Rick Langford – 1978 Topps
June 26, 2011
Thanks, Billy! This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things!
(This is going to be a long one, but I think you’ll like it…)
You know, it wouldn’t be a discussion with Jack Morris on the radio without him grousing about pitch counts. Oh, and Bert Blyleven throws in his disdain as well, even though he recites pitch count numbers every 29 seconds on broadcasts.
You know, Jack and Bert, I can give you a litany of pitchers ruined by managers allowing young arms to throw foolishly high pitch counts in stress situations (lots of men on base, cold weather, short rest) or with horrible mechanics or by overusing pitches that tax the arm instead of fastball and curves. (You know why no one uses the split-fingered fastball anymore? They saw the DL record of the SF Giants in the 80’s and 90’s.)
Yes, Jack and Bert, you threw lots of innings. But in your era you had a bigger strike zone, lineups with at least one or two automatic outs and only one or two power hitters, and managers that used relief pitchers wisely (like, when the game was on the line – even though it was the 7th and the score was tied). And because of that, when you were up 8-3, you could stay in there forever.
Oh, and Jack, when you threw 246 innings for the 1991 Twins, you threw an average of 107 pitches a game. Your arm was developed, and you had great mechanics. AND YOU WERE ALSO AN OUTLIER! You think everyone can be Randy Johnson, or Nolan Ryan, or Mickey Lolich if they built up their arm properly. No, they’re freaks of nature. All you need to do is ask Frank Tanana, or Dave Rozema, or Mark Fidrych, or…or….or….
And you suffered as well, Jack, you suffered as well. The first year there are pitch counts available at B-R (1988) you threw 161 pitches in a game on April 14, a 2-1 loss where you walked nine. The next three starts you compiled an 8.64 ERA and teams slugged .500 off of you. Ya think you’re arm was a bit weary? Ya think if you didn’t throw 161 pitches that it wouldn’t have taken you until game 160 until your ERA was under 4.
Jack, next time I hear you on the radio and talk about pitch counts, I’m going to call in. I’m going to remind you of those stats. I’m going to remind you of Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen and what Dallas Green did to them in the Mets system. I’m going to remind you of Tim Leary in Wrigley.
I’m also going to just mention the names Norris, Langford, McCatty, Keough and Kingman.
Billy Martin took over the A”s in 1980. Charlie Finley had to do something, otherwise the A’s would sell for two bits with a nickel change. The 1979 A’s were last in the league in runs scored and 13th in ERA. Only Dave Hamilton had an ERA+ of over 100.
Martin did notice that the rotation (listed above) was going to be good as soon as they had support behind them (and Norris got off the drugs and got over his arm issues). He also was damn sure he wasn’t going to give Mike Morgan, at age 19, one inning of major league time much less 13 starts, since the memories of him trying to manage David Clyde at Texas was still fresh in his mind.
Billy’s inherited bullpen was Hamilton (a journeyman lefty back for a second stint in the Finley circus), Bob Lacey (who allowed 37% of his inherited runners to score AND compiled a 5.85 ERA), Dave Heaverlo (noted for his bald head, wearing #60 before the Pirates started throwing everyone out there in spring training numbers, and compiling 11 losses and eight blown saves in 1979), veteran Jim Todd (who compiled a 1.963 WHIP and a 6.56 ERA in 81 innings) and long man Craig Minetto (who was out of organized baseball entirely in 1975 and 1976 after a short stint in the low minors for Montreal but somehow made the bigs for Oakland in 1978).
So yeah, instead of firemen, it was pyromaniacs with kindling, kerosene, and a welding torch.
But only Todd was let go from that staff. You may wonder why since now it seems that every team churns through pitchers like there’s no tomorrow in the offseason, with non-tenders, DFAs, non-roster invitees, and the like. But you must remember one thing – Finley was cheap. He wasn’t about to take on any payroll right before selling the team, and no free agent would want to go play in Oakland for Finley and Martin unless he had no other choice.
Martin turned around the A’s, big time. They went 83-79 thanks to a lot of Rickey!, Dwayne Murphy, Tony Armas, and Dave Revering, and those five stud starters.
Oakland starters completed 94 games. Langford completed 28 of his 33 starts and went 19-12 with a 3.26 ERA. The irony is that on April 10, he was knocked out of the box in his first start and didn’t make his second start until April 28. On July 20 he went 14 innings against Cleveland but it was an easy 14 (just eight hits allowed and one intentional walk).
