Time Out: July 30, 2008

Sometimes it’s nice to finish what you start. That had to be the case for New York Mets’ pitcher Johan Santana last Sunday afternoon at Shea Stadium. Mets’ fans were ecstatic when their left-handed pitching ace tossed a complete-game victory against the St. Louis Cardinals. In another era, Santana’s pitching feat would not have been considered particularly significant. Not so in modern times. Sunday’s complete game was the first time in nearly two years that a Mets starting pitcher has gone from start to finish in a nine-inning game.
You might think the answer lies with the quality of the Mets pitching staff. Yet, last year the Mets, for all but the final three weeks of the season, had the best win/lost percentage in the National League. Even so, their starting rotation went the entire season without registering a single complete game.
It hasn’t always been this way. This spring I read the book, The 100 Things Every Met Fan Should Know. I was surprised to learn that in 1969, the year the Mets shocked the world by winning their first World Series, their pitchers threw 15 complete games during the month of September. Even more stunning was the fact that Tom Seaver, the ace of the Mets staff, threw 21 complete games of his own. The mind-set at that time expected pitchers who threw the first pitch to often finish what they started.
Some people blame the introduction of the pitch count on the disappearance of baseball’s complete game. Every pitch thrown during a game is charted. No matter how well a pitcher performs, when their pitch count reaches 100 pitches or so, the manager puts the bullpen in motion and a pitching change is imminent.
In reality, the pitch count is simply a data-collecting device driving a business decision. When professional baseball teams spend millions of dollars a year on a single pitcher, they want to protect the longevity of their investment. Parsing pitches saves wear and tear on the arm and is believed to lengthen a pitcher’s career. I’m not so sure.
Even so, the pitch count and dependence on relief pitching is simply one of several indicators proving baseball has become business first and game second. Like World Series games played only at night and beginning at 9 p.m. eastern time to meet television advertising demands, inter-league play and a host of other recent innovations, when you peer beyond the surface every change is first and foremost a business decision, a judgment that looks good on the account ledger but somehow takes away the luster of a great game.
Maybe Sunday’s decision to let Santana go the distance was all about business, too. Mets fans were incensed five days earlier when Santana tossed an impressive eight innings and had his team in position to topple the dreaded Philadelphia Phillies with a 5-2 lead entering the final frame. But, Santana’s pitch count had reached 105 and it was decided he would not go on. As has so often been the case, the Mets swiped “defeat from the grasp of victory” when their bullpen imploded and yielded six runs to the Phillies in the ninth.
Sunday, Santana’s complete game totaled 118 pitches. It makes you wonder whether 13 more pitches against the Phillies would have rendered a different outcome. Whatever the case, the Mets may have decided Sunday that allowing Santana to take care of business on the field might actually be the best way to do business.