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James Shields and the declining workload of starting pitchers

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Ed Zurga

Baseball used to be played by rye-drinking manimals who would throw 400 innings every season and play with a baseball made from a sheep's bladder. There were two teams in the world, and they had to travel 16 days by train before each game. There's no sense pining for the olden days because it was a completely different game.

That doesn't mean we can't point out just how different. James Shields led the American League in innings pitched this year, throwing 228⅔ innings. This is the lowest total ever from a league leader in a non-strike season. In 1978, Nolan Ryan missed over a month's worth of games because of two different ailments. He finished with more innings that year than Shields did this year.

Not a big surprise. We knew the game was different from Old Hoss Radbourn's day, and we knew it's markedly different from Ryan's day. But it's also way different from Tom Glavine's day, too. In 1993, 20 pitchers threw more innings than Shields did this season. In 2003, seven pitchers would have bested Shields's mark. In 2013, only two threw more innings (Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright).

The trend is obvious. Starting pitchers are throwing fewer innings. Also, gold is expensive. Still, it's somewhat surprising that a pitcher with 228 innings can lead his league. Considering that Shields threw only two complete games all year, we might see a pitcher without a complete game lead his league in innings pitched. Even if you're used to the new paradigm, that'll still be freaky.

The question of the day, then: Does this make for better baseball?

Before you answer in the affirmative because pitchers are staying healthier, I'm not sure that's the case. About 41 percent of pitchers go on the DL every year. If you were to graph the frequency of Tommy John surgeries over the last 20 years, it would look like a graph of how many babies were named Jayden over the same time. The line would shoot straight up, with no end to the trend in sight.

This is more a question about aesthetics. Let's separate the argument into two camps:

Camp #1
Call it the Finish What You Started camp. Maybe add some epithets or disparaging mentions of one's manliness at the end of this camp's name, if you're so inclined. But there's a certain allure to a pitcher finishing his own game. It's okay to admit that. The crowd gets riled up, and the pitcher hunkers down to get that last out, even as he's exhausted. It might not be the best long-term strategy for the team, but it's fun while it's happening.

Or maybe it is a viable long-term strategy. It's hard to say that fewer innings are making starters healthier. If that's the case, maybe there's a chance the pendulum will swing back to where it was 20 years ago. Obviously, the days of the four-man rotation and Pud Galvin are over. But maybe there's a chance for more complete games, pitches, and 200+ inning pitchers than we're used to now. It would make for quicker games, sure. And the people in this camp would argue that more innings would make for more enjoyable games, too.

Camp #2
This would be the Guys Who Throw a Million Miles Per Hour Are Cool camp. Because do you know who's taking the innings left on the table by the modern-day start? Guys who throw a million miles per hour. The most successful pitching staffs usually have two or three high-quality relievers, and those pitches usually throw really, really hard. And if they don't, they're wacky and deceptive, like Koji Uehara or Javier Lopez.

While there's something to the idea of one pitcher pitching the entire game, there's also something to the idea of a variety of pitchers. The Braves can go from Kris Medlen to Luis Avilan to Jordan Walden to Craig Kimbrel. All of them have their own quirks, and all of them have different looks. Variety is the spice of life and/or pitching staffs, right? It just comes at the cost of the old-mule style of staff management.

I think I'm in Camp #2, but only because I'm used to it now. I never got a chance to watch Bob Gibson do this or pay attention to Greg Maddux doing this. Of course, those guys were freaks. I'm not sure how exciting it would be to watch some of the more pedestrian pitchers do it. I watched Livan Hernandez throw 12 complete games as a Giant. Don't remember a single one.

Do more innings from starting pitchers make for better baseball? Or are you a fan of the late-inning relievers? Or did you fall asleep in the middle of the fourth paragraph? Vote in the poll, then get in fistfights in the comments.

For more on Shields and the Royals, please visit Royals Review.

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