On July 11, 1914, the Boston Red Sox gave a 19 year-old pitcher the start. They had just purchased his contract from the minor league Baltimore Orioles a week before. The delay in getting to Boston was due to the Sox being on a road trip down to Washington. There was no rush to get him on a train, so he cooled his heels for a few days. No need to change plans for some kid named Babe Ruth.
Ruth would tell people later that, that very morning, he met his future wife, Helen Woodford, when she served him in a coffee shop. Others have cast doubt on this. Regardless of the truth, it was a big day for the guy, both in reality and in his memory years later.
That afternoon Ruth made his big league debut. He pitched seven innings, allowing two runs on three hits and picked up the win. He only struck out one guy, though. Which was the same number of times he struck out while batting, as he posted an 0 for 2 day. He lost his next start and after that wasn’t used by the Sox all that much, pitching in only five games all year. The Red Sox weren’t really the big news in Boston that year anyway. The Braves won the World Series and became something of a sensation in doing so.
Ruth would have a handful of better days ahead. In the meantime, here’s the box score from the game which launched a legend.
“Work fast and throw strikes” has long been the top conventional wisdom for those preaching pitching success. The “work fast” part of that has increasingly gone by the wayside, however, as pitchers take more and more time to throw pitches in an effort to max out their effort and, thus, their velocity with each pitch.
Now, as Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer reports, the “throw strikes” part of it is going out of style too:
Pitchers are throwing fewer pitches inside the strike zone than ever previously recorded . . . A decade ago, more than half of all pitches ended up in the strike zone. Today, that rate has fallen below 47 percent.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Most notable among them, Lindbergh says, being pitchers’ increasing reliance on curves, sliders and splitters as primary pitches, with said pitches not being in the zone by design. Lindbergh doesn’t mention it, but I’d guess that an increased emphasis on catchers’ framing plays a role too, with teams increasingly selecting for catchers who can turn balls that are actually out of the zone into strikes. If you have one of those beasts, why bother throwing something directly over the plate?
There is an unintended downside to all of this: a lack of action. As Lindbergh notes — and as you’ve not doubt noticed while watching games — there are more walks and strikeouts, there is more weak contact from guys chasing bad pitches and, as a result, games and at bats are going longer.
As always, such insights are interesting. As is so often the case these days, however, such insights serve as an unpleasant reminder of why the on-field product is so unsatisfying in so many ways in recent years.