Friday night, Miami pitcher Adam Conley was pitching a no-hitter against the Milwaukee Brewers with two outs in the eighth inning, meaning that he was just four outs away. A no-hitter—no hits, no runs, for an entire game—places a pitcher name in the Hall of Fame. It makes him an instant part of sports history. In today’s hyper-celebrity culture, it means interviews and endorsements.
Moreover, the Marlins needed something to make their fans feel better. Dee Gordon, the team’s star second baseman, had just tested positive for steroids and was suspended for 80 games. Nonetheless, Marlins manager Don Mattingly lifted Conley because he had exceeded his pitch count. Though baseball paid little attention to the statistic for 70 years, today teams carefully monitor how many pitches a hurler throws, both to anticipate ineffectiveness, and to guard against injury.
In Conley’s case, he had never thrown more than a hundred pitches in a game, and had topped out at 116. To Mattingly and Marlins pitching coach Juan Nieves, that meant that even on the verge of immortality, Conley had to be removed. Conley was angry, though he said all the right things after the game. Still, knowing the alleged risk to his arm and career, he wanted to try to finish his masterpiece. (The Marlins blew the no-hitter and the shutout in the 9th, though still managed to win 5-3.)
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:
Was removing Conley “for his own good” when he wanted to have the chance at a no-hitter fair?
You might want to review my commentary from 2012 on the Washington Nationals handling of Stephen Strasberg. The team, heading into the play-offs, shut down Strasberg despite his being a superior starting pitcher, and apparently healthy, because he has exceeded his season limit for pitches, in the estimation of the team’s experts. I wrote,
To whom does a baseball team owe its primary duty? The answer has always been, and still is, the sport, the city whose name is on its uniforms and the team’s fans. The welfare of the players on the team’s payroll are on the duty list for sure, but they only finish fourth. When a championship is on the line, they are expected to take reasonable risks with their bodies, their health and their careers, and the team is obligated to let them do it. Players who hurtle into the stands to make game saving catches risk serious injury; catchers who stand in a runner’s way to block game-winning runs risk career-ending collisions; pitchers who go to the mound with their ankle tendons crudely stitched to their skin risk never pitching again (okay, that was another Red Sox reference: sorry.) Taking such risks is part of the game, and playing hard, and harder when championships are on the line, is essential to the integrity of baseball or any sport.
Conley, 25, was trying to become the sixth pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the Marlins’ 24 seasons, but no championship was on the line. Nonetheless, Marlins fans and Milwaukee fans at the game were also robbed of a once in a lifetime experience. Oh, how I would love to see a non-hitter in person! I have come close in a few of the thousands of baseball games I’ve attended, but have never seen one.
Was this in his best interest? Gee, I don’t know: maybe you should ask him what his best interests was. Baseball teams invest millions in their pitchers, it is true, and there are extreme cases (Dizzy Dean, Doc Gooden, Fernando Valenzuela, Bret Saberhagen) of talented young pitchers who were over-used at a young age, and burned out their arms. Still, there is little proof that the current pitch count craze has lessened injuries to young pitchers. By some measures, more young pitchers are requiring arm surgery than ever.
Meanwhile, though this season began with an argument over how the game needed to be more spontaneous and exciting, this was the second time in April when a manager prevented a pitcher from getting a no-hitter. In that case, Dodger manager Dave Roberts removed rookie Ross Stripling while he was attempting a no-hitter in his very first major league start. The main reason again was pitch count, but Roberts’ decision can be defended in many ways, though it was still much criticized. Stripling, like Conley, had exceeded his pitch limit, but unlike Conley, was obviously weakening, losing his command and walking his fourth batter of the game. It had begun raining, making the ball difficult to grip. Not only had Stripling never topped 100 pitches before, he had a history of arm trouble, and was only two years removed from Tommy John surgery, unlike Conley.
Most important of all, the Dodgers had only a two run lead, and the tying run was at the plate. In the Marlins game, Conley had a five run cushion.
Fans don’t want to see players hurt for their entertainment—this isn’t the NFL—but how far is baseball going to take its new hyper-caution? Here is an extreme reaction against Mattingly’s move, not very different from what the ex-players and analysts were saying on the MLB cable channel when it occurred:
If a pitcher has a chance to throw a no-hitter give it to him. Unless you’re Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Max Scherzer or Jake Arrieta, it’s usually a once in a lifetime opportunity. Because we see fit to baby pitchers and feminize sports, managers and pitching coaches worry pitchers will have their arms fall off if they throw more than 120 pitches in a game. Would any big league manager have dared to take Bob Gibson out of a game? Gibby would have stared him down. Don’t get me wrong. The Marlins won the game and Conley got his first win of the season. But I’m sure Conley wishes he told Mattingly he would have to physically remove him from the mound.
I don’t think making sports safer with reasonable changes to rules, equipment and traditions is “feminizing it”—hockey players once mocked the few goalies who wore hockey masks—but otherwise, except in very rare circumstances, I agree.
Let the pitchers try for their no-hitter even if it means throwing a few more pitches than the pitching coach would like.