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Denny McLain's seen baseball change since he won 30 games in 1968

August 3, 2012 - Mitch Rupert
By MITCH RUPERT

mrupert@sungazette.com

Denny McLain was on the pitcher’s mound when baseball was changed forever. Even now, more than 40 years since the pitcher’s mound was lowered to 10 inches, it was the start to offensive onslaught that has overtaken Major League Baseball.

Sure, other factors have influenced baseball’s offensive-minded mentality, but McLain, Major League Baseball’s last 30-game winning pitcher, was in the midst of the greatest pitching seasons of his life when the game was most affected.

“They wanted touchdowns and they got touchdowns,” McLain said in a phone interview on Friday afternoon. “I watch the Tigers a lot and when they get on a roll, they score a touchdown a night without much effort.”

McLain is making an appearance Friday night at Bowman Field for the Williamsport Crosscutters’ series opener against Connecticut. He’ll be signing autographs throughout the game at no charge.

Major League Baseball made the change to the pitching mound following the greatest pitching season in the history of the modern era in 1968. It was the year McLain won 31 games for the World Series champion Tigers and was the American League MVP. It was also the year Bob Gibson won the National League MVP with a 1.12 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals.

But just a later, McLain could already see the change. After striking out 280 batters in 1968, he struck out just 181 in 1969 after the mound was lowered.

“When they go in to make changes to reduce the height of the mound and make the strike zone smaller, it only hurt the pitcher,” McLain said. “I think it’s a horrible thing. Very few pitchers ever pitch inside anymore.”

The game in general is just different than it was 40 years ago. In McLain’s two best seasons, he threw 336 and 325 innings. He threw 51 complete games combined in those two years.

He said that could never happen in the game today, but it was what was expected from him as a starting pitcher. Those two seasons began the downfall of his career, and he’s readily able to admit that. But it was a time before Tommy John surgery. It was a time before arthroscopic surgeries and MRIs.

“But that’s the way it was back then. They expected 275 to 320 innings,” McLain said. “If you do this, and (Mickey) Lolich does that, we’ll win another pennant.

“If you look at someone like (Tigers pitcher Rick Porcello), he’s been in the big leagues for four years and two nights ago was the first time he’s ever gone into the eighth inning. If I didn’t pitch a complete game, I was going to be on my way to Topeka. And I don’t particularly have love for the humidity in Topeka.”

The game has become driven by money. Obviously teams are making big investments into their players, especially pitchers, and they’re taking every opportunity they can to protect that investment.

The perfect example of that is how the Washington Nationals have said they will shut down ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg after he reaches 160 innings pitched this year, despite the Nationals having the best season since the 1994 Expos were leading the National League East up until the Major League Baseball player’s strike.

McLain called the move to sit Strasburg “outrageous”. When he won 31 games for the Tigers in 1968, he was making just $30,000. That would be like making just under $200,000 this year.

“I was playing for the Gipper back then, whoever the hell the Gipper was,” McLain said. “I was breaking my ass. But it was a different time and different place.”

But it’s not just how many innings pitchers are throwing that have changed. It’s been so ingrained into them to throw just 90 or 100 pitches in a game. They’re no given a chance to be able to pitch out of tough situations.

McLain said he sees players in the big leagues now who start looking into the dugout when they reach the 90-pitch mark expecting to be taken out of a game. He pointed again to Porcello who often isn’t given the chance to work out of his own jams and said pitchers aren’t allowed to learn how to pitch.

“He’s very seldom left in the game with a man on first and second in the fourth inning or the bases loaded in the fifth,” McLain said of Porcello. “By the time you get to the end of the game, you forget he ever started the game. They do that with a lot of guys. (Doug) Fister and (Justin) Verlander get a chance to pitch out of it because they’re good. But kids never get a chance to learn how to pitch. It’s not about physical ability, it’s about being able to think what to do. They don’t even give them the option to not be able to pitch out of it.”

With the way the game has changed, McLain said he appreciates more what the likes of a Verlander or a Roy Halladay or a Cliff Lee can do on the mound. They all consistently work deep into games and even finish games, which has become a bit of a lost art in baseball today.

McLain can only see one scenario where things get back to being close to the way they were when he was coming up with the Tigers in the 60s is if they once again raise the mound and expand the strikezone. And a side effect of giving some advantage back to the pitcher, he says games will finish quicker than the nearly 3-hour average for a Major League game.

“But the common denominator is money,” McLain said. “The bottom line when I played was stay focused and fundamentally work into a timing rhythm between starts. Get into a good routine and stay in a good routine. The money is the routine today. Protect the investment. Until you take all the handcuffs off these guys, they’ll never have a Major League routine.”

Which means it could be a long time, if ever, before we ever see another 30-win season like McLain’s 1968 season.

 
 

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