Pitchers’ Roundtable – the 1980s

Was it different pitching in the 1980s than it is today? If so, just how different and in which ways? In a two-part roundtable, six prominent pitchers from that decade — three right-handers and three left-handers who won a combined 1,044 big-league games — address topics that will help answer those questions.




Bud Black: I don’t recall pitch counts being as prevalent as they are now. In my starts, in the 1980s, I was never told how many pitches I threw. I didn’t know and it wasn’t important to me. I’m sure that the pitching coaches knew, but it wasn’t common knowledge in the press box and in the newspapers like it is now. I think that starting pitchers felt as though they wanted to throw nine innings; the goal was to throw a complete game. Back then, I used to say that the biggest satisfaction I had was to complete a game that we won, and that was the mindset of guys who were embedded in a starting rotation. You were expected to take the game into the seventh, eighth or ninth innings, and if by performance or tiredness — if you were running out of gas — in came the closer. In our case, in Kansas City, it was Dan Quisenberry, who would go one-plus inning, two-plus innings, or just the ninth. It was the same around the league with guys like Gossage, Righetti, and the other closers in the age who were multiple-innings guys.

Danny Darwin: We had pitch counts in the ‘80s, but it wasn’t like nowadays where it’s maybe 90 pitches. I think that pitchers today are babied a little more. They’re given pitch counts, they’re given only so many innings, and they’re getting sent home with tired arms, they get put down. Back then, you went out and pitched. I remember an instance in the ‘80s where I pitched five out of six days and one of them was five innings. I don’t know if I was blessed with that type of arm, or what, but today’s players – and it comes down to the money – it’s what you have an investment in, and you’re trying to get production out of that investment.

Mike Flanagan: Certainly, the manager I had, Earl Weaver, was very much statistically oriented. He was one of the originators of match-ups and pitch counts, but with the pitch counts it was more of an upper limit. And if our starter was pitching well, and (Weaver) liked the way he was throwing, he might not even count a few of those. But if he was pitching poorly, and Earl wanted him out of the game, he might add a few. (Pitcher usage) changed dramatically by the end of my career. It seems like the end of the 1970s was kind of the end of the era of pitchers throwing 300 innings. I’m not sure who the last one was to throw 300; I think it was Steve Carlton in 1980. Some of the league leaders going back into the 1970s were in the 340s and 350s, and Mickey Lolich was in the 370s one year. Pitching 340 innings is obviously something that is unheard of now. Pitch counts came into vogue, along with specialization in the bullpen, and since then there have been more and more pitchers on the staff. In that respect there have certainly been major changes to the game.

Greg Maddux: There were no pitch counts then. You either pitched until you got knocked out or until the game was over, whichever came first. Very rarely did they take you out because you were tired. They actually taught you how to pitch when you got tired. Now, pitchers aren’t really allowed to pitch tired; they come out before they get tired.

Jon Matlack: The game was starting to move towards specialization. There were still some, but definitely fewer complete games than before. There were fewer starting pitchers who were looked at as guys who would carry you into the seventh and eighth innings; it was more that they would carry you into the sixth or seventh and then specialty guys would take you the rest of the way. It wasn’t uniform yet, but it was headed in that direction. I never had any pitch counts put on me. I never really ran into them until I started coaching. The advent of the higher signing bonus and bigger contracts, and more and more agents with assistants and specialty people in their offices, has pretty much driven us to the pitch count. It’s all “err on the side of caution” and I am one who will speak against it. I think that the human body will do pretty much what you ask it to do, assuming that you ask it nicely.

Bob Walk: I really don’t remember pitch counts being all that big of a deal. You certainly didn’t see them on scoreboards or anything like that. There was always a pitcher with a clipboard, sitting somewhere, keeping a pitching chart, and occasionally a pitching coach might go over there and ask, “How many does he have?,” but that would usually only be the case if the pitcher had had a couple of really long innings. Nowadays, that’s the thing that everyone always talks about: “He’s almost up to a hundred pitches,” like he’s going to turn into a pumpkin if he hits that magic number. I threw 183 pitches in a Triple-A game once — that was back in the early ‘80s – so obviously they didn’t care all that much about pitch counts back then. We had a four-man rotation when I ended up getting sent down, and you end up eating up a lot more innings that way, and I don’t think it really made all that much difference on us, to be honest with you. Did more guys get hurt back then than nowadays? I would like somebody to show me that stat, because I don’t believe it’s true. In the National League, there wasn’t as much of a difference from today (in innings pitched per outing) because you still had to hit for pitchers. Whether you stayed in the game or not depended more on the score, the inning, and whether you were going to get pinch hit for because you had to try to catch up. In the American League, with the designated hitter, you did see a lot of guys throwing more complete games back then, because they never had to pinch hit for anybody.


