Ethics Quiz: The Aborted No-Hitter

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.

40 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Aborted No-Hitter

  1. The smart move with the rash of TJ surgeries – even to 14-year-old kids. Frankly, I have always considered a no-hitter special, but with limitations. Why risk the future? I have actually seen several through the years with the last being Jon Lester’s.

      • To be fair, a lot of that seems to be more because pitchers throw a lot harder (and perhaps more recklessly) than they used to, which is part of the reason why batters strike out a lot more in the modern game (heck, this is an era where Noah Syndergaard has a 95 mph slider, which probably is not the greatest thing for his arm).

        • Or to put it this way; the modern game is one where pitchers throw fewer innings, but seem to push themselves more per inning (which is probably also related to the increasing use of relievers). Another related factor seems to be that kids are being taught to throw harder at a younger age than before.

      • Pitch counts are an outcropping for injuries related to overuse. Prior to TJ it was just a “dead arm.” The pitch counts are just a protective measure for pitchers who are prone to the surgery as part of a job hazard simple because said job description forces wear and tear on the arm. The rash of surgeries is a reflection on the need for speed. An examination of the velocity charts since they have been kept (2002 – PITCH/fx) shows an increase in speed each year. This carries down the baseball food chain since young players are aware that heat is “sexy” and attempt to build up speed. Anything over 90MPH gets attention.

        • 1. Yes, but the overuse involved (Fernando, et. al) was cumulative, not a single game. There is no data, none, showing that a single game with a large pitch count for a healthy pitcher is dangerous or risky. OK, so you let him try for the no-no, pull him after the first hit if there is one, and give him an extra day of rest. Or limit his pitched for a couple of games.

          2. The consensus is that breaking balls, not fastballs, cause the arm injuries. Fastballs are out of a natural motion. Pitchers through harder now because 1) they are better conditioned and bigger 2) mechanics is more of a science and 3) we can actually tell how hard they throw. How hard did Feller, Grove, Alexander or Johnson throw? Nobody knows.

          • Cumulative impact and that is the caution they use. Metrics clearly show as a pitcher goes deeper into the game he becomes more hittable – if it is the third time through syndrome or simply the physical aspect. A bit of both no doubt, but what it has done is create a situation where the magic number is 100.

            Pitching is the most valuable commodity in baseball and the most expensive. Teams are not going to risk a pitcher and an investment by extending their service. The decision is totally management. And do you or I or anyone else knows that maybe increasing a workload in one game 25% above your average will not contribute or hasten an arm blowout?

            This starts early on and I have a link below to Dr. James Andrews take on it and, yes, it is the concept of throwing hard.

            In the developmental league I coached in, we did not allow curves (or sliders) since as you have pointed out they are a factor, but so is speed. I would not even teach a kid a four-seam or a cut fastball since they were not physically ready for it at 10-12. In fact even in the later years in high school I question the use. IMHO the plethora of TJ surgeries on young players is the CTE of baseball.

            Throwing overhand is not a natural motion. Early baseball was strictly underhand as softball is today. A softball pitcher seems to be able to pitch hard day after day. I have thrown both ways when I was younger – much younger – and could feel the physical difference.

            The fastball is the attention getter for college and for a professional contract. Scouting reports constantly mention velocity. That is the big kahuna in pitching. Young players see the “K” signs at the ballpark and know that the pathway to the bigs (and college) is power pitching.

            The focus on speed just drives me nuts! In 2002, a total of 24 pitchers (starters only) averaged above 90MPH. (Minimum 162 IP) In 2015, it was 63! So I look at speed. How about a sample of those under 90?

            Keuchel averaged 89.5 last year on his fastball – won the Cy Young Award. Colby Lewis went 17-9 with a 88 average. Jon Niese of the Mets went 9-10 with 89.1. Haren went 11-9 at 86.1. Burhele was 15-7 with a 83.4 average. His teammate Marco Estrada was 13-8 at 89.3. Harang went 12-12 at 89.5. Hendrick 8-7 at 88.3. Chris Heston was 12-11 at 89. Few others but you get the idea. You can win without a fastball that blows people away – just ask Greg Maddux who I doubt ever topped 90.

            As a Red Sox fan “The Nation” is all over Henry Owens because he only topped 90 twice in a recent outing – yet the kid tossed three other pitches with excellance includuing a curve that sometimes went below 70.

            http://mlb.nbcsports.com/2014/04/10/dr-james-andrews-explains-why-tommy-john-surgery-is-on-the-rise/

            • All good theory, but still far from universally accepted by experts. Just over the weekend, I read an article placing the blame squarely on breaking pitches. A decade ago, everyone was blaming the slider. Ryan never had arm troubles. The Red Sox let Roger Clemens finish his 20 strikeout game despite a pitch count way over 100, and he had a previous arm injury.

