Baseball buffs: how did old-time pitchers throw for so many innings?

Back in the 1880s-90s, these guys threw over 400 innings a season with regularity. The best workhorses of that time approached 700 innings – and they weren’t even playing 154 games in a season yet. Pitchers before 1930 (or so) regularly finished their starts, too.

So how was pitching different back then? How were the arms of starters spared? I’ve heard a few things about it, and I thought I’d add in some thoughts of my own:

a) I’ve heard that “newer” pitches (sliders, forkballs, etc.) are especially hard on the arm.

b) Travel pervaded the season more in those days – pitchers got a lot of rest while sitting around on trains.

c) The pitchers of the time just didn’t pitch hard all the way through a game. The top fastallers might have topped out at 85 mph or so, anyway. Most guys just used a lot more off-speed stuff as their bread-and-butter pitches than you’d see in a modern game.

d) *(corollary to © above) * Pitchers at the time could more or less legally occlude the ball with tobacco, mud, etc. Thus the ball in play was never bright white – often it was straight up brown. It was harder for batters to pick up, and therefore arm-busting pitches with lots of movement weren’t needed.

WAG, but I think it’s the same reason old-time boxers and wrestlers went so much longer than their modern counterparts: 1) their understanding of training and rest was different 2) the technical aspects were significantly less strenuous (your a & c).

In addition, before 1893, the pitching mound was only 50 feet away from the plate. That’s why many pre-1893 pitching records are not recognized as official records. (Note Radbourn’s 441 Ks in 1884).

Zev Steinhardt

I woudl suggest that it is in fact simply that they let the pitchers pitch so much back then. I am scertain that most pitchers probably had shortened carrers because of the overuse, but the exceptions stick out in history…the Cy Younsg, Gorver Cleveland Alexanders and Walter Johnsons.

Whoops! I almost missed Matt Kilroy 513Ks in 1886!.

In any event, I think that it is a combination of all these factors. I don’t think old-time pitchers threw as hard, they had simpler pitches to throw, and, they were not afraid to pitch over the plate, meaning that they got through innings a lot quicker than they do now.

Zev Steinhardt

Mostly, pitchers tended to save themselves for key situations. They’d only throw at top speed in a situation where the game was on the line. Now, you’re expected to throw your best the entire game.

Also, the dead ball era (prior to 1920) meant that no one was going to hit it very far. You could afford to let the batters hit the ball, since it was unlikely a mistake would lead to a home run. Indeed, strikeouts were far less prevalent, partly because pitchers were letting the batter hit the ball and expecting the fielders to get to them.

This is the main reason. Live balls gave birth to Babe Ruth and subsequent homer-blasters. Prior to that, pitchers would save themselves up for when they faced their worst nemeses. Giving a mediocre pitch to a mediocre hitter was acceptable strategy. Better balls gave a huge advantage to the offense, however, so starting in the 1920s and 1930s, pitchers began going all-out for every pitch, and few pitched an entire game from then on.

A lot of pitchers blew out their arms back then, too—you just never hear of them because they had short careers. Like Gangster Octopus says, we remember the exceptions.

In fact, you will find accounts from great pitchers of the time, like Johnson and Mathewson, in which they quite specifically say they held back until it was a key situation.

Of course, you could have pitchers throw 350 innings a year now, too. Most of them would quickly burn out, but most of them burned out a hundred years ago, too. Mathewson et al. were exceptions. It may simply be that pitchers throwing fewer innings is a product of stretegy, not a change in ability.

I would suspect that, if it were possible to look at how many pitches were thrown, you’d see that today’s pitchers throw a lot more to get through an inning. I looked at the stats for the Pirates (cuz they’re my favorite team), and this past year they averaged 133 pitches/9 innings (or about 4.75/out). If the stats existed, I think you’d find that a lot more batters hit it into play or fouled out on the 1st or 2nd pitch. Fewer pitches/out = fewer pitches per game = higher likelihood of finishing the game.

It would be interesting to time-travel Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, and Pedro Martinez – in their youths – back to 1894 and see how their careers as 450-inning starters would have fared.

You’re definitely on to something here. Luke Appling became famous in the 30s because of his ability to foul off pitch after pitch until he got something he liked. That sort of talent is expected these days. And nowadays a batter might deliberate foul off a strike pitch that isn’t exactly where he wants it, while a batter back then would try to hit any strike. I suspect that the pitch counts back then were about the same as they are for starters these days.

A few other factors:

  1. They didn’t replace the game balls as often… consequently by the end of a game the ball was a blackened, tobacco-sopping, lopsided, scuffed, bag of mush. You couldn’t hit it far no matter what. Once again, it made it a lot less dangerous to make a bad pitch.

  2. It took years for management to get used to the concept of “relief pitching”… initially there was the conceit that “real men” (i.e. pitchers) finished what they started. You put your best pitchers in the starting rotation. The bullpen was for youngsters, oldsters and bushers.

  3. Less games meant more time to recuperate between starts.

How or why did they do it?

If they didn’t…they didn’t have a job.

Weren’t no middle relievers or closers.

One more factor: the hitters. The average hitter today is an absolute monster compared to the average hitter back then. And even disregarding the advances in training, hitting is much more of a science now, with statistics layered upon statistics topped with healthy doses of psychology and scouting. Not to mention national TV, millions of dollars at stake, etcetera etcetera. I don’t imagine it was easy pitching back then, but it’s got to be more grueling today.

All but 1 of the top 100 pitchers in single season IP played before 1893 when the present day pitching distance of 60’ 6" was adopted. (Amos Rusie in 1893)

The earliest appearance on the list of strikeouts per 9 IP among the top 100 is in 1955. And that is #62, Herb Score. Score had another big strikeout year in 1956. Then there is no pitcher among the top 100 until 1964.

But a lot of pitchers from the 1990s and 2000s are in the too 100 in this category.

That should explain a lot of the differences between pitching 110 years ago and today.

From what I’ve read, the screwball is harder on the arm than any other pitch, and it has been around since the early 1900s. According to

A point made by none other than Christy Mathewson in Pitching in a Pinch, which was the best baseball book I had read until I was lucky enough to come across a copy of Earl Weaver’s autobiography, It’s What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts. (Yes, nitpickers, I’m aware that John Wheeler ghosted Matty’s book.)

Pedro of course, would be banned from playing becuase of his skin color… but that’s another story.

Carl Hubbell, though

  1. Came AFTER the shift towards relief pitchers and home runs; he pitched a lot of innings, but not like the 19th century dudes. He’s actually more or less the same pitcher as Juan Marichal, and

  2. His arm was pretty much toast in his mid-30s. He held on for awhile with guile and deception but couldn’t throw hard. If he’d been relieved a little more, maybe he would have lasted longer.