Norris and Keough also completed also 20 or more games. McCatty completed just 11 and Kingman just 10. Slackers.But McCatty started back to back games in April against Seattle. He was knocked out in the second on April 14 and then turned around the next day and threw 8 1/3 excellent innings
All five threw over 200 innings. They started 159 of the 162 games (Lacey, Hamilton and Minetto made the other starts, and Lacey threw a shutout in his spot start).
As for the pen, from what I guess, Martin started with Hamilton, Lacey and rookies Jeff Jones and Rick Lysander in the pen, and maybe another rookie in Mark Souza (who didn’t pitch until mid-April but may have been available). Heaverlo was waived late in the spring, the day before the season started.
And early on, all seemed normal. The A’s did complete six of their first 11 starts but they all were well pitched games. But then they had seven straight games where they used the bullpen, with the nadir being a pleasant Sunday afternoon in late April where the Twins planted 10 runs in the first on Kingman and Hamilton, then five in the third off of Souza and Lysander.
I imagine that Billy visited all of his old watering holes in Minnesota, and consumed mass quantities on the flight and said, “Screw it…I can’t trust Lacey and he’s who I trust the most. Jones is green but I like his stuff. Hamilton’s arm is a noodle, and Lysander and Souza should be back in Ogden chasing Mormon chicks.”
So he decided to use just Lacey and Jones out of the pen, and Hamilton in case of emergency. The other two guys can get meal money and pitch batting practice.
A pattern developed. CG for Langford, Keough and Norris. Short relief only for McCatty and Kingman.
It took 20 days for Lysander and Souza to appear in another game – another game where the A’s starter was knocked out early. That was the last we saw of them in Oakland.
The pen shrank to four, I suppose, as Ernie Camacho was recalled and debuted when Keough was drilled early against Kansas City. Camacho was soon back in Ogden and Alan Wirth took his spot.
Martin’s “patience” on Hamilton wore out and after he was a punching bag after McCatty was drilled against New York, he sat for 22 days. Minetto was recalled at some point and the pen grew to five as doubleheaders were looming.
Jones pitched three times in a month then of course was used three days in a row. Now, they’d make sure Jones was down in AAA getting regular work. But he stayed up there.
Lacey was the only one getting ‘regular’ work, every five days or so.
The second breaking point had to be an extra inning loss to the Angels in mid-July. Hamilton lost that, and his ERA was the APR of my credit card. Wirth faced just one batter and that was Bobby Grich, who hit the game winner. Martin had to have lost it, and sent Hamilton and Wirth back and calling up fresh meat in Rich Bordi and Mike Beard.
And he resolved to not let the bullpen, except for Lacey and maybe Jones, anywhere near a game that wasn’t out of total control, and then that it was only when McCatty or Kingman were pitching did those two get near the mound. This is a total 180 from what Tony LaRussa would have done – he probably would have finagled the roster to basically have a 20-man bullpen using options, DLs and other means. But not Billy.
Bordi pitched just once, and it was back to Utah. Martin was impressed by Beard, but like Jones, he didn’t trust rookies at all, especially 20-year old 2 1/2 seasons away from Medicine Hat (and chasing cheerleaders in Doraville, GA) and one that had a 6.40 ERA in the PCL.
After Bordi and Beard made their virgin appearance, the A’s threw 8 straight complete games, even one where Keough gave up six runs to Toronto. Lacey went nine days between stints, as did Beard. Minetto made his spot start in a double header after 10 days of rust, and true to form only Jones and Lacey came in to relieve him. That was Jones’ first appearance in 10 days and it would be 22 days before we see Minetto in a box score again.
I conjecture that Bordi was returned to Ogden, since he’s done in this narrative, joining Camacho, Lysander, Wirth and Souza as characters whose role is already finished in this play.
On August 1, actual modern bullpen usage broke out in Cleveland. Kingman threw six innings of excellent baseball (3 hits, one walk, one run) and was done. (Was he sick?) Jones, Lacey and Beard closed it out with excellent relief work. The next game (after a rain-out, there was a DH), Keough lasted just 6 1/3 but Jones and Lacey held on.
After that spurt of activity, it was back to ‘normal’. Between game two of August 3 and August 19, Martin went to the pen once.
Once, in 14 days.
ONCE IN 14 DAYS! Holy Old Hoss Radbourn, Batman!
On a hot August night, Beard made his first appearance in 17 days, and Minetto showed up for the first time in 22. The latter lost the game after shaky performances by Lacey and Jones, who were appearing in a game for the first time in 10 days.
