands over this postseason’s phalanx of starting pitchers who had to yield to their bullpens for assorted reasons. You’d almost think someone was trying to legislate the pitching star out of baseball.

If someone is, they simply weren’t watching the games or hearing the crowds. They also have a rather troublesome ignorance of baseball history. And maybe, too, a continuing bias against relief pitching.

Sure, we love to see and remember the greatest starters of our times. I grew up watching the Hall of Fame like of Jim Bunning, Steve Carlton, Don Drysdale, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Catfish Hunter, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver.

But I also remember seeing and feeling the thrills and kicks when the bullpen like of Dick Radatz came into a game. Hell, Radatz was practically the only reason to bother with the 1963-65 Red Sox. He was big, beefy, intimidating-looking (not for nothing was his nickname The Monster), and looked as though he was about to eat the opposing hitters for lunch.

Until his shoulder deserted him (overwork, plus [speculated] taking someone’s advice trying to add a slider to his howitzer fastballs) some time in 1965, Radatz was as big a pitching star as any starting virtuoso. Even if he did come in for the ninth of the 1964 All-Star Game and surrender a walkoff bomb to then-Phillies star Johnny Callison.

There were more relief aces than you might remember in Radatz’s time. Ted Abernathy, for a few seasons, anyway. Lindy McDaniel. Elroy Face. Eddie Fisher. Stu Miller. Ron Perranoski. Pedro Ramos, at least for the final weeks of that staggering Yankee stretch drive to snatch the 1964 American League pennant. Phil (The Vulture) Regan. Larry Sherry (the 1959 World Series MVP). Hoyt Wilhelm (the first Hall of Fame relief pitcher). Al Worthington.

You might care to note that, whether you’re paying attention now or paid attention then, four of those relievers had top-five Most Valuable Player finishes: McDaniel (1960) and Radatz (1963) each had a fifth-place finish; Perranoski (1964) and Fisher (1965) each had a fourth-place finish.

Think about that for a moment: In four of those seasons there were MVP voters who thought a quartet of relief pitchers might have been among the most valuable players in baseball. Now, those voters then considered won-lost records; those guys were credited with double-digit wins, and a few of them probably got their wins after blowing leads but hanging in while their teams managed to eke or bang out the wins late.

(Face, of course, was an 18-game “winner” in 1959, still a record for relief pitchers, never mind that he also had nineteen save opportunities—applied retroactively—and blew nine of those. In fact, according to Cooperstown Cred, one of the major reasons Chicago Tribune scribe Jerome Holtzman came up with the dubious “save” stat was his feeling that Face’s won-lost record actually over-stated his real value.)

But still.

Were you really watching when AJ Minter and Tyler Matzek clamped the vault door shut on the Dodgers in Game Six of the National League Championship Series? The noise in Truist Park when that pair threw four scoreless relief innings, helping the Braves punch their tickets to the World Series, could have drowned a heavy metal concert out.

Especially when Matzek walked right into a small fire his immediate predecessor Luke Jackson left behind. With eight pitches, Jackson surrendered a leadoff double, a walk, and an RBI double setting up second and third. With eight more pitches, Matzek struck out the side—including future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols and fellow former MVP Mookie Betts.

When Matzek got the Mookie Monster swinging to finish that escape act—if you can go from crossing the high wire to breaking your way out of the chains in the tank in one inning, Matzek did—the Truist crowd went from nuclear to Crab Nebula.

There’s been no better moment of absolute pressure relief pitching than that in this postseason. So far. Who knows what the World Series will bring, above and beyond Yordan and Eddie Tonight? Whatever it brings, come on, baby, don’t fear the reliever. (Unless you have to hit against him.) Or, for that matter, the starter-as-reliever.

You say the starter-as-reliever is just another nefarious creation of today that’s ruining pitchers and pitching? It didn’t exactly come up roses for Max Scherzer this time, of course. But it hasn’t crossed a lot of minds, either, that maybe a 37-year-old man who threw a heavier workload in September than he had any month all season might have been bound for a dead arm by the time he had to say no to starting NLCS Game Six.

But it wasn’t exactly a new thing, either. Not. even. close.

Go back to the 1924 World Series, Game Seven, for openers. When Washington Senators manager Bucky Harris not only delivered what we call a bullpen game to win that Series but secured the Old Nats’ shot at it by bringing (and the crowd went wild, too) Hall of Fame starting pitcher Walter Johnson in from the bullpen for what proved four innings’ shutout relief.

