An hour after the game, I informed one of my MLB on Fox colleagues that Yankees manager Joe Girardi would have removed CC Sabathia from a no-hitter even if he had retired the Rays’ Kelly Shoppach to end the eighth inning.
“Then Joe should send Shoppach a gift basket,” my colleague said.
Girardi indeed would have been skewered if he had pulled Sabathia, committing perhaps the ultimate act of pitch-count police brutality. But he would have been right.
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As the tension mounted Saturday, I thought back to a conversation I had in spring training with Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland. I was writing then about the potential carryover effect of last year’s postseason run on the team’s Big Three starting pitchers — Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte.
Eiland said the Yankees had done everything possible to save wear-and-tear on the Big Three, from giving them extra days off and reducing their side work in September to scaling back their offseason programs and cutting their number of throwing sessions early in camp.
He also mentioned that Sabathia, despite working a total of 266 1/3 innings, including postseason, had exceeded 120 pitches only three times — and not once after Aug. 8, including the playoffs.
Eiland’s point was clear: The Yankees were careful not to abuse their starting pitchers. Preserving the Big Three during the regular season helped prepare them for the postseason, when Girardi went exclusively with a three-man rotation.
Sabathia was electric Saturday. The Yankees’ defense performed brilliantly behind him. The players were caught up in the moment, and so was the crowd of 29,892 at Tropicana Field. The many Yankees fans in attendance were chanting, “Let’s go CC!”
Hey, we all want to see no-hitters. Heck, I have covered baseball since 1987 and have witnessed only two no-nos live — Juan Nieves for the Brewers in ‘87, in the ninth game I ever covered, and Hideo Nomo for the Red Sox in 2001.
Well, Girardi and Eiland cannot be concerned with fan excitement, media excitement or even their own players’ excitement. Their job is to win games, and to win games they need to keep their star players healthy.
Sabathia threw 111 pitches. Eiland said his limit was 115. And while there was much skepticism afterward about whether the Yankees actually would have lifted Sabathia in the heat of the moment, Eiland was adamant that the decision had been made. It was Sabathia’s second start of the season. He was not fully stretched out. The Yankees’ thought process would have been different if the game had taken place in June or July.
Funny, the issue of pitch counts had come up earlier in our broadcast, when Joe Buck talked about former Cubs pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, and how heavy workloads early in their careers may have contributed to their respective injuries.
Tim McCarver pointed out — correctly — that Prior might have gotten hurt even if he had thrown fewer pitches or innings. But like it or not, teams today err on the side of caution, occasionally to the point of excess.
Removing Sabathia three outs from a no-hitter would have taken the debate to another level, unleashing a new level of fury against the numbers crunchers whose influence over the sport continues to grow.
Sabathia, who turns 30 on July 21, is the leading workhorse of this generation, pitching in the prime of his career. But Yankees general manager Brian Cashman is big into data — the Joba rules a perfect example. His choice of Girardi to replace Joe Torre was a step toward making the team more diligent in objective analysis.
The Red Sox, too, are very mindful of protecting their pitchers. I once asked their pitching coach, John Farrell, why pitchers keep getting hurt even though teams go almost overboard handling them with care. Farrell explained that the numbers are telling, that the rate of injury would be even higher if teams did not exercise caution.
Much as many of us might hate to admit it, Farrell is right. The pitch-count police can be oppressive, but the alternative is even worse.
Girardi would have been skewered if he had removed Sabathia from a no-hitter. But the consequences would have been far greater if Sabathia eventually had gotten hurt.