During that fortnight, did they even go OUT to the bullpen? What did bullpen coach George Mitterwald DO anyway?
After that long stretch, it became semi-normal again. Lacey normally went 3-4 days between appearances and the others went about a week to 10 days. Minetto made his last appearance on August 29. I don’ t think he was sent down, as Ogden was in last place so there were no playoffs there. He probably just was left on the bench to rot, much like Kenny Holtzman was when Martin managed the Yanks.
As the calendar moved to September, the A’s had another week-long stretch of complete games. Jones went 8 days between outings and then appeared in back to back games. Beard went 14 days without pitching and also then threw in back to back games.
What would the GM do NOW if you had your two best pitching prospects in the major leagues going 2 weeks between outings in the bullpen? Amazing.
On Sept. 18, McCatty was blasted by Texas and Hamilton made an appearance after 66 days of exile. Of course, Martin being Martin he put his relief ace in the game in the THIRD (Lacey). The next day, Kansas City lit up Kingman, so the bullpen quartet all made an appearance again.
By this time the Royals had totally ran away from the rest of the AL West. Martin wanted to finish over .500 and finish second, so instead of easing off the last part of the season he put the hammer down. You’d think that now all of the fuzzy cheeked kids from Ogden would show up, but no.
Remember, Charlie O Finley was cheap. Extra players on the big league roster means hotel rooms, meal money and big league salary. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent Minetto down to SAVE on that stuff in September since Martin wasn’t going to use him anyway.
That, and Martin had already seen and discarded the best pitchers from Ogden except for Morgan. Morgan was already scarred from 1978 and 1979. The rest of Ogden’s staff outside of the bit players in the early ‘pen were dudes like Brian “Father” Abraham (2-8, 5.75, 1.803 WHIP), Randy Green (6-12, 5.87, 1.688 WHIP), Frank Harris (5-11, 5.72, 1.612 WHIP) and John Sutton (5.24 ERA and 1.848 WHIP). And those other bozos didn’t do much (Wirth’s WHIP was 1.820, which made his 6.20 ERA look decent in comparison; Lysander had a 5.05 ERA and a 1.802 WHIP). Souza and Camacho pitched halfway decent, but why call them up just for show?
Anyway, after the Royals eviscerated Kingman and Company, the A’s were 74-75. They went 9-4 to close out the year, throwing 10 complete games. Twice, Kingman came in for a relief stint. Jones pitched once, Lacey once, Beard twice, Hamilton never again.
Yes, the fifth starter pitched more in relief than the ostensible relief ace in the last 13 games.
Amongst those 10 complete games, pitched in late September when the A’s had no pennant race to deal with (I was going to say “meaningless” games but I’m afraid Billy Martin would emerge from his grave, drink in hand, and clock me one like I was a marshmallow salesman or Dave Boswell. There were no meaningless games to Martin. Even if he were trying to get fired he still wanted to win every game 42-o) were these ‘gems’.
Sept. 23 against the White Sox. Langford goes the distance in a 6-4 despite giving up 14 hits, and having three of the four runs score on him in the sixth and seventh and Leo Sutherland hit a double in the ninth with one out bringing the tying run to the plate. 14 hits! Gardenhire would have used five pitchers in the seventh…
Sept. 26 against the Brewers. Mike Norris took a 7-5 lead into the ninth. Now, Francona or Girardi or Scioscia would have used their middle men and set up men in the 7th and 8th when Milwaukee started its comeback and have the closer in the 9th put the hammer down. But Norris was out there to begin the ninth. Charlie Moore singled, but Molitor hit into a force play. However, Yount and Cooper singled to load the bases. Was anyone warming up? I doubt it, as Ben Oglivie hit a grand-slam inside the park home run. (Yes, a grand slam inside the park home run. Ben Oglivie did that.) Still, Norris is in there as Gorman Thomas takes him deep. Vic Harris fans, but John Poff (WHO??) and Jim Gantner single. STILL NORRIS IS IN THERE! Finally, Moore grounds out. Norris gets his CG, giving up 10 runs!
Oct. 2 against the White Sox. Langford struggles, giving up eight runs in the first five innings, but he still completes the game, a tidy 15-hitter, in a 9-4 loss.
The season ended Oct. 5. Guess who started it? Guess?
Langford. On two days rest after giving up 15 hits in a complete game. He doesn’t complete this one though. Because it went 15 innings. Still, it was a sight to behold.