              Does 100 pitches sound like a scientific limit to you, or a rough estimate that obviously should differ for each individual?

              What articles like this tell me is that this is all speculation, with incomplete data. There is especially no evidence I can see that relates arm injuries to single games, but rather too much stress over time.

              I love Henry Owen. He will either be Bert Blyleven or Dave Morehead. We shall see.

              • Some coaches will say the arm can stand the work just like “back-in-the-day.” Others do not. I think stress over time is a real issue and by that it is starting at a very young age – especially in international ball where there is very little in the way of pitch limits. And today the encouragement – especially out of the bullpen – is to throw hard as you can for an inning. The new paradigm is to build from the back (bullpen) instead of the front (starters). Blame KC on that one.

                The 100 pitch seems to be some magical and attractive number that has some arbitrary basis to it. I know when examining pitching metrics anything over 100 pitches does show a downturn in production. But seems the great ones still have the good juice innings 7-9.

                Amazing how pitch counts seem to evaporate in the playoffs.

                I was actually one of the few that saw Morehead toss his no-hitter.

                Owens has started out like two other Sox lefties with his control issues – Jon Lester and Bruce Hurst. He puts up the numbers of either he’ll be fine.

                  • I didn’t even remember that play but Eddie was being transitioned out for Rico that season. Bressoud had lost a lot on defense that season and with Mantilla at second that was well below average defense up the middle. Eddie would always run behind the mound when a ball was tossed back by the catcher if there was a runner on. Giants had lost a game when he was with them on a play like that and he learned a lesson. Tiant pitched for Cleveland.

                    My father hated baseball and took me to only one game – that was 1956 and Mel Parnell pitched a no-hitter and made the last out on a ball hit back to him.

                    A few years later I saw Bunning pitch one at Fenway and Williams made the last out. Pop-up.

                    Earl Wilson’s was a favorite in 1962 because he could hit and hit one out in that game.

                    I had season tickets for years and my daughter and I saw both Buchholz’ and Lester’s. Place was rocking for both.

                    Back to Morehead. Late in the season and I worked in downtown Boston and worked nights. A friend I worked with said we could catch the game. No one was in the place. I mean no one. We bought cheap grandstand seats since in those days the bleachers were closed off to wanderers. I remember Lee Thomas a decent right-hand hitter belted one out. Then after the game GM Pinky Higgins got canned.

                    • Bringing back lots of memories. Eddie losing his job to Rico broke my heart, but his defense had declined: the Sox should have moved him to third, because Malzone was on fumes. He was a college baseball coach when he retired, and acted like the on-field captain for the Sox. Eddie had a knack for clutch hitting and popping flies off and over the wall, and still holds the Sox record for hitting in consecutive games to start a season. He was the player who first got me interested in baseball.

                      Eddie, last I heard (I emailed with his daughter), is in his 80s and in good health. Eddie is mentioned prominently in Jim Brosnan’s “The Long Season,” because Bosnan couldn’t get him out.

                      Lee Thomas, you recall, was obtained from the Angels for Lu Clinton, a right for left swap (Thomas was a lefty) after Lu never could live up to that one amazing run in 1962 when he looked like a superstar.

                    • My mind is turning to mush, Jack, getting Lee Thomas confused with Tony Horton – now that is a sad story.

                  • Another add-on, Jack. I coached for years in Babe Ruth and Little League – at least 25 years. I only missed two games in my life and in both instances our kid tossed a no-hitter.

  2. I hate that, but if the pitcher got injured, they’d never hear the end of it. I would say leave it up to the pitcher, but it’s the managers job, not the pitcher. I’m sure there’s a real complicated reason why pitchers can’t pitch 15 or 20 complete games a season like they used to, but I miss those days.

    Without looking, who’s the last pitcher to win and lose 20 in the same season? Hint: still alive.

    • Some of that might because of pitchers being more willing to push themselves to throw faster and nastier (this is the age of Aroldis Chapman’s 100 fastball and Noah Syndergaard’s mid-90s slider, after all).

      • Or to put it this way; pitch limits and the like might have simply incentivized the usage of physically riskier pitches, since you don’t have to throw as much of them.

    • Close! Wood was the last one to do it in the American league and he is still alive. This pitcher is older but did it later.

