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What’s the Hurry, Fella?

March 8, 2017
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

In 1974, Charles O. Finley, maverick owner of the Oakland Athletics, decided to sign Herb Washington to serve solely as a pinch runner.

At Michigan State, Washington set world indoor records in the 50- and 60-yard dash, was a NCAA champion, a repeat All-American, and a seven-time Big Ten titlist but he hadn’t played baseball since he was a junior in high school.

Washington appeared in 92 games in 1974, stole 29 bases, and scored 29 runs; he was caught stealing 16 times. A player who could do nothing but pinch run forced manager Alvin Dark to burn three players each time he used him. Obviously, the player for whom Washington ran was out of the game and, since Washington did not play a defensive position, Dark had to use another player to replace him once the Athletics returned to the field.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Washington was on the Athletics 1974 postseason roster and appeared in two games in the American League Championship Series against the Baltimore Orioles; he attempted two steals and was caught both times.

Unfortunately, Washington’s defining moment may have come in Game Two of the 1974 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Sent in to pinch run for Joe Rudi in the ninth inning of a 3-2 game, Mike Marshall picked off Washington to snuff out an Athletics’ comeback. Washington appeared in two more games in the Series but he did not steal a base or score a run.

After appearing in just 13 games early in the 1975 season, the experiment with the designated pinch runner ended and the Athletics released Washington. Even Charlie O. realized that it just didn’t make sense to carry a player of such limited use on the roster.

Herb Washington finished his career with 31 stolen bases and 33 runs scored; he never batted and he never played the field.

Just Put Him On

In an effort to speed up the game, Major League Baseball decided to change the procedure for issuing intentional walks. No longer will the catcher stand with his arm fully extended at shoulder height and parallel to the ground to indicate that the pitcher will be tossing the next pitch wide of the plate in order to purposely walk the current batter. Starting this season, the manager merely has to signal from the dugout that he wants an intentional walk.

As changes to the game go, this really isn’t any big deal. It’s not as if Major League Baseball is suggesting that there be a designated pinch hitter to bat in place of the pitcher for the entire game, or that the All-Star Game should determine which league gets home-field advantage in the World Series, or even that teams from different leagues should play games against each other during the regular season.

Baseball purists do not like the new rule for intentional walks. They cite odd plays resulting from wild pitches during intentional walks or the fewer-than-occasional times that batters have reached out and hit a pitch during an intentional walk as reasons for not allowing the manager to merely wave a batter down to first base without any pitches having been thrown.

© T.C.G.

One of the best-know intentional walks that went awry occurred in Game 3 of the 1972 World Series.  The Cincinnati Reds were leading the Athletics 1-0 in the top of the eighth inning. The Reds were threatening to increase their lead; they had runners at second and third base with one out and Johnny Bench was at the plate.

Oakland manager, Dick Williams, went to the mound to discuss the situation with pitcher Rollie Fingers and catcher Gene Tenace. Despite the fact that Bench already had two strikes on him, Tenace returned to his position behind the plate and extended his right arm out to his side to indicate that Oakland was going to put Bench on and load the bases. As Fingers went into his windup, Tenace went into his crouch, and instead of soft tossing an intentionally-wide pitch, Fingers delivered a nasty slider that caught the outside corner of the plate for strike three.

These types of plays do not occur often enough to use them as a valid argument against changing the rules for issuing intentional walks. But pitchers also don’t issue enough intentional walks for this new rule to have a significant impact on the total time of the average game. Last season, in 4,856 games, batters went to the plate 184,580 times. Out of all of those plate appearances, pitchers issued only 932 intentional walks—that’s one half of one percent (0.5%) of the total plate appearances. Even if each intentional walk under this new format takes a few seconds off the time of a game, these statistics indicate that this rule change will have virtually no effect on the overall average length of a game.

I really don’t care for any of the other suggestions for shortening the time of a game. I like the idea of telling batters to stay in the batter’s box between pitches and having the pitchers stop fiddling around between pitches. But I don’t think baseball needs a clock to implement those changes.

Another proposal would have extra innings begin with a runner placed at second base. While such a rule might create a roster spot for the next Herb Washington, this proposal is so bad it doesn’t even deserve serious consideration.

It’s the Pitching Changes, Stupid

If MLB officials really want to know why games are lasting longer than they used to, all they need do is look at the team rosters. Every team now carries at least 12 pitchers because late in the game the managers want a left-handed specialist, a set-up man, and a closer. I read somewhere that the Atlanta Braves are considering carrying 13 pitchers this season. It is insane for a team to have more pitchers than position players on their roster.

If a manager has that many pitchers at his disposal, he is going to use them. Whenever a left-handed hitter comes to the plate after the sixth inning, the opposing manager likes to slowly walk out to the mound, paw around in the dirt for a minute, pass the time of day with the entire infield, and wait for the plate umpire to drag out to the mound before finally signaling a left-handed pitcher into the game. If the next hitter is right-handed, whether or not the left-handed pitcher retired the left-handed hitter, the manager again slowly walks out to the mound, paws around in the dirt for a minute, passes the time of day with the entire infield, and waits for the plate umpire to drag out to the mound before finally signaling a right-handed pitcher into the game.

I am not in favor of limiting the number of visits a manager or coach can make to the pitcher’s mound and I certainly do not want MLB to impose a limit on the number of pitching changes a team can make in a game. Rule changes are not the cure for this insanity. For goodness sake, let a big league pitcher try to retire two batters in a row late in the game every now and then. That will do more to speed up the game than a manager waving a batter to first on an intentional walk.

Besides, it is just plain nonsense for teams to spend millions of dollars each year on pitchers who aren’t expected to throw more than a handful of pitches each time they enter a game. These guys are the Herb Washingtons of today’s game.

(Source material for this post: baseball-reference.com, retrosheet.org and msuspartans.com)

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