Old-Timer's Advice to Today's Pitchers: Throw
By MURRAY CHASS
Published: March 28, 2006
FRANK NAVIN taught Elden Auker a simple lesson when Auker was a 22-year-old rookie with the Detroit Tigers.
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FPG-Getty Images, 1935
Elden Auker never threw more than 263 2/3 innings, but he completed 126 of his 261 major league starts.
Navin was the Tigers' owner, and when Auker was promoted to the big-league team in 1933, Auker said the owner told him:
"Elden, we're bringing you up here as a starting pitcher. We think you have an opportunity to be a major league pitcher. I don't have a lot of money. My philosophy for starting pitchers is when they give you the ball, I expect you to pitch nine innings. I can't afford to pay you to start a ballgame and pay three or four others to finish it."
Auker, at 95 one of the oldest living former major leaguers, related the story the other day to make a point during a telephone discussion of pitching practices then and now. He says he doesn't care for current practices and believes they are responsible for the increase in the number of sore arms.
Pitchers, Auker said, don't throw enough and they don't run enough. Throwing often, he asserted, strengthens arms, and running strengthens legs, which are a key to pitching.
"The legs are not in condition today, and that's why these fellas have sore arms," he said.
Later, speaking of pitch counts, he said, "I think this is what's causing a lot of sore arms."
Auker's views are not original; throwing and running were, once upon a time, routine. But in recent decades, the practice has changed. Today, baseball pampers pitchers and teaches them that too much throwing can be hazardous to their health.
Today, pitchers pitch every fifth day instead of every fourth, and they are often removed from games after throwing 100 pitches. If they reach 200 innings in a season, teams become concerned.
The Seattle Mariners have said that their teenage phenomenon, Felix Hernandez, won't pitch more than 200 innings this season.
It has been 25 years since a pitcher threw 300 innings in a season. Steve Carlton was the last to do it, throwing 304 innings in 1980. Last season, Liván Hernández's 246 1/3 innings were the most in the majors.
Consider the careers of the Hall of Fame pitchers Robin Roberts and Ferguson Jenkins.
Jenkins, who pitched from 1965 through 1983, worked at lead 300 innings for four consecutive seasons and five out of seven. In a nine-season stretch, he started 350 games, an average of 39 a year, and pitched 198 complete games, an average of 22 a year.
Roberts pitched from 1948 through 1966. He threw at least 300 innings in six straight seasons, averaging 39 starts (232 over all) and 27 complete games (161) in that period.
Last season, nine pitchers tied for the most starts, 35, and two pitchers — Dontrelle Willis of the Florida Marlins and Chris Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals — tied for the most complete games, with seven.
"Pitchers today are only expected to pitch into the sixth inning," Auker said. "I read where a pitcher pitched deep into the sixth inning. Isn't that something? Deep into the sixth inning."
Complete games became a thing of the past when teams began using relief pitchers regularly. The number of starts was reduced when teams went to five-man rotations from four, a practice that began in the mid-1960's.
Tom Seaver never pitched 300 innings. Neither has Greg Maddux nor Tom Glavine. But Sandy Koufax threw 300 innings in three of his last four seasons, Jim Palmer pitched 300 four times and Juan Marichal three times and missed a fourth by a third of an inning. Carlton, Catfish Hunter and Bob Gibson did it twice each.
In his 10-year career, Auker never threw more than 263 2/3 innings, but, with Navin's words in mind, he completed nearly 50 percent of his starts, 126 of 261.
"I never had a sore arm or sore leg in my life," said Auker, who pitched for the Tigers, the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Browns.
Nor could he recall any pitcher from his playing days who had a sore arm, except one.
"Charlie Gehringer, a few years before he died, would stop, and we played golf," Auker said, referring to visits at his home in Vero Beach, Fla., where he lives today.
"We were sitting on the back porch of our house here. We read that someone had a sore arm. I said, 'Charlie, do you remember in our six years playing together anyone having a sore arm?' Schoolboy Rowe was the only one. He didn't like to run. We couldn't think of anyone with a pulled hamstring."
Auker blamed trainers for pitchers' poor conditioning.
"When I played, we had one trainer, who spent most of his time rubbing Hank Greenberg's feet because they were flat," he said.
"We never had four or five trainers who had us rolling around on the ground and touching our toes. We ran sprints. In spring training, we started off with 50-yard sprints. We did that the first four to six days. Then we ran 100-yard sprints. I see players jogging around talking, but jogging does not get your legs in shape."
Combine the absence of running with a lack of throwing, and today's pitchers are looking for trouble. "It's like anything else," Auker said. "If you don't use it, you're going to lose it. Excessive throwing never hurts a pitcher's arm; it's the lack of throwing that hurts the arm."
Auker said he saw a newspaper article this spring that reported a starting pitcher left an exhibition game after throwing 33 pitches in the first inning.
"He said he was tired," Auker said. "The idea of a pitcher wearing out is ridiculous. He weakens because he's not in condition. I was never taken out of a game because I was weak. I was taken out because I was getting hit."