The Sacrificial Pitcher

We have all heard of a sacrifice fly ball, a batter that sacrifices his chance on base to move another base runner over, but a sacrificial pitcher is a bit strange.

I once overheard people in a restaurant booth complaining how their son was left in a to pitch a hopelessly lost game, for three innings. In addition, how this playoff game was only the first of two more, and how unfair it was to throw their son under the bus in such a losing proposition. One of the women, I assume was the young man’s mother, wanted this youngster to transfer out and go somewhere else. I assumed this was a college player.
This pitching staff strategy can be common, under certain conditions, and not all that unusual. On the other hand, I would assume this would not be the case in the youth leagues.

Leaving a pitcher out there to struggle in a losing proposition – no matter how hard the club tries, has a thought process that can involve many things.

The reasons for sacrificing a pitcher to “wrap” things up when there is no chance to turn things around is usually based on a pattern of known facts and tendencies within the pitching staff itself… Those patterns are:

  • the makeup of the pitching staff, with respect to who has what in their pitch inventory.
  • how much experience within the pitching staff does the coaching staff have to work with.
  • who has pitched most recently and who needs what for rest.
  • who has been knocked around recently by the next three(3) clubs to be faced.
  • what are the standings for the club and what are their chances next.
  • is it worth going out and grinding it out now, or save your pitching staff for next season.
  • when things are beyond saving, there’s always a pitcher(s) that could use the experience.

Now as unreasonable as all this may seem, it is not. Here is why:

  • rookies can use live fire to gain experience.
  • there’s really no pressure to win, per say, so pitchers needing work can progress with a little less in the gut wrenching department.
    (now this doesn’t mean leave your game face on the bench.)
  • leaving that/those pitchers out of a hopeless situation who are the mainstays on the pitching staff saves them from the potential of not being available for a decisive string of games later on.

Coaches in the amateur ranks may want to plan on this kind of situation, and have a moving scale as they go into a season. Progressive planning not only saves time and last minute juggling, but it is a more efficient use of the pitching staff throughout the season and into the next.

The major drawback of this kind of management is not coaching and telling a pitcher upfront that he might be used in the situations described above. Throwing a pitcher into a losing game is not fun – period. However, when things are put on the table at the beginning of the season, on a one on one discussion, of when and why, there should be no surprises or sorrow grapes along the way from anybody. By the way, this one on one discussion should be made in private between the pitching coach and his pitcher, not in a conference meeting with all pitchers.

Back in my day, they had another name for it—one used often by the Yankees’ pitchers. They called it “taking one’s turn in the barrel”—leaving a starting pitcher in the game for seven innings or such, to take his lumps. It was often a lost-cause game, where the opposition had its hitting shoes on and then some and where their pitcher was working on a shutout, and on top of that the hapless hurler’s bullpen was thoroughly exhausted. I’d seen a lot of those games, like one where the Detroit Tigers went after Vic Raschi and beat him to a pulp and then some. He didn’t like it at all. But Casey Stengel told him that this was one of those days.
I can sympathize with all concerned. But this happens every once in a while, and most often because the bullpen is shot to hell and gone, no Joe Page to come in and put out the fire, the other pitchers have just plain had it up the wazoo—and no intervening day or days off, they have to play another game the next day. It happens at all levels of the game—more often in the majors than anywhere else, so I feel for all the young players, coaches, parents and all those others who have to sit there and take it on the chin. It’s a good thing that this doesn’t happen every day, or what would become of the game of baseball? Fortunately, every so often there’s a young pitcher who has seen very little action and who can come in there, start the game and right the ship.