    • He was the last. He was also the last pitcher to make over 40 starts.
      White Sox, however. Pale Hose. Chisox. On this blog, there’s only one team called “the Sox.” Wood did pitch for the Sox, but before he learned the knuckleball.

        • You’re right—just looked it up. Forgot about Phil Niekro, who had 44 starts and lost/won 20 six years after Wood in the NL. Once four man rotations vanished, it became impossible, so he will be the last.

      • I actually pitched in a game against Wood when he was a senior at Belmont High. Scouts were all over the place and the knock on Wood was he had no fastball. Well….I had to hit and believe me I heard it but didn’t see it. Eventually, he learned the K-Ball and had a nice career as a reliever and starter. Red Sox signed him to a huge bonus – 100K, I believe.

  3. Actually, allow me to toss in a counter-argument:
    Mattingly was taking the long view not just for the pitcher, but for the team in general. The Marlins pitching coach is exhibit A in this regard.

    Juan Nieves was once a promising young pitcher with the Milwaukee Brewers. In fact, he is the only pitcher to throw a no-hitter for that ball club. He knows what that high is like. However, he also knows what happens when a pitcher’s arm goes south: The year after his no-hitter, in which he threw 128 pitches, Nieves had an arm injury that ended his career. It also hurt the Brewers over the long haul, because injuries to the pitching staff derailed the promising Brewers teams from 1987-1992.

    That adds another dimension to the decision.

    • I think that Nieves was dealing with confirmation bias, as well as post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning. There’s no indication that the pitches he threw for his no-hitter caused his later arm problems. None. In fact, his no-hitter was his main claim to fame: without it, he might not even be a pitching coach. He projected his own regrets on a young pitcher, robbing him of the chance he had.

      • The first responsibility of a pitching coach or manager is still to the team.

        If they reasonably believe that over-work can cause an arm injury, then potential no-hitter or not, they have the responsibility to pull the plug on the outing.

        • Teams benefit greatly when their pitchers deliver no-hitters. This is an example of non-ethical considerations (we have a lot invested in this guy, and don’t want to take even a small risk) overcoming an ethical one (It’s his career, his life, and he should be able to go for this.)

          Golden Rule: Mattingly: I would want to stay in if I were him.
          Kant: If this is carried to its logical conclusion, there will be no more no-hitters.
          Utilitarianism: A toss up: which is more important in a sport; the major, singular individual achievement, or the maximization of output? Quality or quantity?

          Absent convincing proof that pinch counts really protect pitchers, I don’t think one can say that Mattingly was doing what was best for the team. He was following the mob, that’s all.

          It’s like Obama killing Keystone because some think it will affect climate change.

          • Not only no more no-hitters; you will likely never see a Jack Morris-like performance, going 10 innings in Game 7.

            While Jack’s performance might be considered moral luck (because he won), regardless of who has duties to whom or what, the line of thinking that treats a pitch count as dogma, will eliminate the possibility for a truly excellent performance, which, whatever the sport (yes, even football), is the goal of any athlete.

            That’s too bad. I have seen too many games this year lost by the reliever who came in in the 7th or 8th inning because the starters count was getting high.

            -Jut

              • Originally I was a Braves fan until they left Boston, but have a fondness for Braves history. The Braves and Brooklyn played the longest game in MLB history – 26 innings. Both starters went all the way.

              • Losing that historic performance would be loss for the player, the team, fans and history. My favorite WS pitching performance was when Luis Tiant gutted out a complete game one-run win against the Big Red Machine on guts, guile and determination in 1975. He kept shaking off the manager’s attempts to pull him, constantly pitching with men ins scoring position.

                173 pitches! Nobody was counting. Looie also had a history of arm troubles, but this was the World Series. Sure, he had nothing left in his next start, but he pitched better in ’76 than he had in ’75, and was still starting games in 1982, at 42.

  4. If fairness means a reasonable chance at a no-hitter, I think the team was fair. It’s not very unusual for a complete – game win to take less than 116 pitches, so 116 could easily get a pitcher through a no-hitter, provided that the pitcher was retiring batters in an efficient manner.

    • Following up a couple of weeks later, Max Scherzer threw a complete game with twenty strikeouts last night, while throwing only 119 pitches. Only 23 of his pitches were called balls, less than one ball for each batter he faced. Conley threw 45 balls among his 116 pitches. Those 22 wasted pitches could easily have gotten him through the complete game.

        • I don’t think so. I think it’s actually an easy standard, because it shows that Scherzer used a lot of strikes (which are pitches) to get each out he got. He got the complete game because he was economical with his balls. If Conley had thrown the same number of balls as Scherzer, he likely would have finished the game around 112 pitches.

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