Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Physician of the Pitching Emergency

When New York Giants' Manger John McGraw began using Otis "Doc" Crandall regularly as a relief pitcher during the Deadball Era he employed a new strategy that would eventually become the norm. The report "From Exile to Specialist: The Evolution of the Relief Pitcher" shows that at the beginning of the 1900's more than 80% of games were completed by the starting pitcher and and when averaged out, fewer than .25 relief pitchers appeared per game. By the year 2000, less than 10% of games were complete games and approximately 2.5 relief pitchers appeared per game. This transition saw relievers move from second-rate pitchers with high earned run averages to specialists with low ERAs.

Doc Crandall is generally seen as the first true specialist in relief pitching, leading the league in relief appearances from 1909-1913. Other managers had started to experiment with pitching changes, but McGraw showed the most dedication to honing the relief pitcher strategy and settled in with Doc. Although Crandall served in the starting role as well, he flourished under pressure. In his book Pitching in a Pinch, Crandall's teammate Christy Mathewson tells of a 1911 game that Crandall started after not having served as a starting pitcher for some time. Crandall got in trouble around inning 4 or 5, with three on and none out but managed to get out of it with no runs scored. Mathewson reports,
"After he came to the bench with the threatening inning behind him, he said to me: 'Matty, I didn't feel at home out there until a lot of people got on the bases. I'll be all right now' And he was. I believe Crandall is the best pitcher in a pinch in the National League"
As with many new strategies, the "relief specialist" drew some critique. This New York Times article, "'Old Doc' Crandall Jumps to Federals; Giants' Emergency Pitcher to Cast his lot with the St. Louis 'Outlaw' Team," may have been fueled by sour grapes but it likely states what many were thinking about how Crandall spent his time:
"He's the fellow who had permanent headquarters in deep right field at the Polo Grounds. On the first day of every season Otis started to 'warm up' and when taps were sounded on the season, 'Doc' was still out in his field office 'warming up.' For several seasons he has lead the league at 'warming up.'....His task was not to save the game as much as to make the defeat look less humiliating"
More common than this critical press was praise of Crandall's calm under pressure and his ability to save games in emergency situations. Damon Runyon called him the "physician of the pitching emergency." Grantland Rice wrote,
"He hasn't even an M.D.'s diploma or a license to practice and there is no graven sign above his door. But when Death stalks in, grim and cold, where weeping friends stand around your couch, don't give up hope. Take one more chance and send for Old Doc Crandall, for as this noted specialist comes in the door, Death and the undertaker dive out through the window."
These words were written nearly 1oo years ago but today we still say relievers are called in to "stop the bleeding." I recently reviewed Sarah Freligh's book Sort of Gone. In her poem, "Relief," we see death and relief pitching paired again. This time the reliever is compared to death itself and is again a welcome sight. The starting pitcher, watching his mother die, is reminded of how he feels waiting for a reliever to rescue him from humiliation on the mound:
"Seeing her, you realize there's nothing
left, nothing to do but wait for Death
to emerge from the bullpen, begin his slow
showy walk from the outfield to the mound
black satin jacket shrouding his shoulders.
The end, at last, relief."
Whether the relief pitcher is sending death and the undertaker diving out the window, acting as merciful death himself or "leading the league in warming" up depends on perspective. There are many lessons I can learn from the evolution of relief pitching but right now I'm reminded to broaden my perspective. If I think someone is making a strange decision I can ask them, in a respectful way, what led to their choice. Maybe they are like McGraw, trying out new strategies that at the time seem strange but in the future may become the norm.

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