When Casey Stengel managed the Yankees, his five straight pennants and World Series rings out of the chute came in no small measure because he was audacious enough to use a starter in relief. You may have heard of him: Allie Reynolds.

The Ol’ Perfesser used Reynolds as both a starter and reliever in several of those World Series. (Including in the ninth of Game Four, 1950 Series, when Stengel brought him in to get the final out of the Yankee sweep—after rookie Ford allowed the potential tying run to reach.)

Allie Reynolds

Allie Reynolds—Casey Stengel loved using his terrific starter in relief when it mattered most. Especially in a few World Series.

Reynolds also spent 1951 throwing two no-hitters and making six relief appearances on the regular season. Pay careful attention now: Reynolds, his Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra, and St. Louis Browns starter Ned Garver—credited with 20 wins for the hapless Brownies—tied for the most first-place votes in that year’s American League Most Valuable Player Award voting. (Yogi won the award by way of his superiority in the secondary votes.)

And, even with the stat applied retroactively, Allie Reynolds—who started 71 percent of his games and relieved in 29 percent of them—is tied for the third-most relief saves in World Series history, behind The Mariano and Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers.

Starters as relievers? Unprecedented and the End of the Grand Old Game As We Knew It? Please.

Smokey Joe Wood, 1912 World Series Game Eight. (Two scoreless after coming in in the eight; surrendered the tying run, bailed out by “Snodgrass’s Muff” in the tenth inning.) Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander, Game Seven 1926 Series. (The fabled bases-loaded, inning-ending strikeout of Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri.)

Hank Borowy, 1945 Series. (Four scoreless relief innings, Game Six.) Harry Brecheen, 1946 Series. (Credited with his third win of the set in Game Seven—in relief.) Bob Turley. (Won the ’58 Series MVP winning one start and making two relief appearances including the Game Seven-winning seven-inning gig.)

Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, Game Five 1979 Series. (Four innings shutout relief in a Pirate must-win.) Four Royals starters in relief in the 1985 World Series. Sid Fernandez, Game Seven, 1986 World Series. (Four strikeouts in two and a third’s shutdown relief enabling room for a Mets comeback win.)

Orel Hershiser, 1988 NLCS. (A save in Game Four.) Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, Game Seven 2001 Series. (An inning and a third shutout relief preceding Luis Gonzalez walking it off for the winning Diamondbacks.)

Madison Bumgarner

Starter-as-reliever: MadBum, Game Seven, 2014 World Series.

Madison Bumgarner, Game Seven 2014 Series. (Five scoreless in relief for the Giants’ third Series rings in five years.) Charlie Morton and Clayton Kershaw, Game Seven 2017 Series.

Nathan Eovaldi, 2018 Series. (The Game Three extras, six virtuoso before Max Muncy ended it with an eighteenth-inning home run.) Chris Sale, 2018 Series. (The final three Game Five outs for the Red Sox triumph.) Stephen Strasburg, 2019 NL wild card game. (Three scoreless in relief.) Max the Knife, Game Five, this year’s NLDS.

The only reason any of those ballpark crowds wouldn’t have gone nuts was because the deeds were done by the visiting pitchers. (Game Five, this year’s NLDS between the age-old-rival Dodgers and Giants in San Francisco, a notable exception.)

And if starters-as-relievers looks like a more contemporary phenomenon, it may well be because they’ve played more postseason games as the years went passing by.

Well, it was amusing to see the teeth gnashing and hand wringing over the starters-as-relievers this time around—for a little while. The problem is that it comes from lack of self-informing, willfully or otherwise. It’s not funny anymore to see some stubborn “purist” or “traditionalist”—in the stands, in front of television, or in the press—blow his or her gasket first and do their homework later.

When getting it right means the worst message to kids

Wilmer Flores, Will Smith, Doug Eddings

Wilmer Flores—representing the potential Giants’ winning run—checking his swing Thursday night. On appeal from plate umpire Doug Eddings (far right), the check swing was denied by first base umpire Gabe Morales and thus strike three ended the NLDS and the Giant’s season. Some think such robbery sends the “best” message to kids.

Social media isn’t exactly renowned as the exclusive domain of the learned. But when you see something such as I’m going to quote—I won’t embarrass the source by identifying him, though I know him well enough to know that he ought to know better—you tremble for your country when you remind yourself that God may be just but humans may be willfully ignorant.