Langford falls behind 2-0 after one inning (not shame, since the Brewers could flat out rake at the top of the order), but settles down and leads 4-2 going into the bottom of the eighth. Vic Harris pops up, but Ed Romero takes Langford deep to make it 4-3.
Ok, Billy, you’ve got a pitcher on two days rest, pitching in the 8th inning of game 162. You’ve clinched second place. You’ve clinched a winning record. AND HE JUST GAVE UP A HOME RUN TO FREAKIN’ ED ROMERO! ED ROMERO!
Romero hit eight home runs in his career, and that was his first.
Langford gets out of the inning, and the A’s still lead 4-3 going to the bottom of the ninth. It’s time for the closer, right?
No, it’s time for Langford, who gives up a tying home run to Oglivie (outside the park this time) and the game is tied.
The game’s tied at 4-4 going to the bottom of the 10th. Now, isn’t it time for Lacey, or Jones, or Beard?
Finally, Martin puts in a reliever in the 11th. Kingman. The fifth starter. Figures. In the 12th, Beard comes in and pitches well for 3 2/3 before giving up a game winning single to Harris.
The ‘Iron Five’ did its job and the A’s finished over .500 for the first time since the dynasty days. And if it worked once, it would work again. Martin and Fowler did the same thing in 1981, but due to the strike it wasn’t as noticeable. Still, Langford, McCatty, Norris and Keough completed 56 of their 88 starts. Lacey was gone (he was mouthy about his role and Billy exiled him to Cleveland), Jones was the ‘ace’ of the pen. Tom Underwood and Bob Owchinko contributed and Martin trusted them more than the rookie squad from Ogden. Beard was up in September only, and I wonder if Martin was still sore at him for losing game 162 last year. Bo McLaughlin played the Dave Hamilton role complete with 11+ ERA. The A’s made the ALCS but were swept by the Yanks.
So why not another try? Those five were in their peak. Langford was 30 in 1982 – the rest 26 to 28. The A’s were second in the league in pitching in 1981.
They fell to 13th in 1982. All five of the “Iron Five” were basically done. McCatty had the best ERA (3.99) but only pitched 20 games. Langford and Keough gutted it out but they were mediocre to awful (Keough was 11-18, 5.72). Martin quit.
In 1983, McCatty pitched well but still only had 24 starts (he also relieved in 14 games). Norris threw 88 2/3 innings before he was hurt again and out of the majors, seemingly for good. Kingman was bought by the Giants, and was found to be all used up. He was out of the majors after 4 2/3 bad innings in San Francisco. Keough pitched 44 innings with a 5.52 ERA before he was given to the Yanks on June 15th.
Langford had the most spectacular flameout – at age 31 he still was the ace of the staff going into 1983. He started opening day and lasted 3 2/3 before hitting the DL. Came back a month later for three starts. He threw 6 2/3 innings. TOTAL. A 16.20 ERA and and OPS against of 1.200 led him back to the DL. Back in July for 3 starts, and he actually went five innings in one! But after lasting 1 2/3 against Boston in late July he was done and struggled to return for almost two seasons.
The 1983 A’s Opening Day starter went 0-4, 12.15 and gave up 43 hits and 27 earned runs in 20 innings. He walked 10 and struck out two, none in his last five starts.
So what happened to the Iron Five?
Kingman you know about.
McCatty had 1 1/2 more seasons left in him, but he was a shadow of his 1981 self.
Keough lasted until the late 80’s but was nothing more than a fringe pitcher at best.
Norris had a lot of ink written about him thanks to his redemption from drugs, and his comeback from his arm trouble, and made it back to the A’s in 1990. But after 27 innings he was done. He didn’t pitch in the bigs from August 3, 1983 to April 11, 1990.
Langford tried to come back with all his might after missing most of 1984. He did OK in a brief stint in 1985 but after going 1-10, 7.36 he was released in mid-July. His last appearance came 10 years to the day after his first appearance.
So what does this have to do with pitch counts?
Had Martin actually managed his resources with any long-term objectives in mind, he wouldn’t have done what he did. Yes, many teams are probably way too careful with their young arms, and 12-man staffs are the bane of the game, but it shows a lack of awareness about the game as a whole when Morris sits around bemoaning pitch counts when so many young pitchers have broken down from consistent high pitch counts in stress situations.
And all you need to say is Rick Langford, or Mike Norris, or Steve McCatty, or…