Short Relief: How Specialization is Weakening Baseball

One thing that has always perplexed me about baseball is the “short reliever,” or “closer.” These are amazing pitchers who can step in during the final inning of the game and mow down the remaining offense. If his team is ahead by 3 runs or less, he can earn a “save.”

Now I realize that a short reliever is to a starting pitcher as a sprinter is to a marathoner. I also realize that I am not a major-league baseball pitcher. What I have a hard time understanding is that there is a “magic number” at which these pitchers’ arms turn to jelly. Take last night’s NLCS game between the Astros and Cardinals. In the 9th inning, Astros Manager Phil Garner put in closer Brad Lidge, who pitched flawlessly for three innings—nobody reached a base. Lidge was so hot that in the 11th, he struck out two, leaving Larry Walker swinging at the air.

In three innings, no one had reached first base against the Astros with Lidge on the mound. So, in the 12th, the Astros put in a new pitcher, Dan Miceli, who ends up losing by giving up a 2-run homer to Jim Edmonds.

Is there something in the players’ union contract of short-relievers that only allows them to throw a certain number of pitches? Sure, there is the chance that he will have to play the next night—but wasn’t the goal for the Astros not to make it to the next night? Would 15-20 more pitches really be all that much more taxing for a short reliever? Athletes like Lance Armstrong can race 100+ miles each day for three weeks in the Tour de France. Even the 100–meter sprinters in the Olympics must run qualifying heats only hours before their final.

Are closers really so delicate? Brad Lidge’s performance last night proves otherwise. I believe that he could have gone one, perhaps two more innings. There were no signs of slowing down, yet he was removed because he is a short-relief “specialist.”

The drift toward specialization has affected all areas of our society. Just try to ask an ear, nose, & throat doctor something about your hand and you’ll see what I mean—you’ll quickly be ushered to the digitologist, or whatever it is they call a hand specialist. Even churches now can’t do with the general designation of “pastor.” There has to be a senior pastor, a youth pastor and, if possible, a music minister, and heaven forbid a church that didn’t have a singles’ pastor—because a regular pastor just can’t relate. Football teams, where long ago players would move interchangeably from offense to defense, are now one team of many “special teams.” Generalists are passé in our society.

Baseball has followed suit. Gone are the days when Babe Ruth would both pitch and hit. Heck, in the AL, thanks to the designated hitter (a position that the NL thankfully hasn’t appropriated), pitchers never have to hit. Added to the specialization rule, apparently, is the notion that closers can’t pitch longer than three innings.

While specialization may be effective in honing skills, it shouldn’t keep a specialized person from performing a general task.

3 thoughts on “Short Relief: How Specialization is Weakening Baseball”

  1. Excellent observation. Tim McCarver couldn’t have said it better.

    It seems that the greater sin for a manager these days is to leave a pitcher in too long. It is always the manager who messed up, not the player who threw a bad pitch.

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