Bud Black: I think that repertoires were basically the same. I think that there are harder throwers today than in the ‘80s, in general, especially out of the bullpen. But as for the pitches, the fundamental pitches like the fastball, curveball, slider and changeup were all there in the ‘80s. In the ‘90s, I think you got more guys experimenting with the split-finger fastball.

Danny Darwin: I don’t think that the guys in the 1980s threw as hard as they do today on a consistent basis. Yeah, we had guys who could throw hard, but that’s one thing I’ve noticed, that that are more hard throwers now. The only thing that is used more today is the split-finger fastball. It was kind of nonexistent, then Roger Craig came up with it in the mid-80s — maybe ’86 or in that range. So the biggest difference I’ve noticed in the pitching aspect is, number one, there are more hard throwers than there were back in the 1980s. The pitchers seem to be bigger and stronger than we were back then.

Mike Flanagan: I think that in the 1980s there were a lot fewer throwers and a lot more pitchers. I think that today there are a lot more throwers than there are pitchers, high-velocity guys that throw until they max out with their 100-pitch limit. Back then there was a lot more pitching going on; the radar gun was used for our hitters more than it was for our pitchers. We wanted to know how hard the opposition was throwing, so we’d get some radar guns and relay numbers in during the game, but it wasn’t used as a tool like it is today. It was secondary, much like the pitch count. I’d say the slider was the pitch of the ‘70s and the split-finger was the pitch of the ’80s. That was the pitch that changed a lot of things in the ‘80s.

Greg Maddux: Today, pitchers throw a lot harder; they come after you with faster fastballs. That’s really about the only thing, although I think that pitchers maybe pitch in a little more now, because back then the hitters didn’t really cover the outside part of the plate as well as they do now.

Jon Matlack: I want to say that uniformly, in the 1970s, there were more teams that had 90-plus miles-per-hour throwers, and that started to dissipate some in the 1980s. You still have guys that throw very hard, and you see triple digits now, and whether we had guys who threw that hard, I don’t know — but we had a plethora of guys who could throw mid-90s. The split-finger was a prevalent pitch, and Roger Craig was the guru of the split finger, but that probably led to a bunch of guys getting busted up because they were trying to throw it when maybe they didn’t have the proper mechanics to throw it. I guess that it was a big fad pitch, just like today it’s pitching from the off side of the rubber — left-handers pitch more from the third base side, and right-handers from the first base side. They’re changing the angles from when I used to pitch, which was the opposite of that.

Bob Walk: I think pitching styles were a lot different, because hitting styles were much different. In those days, guys were trying to stay on their back leg more; there were a lot more closed stances and upper-body rotation, with people trying to pull the ball a lot more. Nowadays, and I guess it was the Charlie Lau weight-shift-to-the-front-foot type of deal, has taken away the outside part of the plate. Guys are able to keep the head of the bat in the strike zone for much longer now than they used to, so they have much better plate coverage on the outside part of the plate. When I first came to the big leagues in 1980, a lot of guys were always trying to not lunge, to keep their weight back, and you could see that upper-body rotation to try to pull the ball all the time. They used to say that they were “squishing the bug” with their back foot, because of the way they were twisting it. That was a style of hitting where, if you made a mistake on the inside half of the plate, it would get crushed. But they couldn’t handle outside pitches, so you had a lot more sinker-slider type of pitchers back in those days — it was very popular to be a sinker-slider guy with a lot of sliders to the outside part of the plate. Now there’s plate coverage out there, so if you live on the outside part of the plate, you better have great control to never let that ball come in, even just a little bit, because you’ll get hurt.


Coming tomorrow, in Part Two, the panel discusses pitching inside to intimidate hitters [is it harder to get away with in today’s game?] and the strike zone [has it changed since the 1980s, and if so, how?]

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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12 years ago

This is cool, thanks.

My earliest memory of pitch counts being in the news had to do, perhaps ironically, with Nolan Ryan, when he was with Houston. He had some arm issues, I seem to recall, so they were limiting his count to 100.