Rachel Levitin: Arms race redefines game’s growth from traditional to modern

There was a time, back in the first year of the National League, when the same pitcher threw nearly every game of the season. That was 1876. Jim Devlin started and completed 68 of 69 games played by Louisville.

Back then, the ball was thrown underhand and pitching careers were shorter. It wasn’t until 1884 that pitchers were allowed to toss overhand - closer to the formation of the game we now watch daily from April to October - allowing more speed, but more stress, to envelop the arm. That was the same time that Old Hoss Radbourn of the National League champion Providence Grays strung together the all-time record for wins with 59 in a 112-game schedule.

The schedule was up to 154 games by 1892. That’s when most teams moved to having three rotating starters and a designated ace, who pitched more often than just every three games.

Could you imagine an alternate baseball reality where any one of the Nationals’ current starters took the mound more than once every five days?

As it stands, the Nats’ five-man starting rotation has a 5-1 record and combined ERA of 1.69, a major league best and nearly three-quarters of a point lower than the team with the second-best mark (Texas at 2.43). Nationals starters are holding the opposition to a .179 batting average, which is also a big league best for 2012 thus far.

When the five-man rotation became a universal go-to for modern baseball, the biggest change was in a starter’s career numbers and workload.

“Too many pitchers, that’s all, there are just too many pitchers,” Hall of Famer Cy Young once said. “Ten or 12 on a team. Don’t see how any of them get enough work. Four starting pitchers and one relief man ought to be good enough. Pitch ‘em every three days and you’d find they’d get control and good, strong arms.”

These days, in a game full of surgically repaired throwing arms, Young’s stance isn’t a part of the popular belief. Clubs are managed and coached to play a traditional game in a modern era. That’s what’s cool about the game of baseball. The history runs deep and the traditions aplenty, but it’s the product on the field that defines a club and, therefore, the sport.

Rachel Levitin blogs about the Nationals for We Love DC, and will be sharing her observations about baseball in the nation’s capital as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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