The gentleman in question responded to “The Strike Heard ‘Round the World,” my account of NLDS Game Five and the shamefully needless way it ended. With Wilmer Flores’s check swing ruled a strike, erroneously, by first-base umpire Gabe Morales on appeal. With Flores robbed of a chance to persevere against Max Scherzer, despite his weak career papers against Max the Knife.

With the potential tying run on first for the Giants and himself representing the potential winning run, Flores should have had the chance to try before it was game over. He was denied improperly. My correspondent says, essentially, so what? “So what” works as a classic jazz exercise by Miles Davis. Not proper baseball analysis.

What the players do is human, what the broadcasters do is human,” said the gentleman in question, being a former baseball broadcaster himself.

[S]o the umpires do human things, smart or stupid. players and fans have to live with it. we’re sending the worst kind of message to our kids. Kids need to know that rotten calls will be made against them and they can’t plead for a review because there won’t be any.

Oh. So one of championship baseball’s most important jobs is to send the best kind of messages to kids. Got it. Very well, I surrender.

Let’s talk, indeed, about the Worst Kind of Messages We Send Kids when an umpire makes a mistake on what might be the final out of a postseason set’s final game, offers at least a mildly coherent explanation, then allows his crew chief to elaborate when asked further with, “Yeah, no, we, yeah, yeah, he doesn’t want to say.”

It tells me that the adults in the room who won’t stand for it when the kids dissemble upon being caught with their hands in the cookie jar or the liquor cabinet haven’t got that strong a leg to stand upon. I’d clean up betting that that’s what the kids in the room figure out, too.

Let’s talk, indeed, about the Worst Kind of Messages We Send Kids when the adults in the room decide, basically, yeah, we’re being rotten sonsabitches. But tough toenails, kids, that’s the way it is. This isn’t up for debate. We’re the mommies and daddies, that’s why. Because we said so, that’s why.

It tells me the adults in the room have no eyes to see. The kids in the room gather that their parents drink deep of power and parch themselves of prudence. They see might making right regardless of justification, in one or a hundred instances. They see authority with unsound foundation.

Let’s talk, indeed, about the Worst Kind of Messages We Send Kids when we tell them review isn’t an option. It tells me the adults in the room know three things about the country in which their game was born, nurtured, and grown in the first place: jack, diddley, and squat. Baseball’s government may lack in the complete range of reviewable acts, but baseball’s country’s government actually consecrated the right to review.

This nation’s founders consecrated a Bill of Rights that mandates, among other things, the right to petition for a redress of grievances. Such grievances are usually (though not exclusively; reference Congressional committee hearings) presented and argued before—what do you know—a Supreme Court. Never mind for the moment that given Supreme Court panels can seem as judicially tyrannic as umpires who are, after all, baseball’s most immediate arbiters.

But the Supreme Court has also overturned its own rulings frequently enough, unless higher authority—you know, the legislative branch, and the president, and in that order—writes and signs laws accordingly. The Supreme Court blew the Dred Scott decision? (It emanated first in the same city from which Curt Flood fired the Second Shot Heard ‘Round the World.) Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation plus the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments took care of that blown call. That’s just one example.

By the way, federal judges up to and including even Supreme Court justices can be impeached. (Sixteen have been, including Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase.) Baseball’s government hasn’t yet designed or imposed genuine umpire accountability. The better umpires in the game are compromised by their lessers.

Those concerned more with the Best Kind of Messages We Send Kids than with getting things right in championship or championship-aspirant games should ponder something else. Why might it be that ordinary, everyday enterprises impose accountability on their people, from the most obscure warehouse people to the highest-stationed boardroom people—but baseball can’t impose accountability on the arbiters who can, and often do, make, break, or compromise a game?

You want to send the Best Kind of Message to Kids? How about telling them that an improper lack of redress for check swings meant we’ll never know whether Wilmer Flores would have risen to the occasion of a 1-2 count, in a postseason series-deciding game, and overcome his career-long futility against Max Scherzer to keep the Giants’ now-ended season alive?

How about telling them the reason we’ll never know is because Flores was robbed of the chance to try once more at least?

Saying umpires make mistakes because they’re only human is one thing. Saying baseball shouldn’t do its best to correct and prevent key mistakes in-game—especially with a championship or an advance toward one on the line—is pitiful. Saying baseball shouldn’t do it because it would Send the Worst Kind of Messages to Kids, which is patent nonsense, should leave you at minimum with no credibility as a baseball commentator.