Fear Doesn’t Win Ball Games: Pat Jordan and the Mythical Age of the Scary He-Man Pitcher

Pat Jordan, the minor-league pitcher turned major-league sportswriter, went to baseball camp this year to see what the

Philadelphia Phillies’ four-aces pitching rotation

was all about. The result, in the New York Times Magazine, was an entertaining unreliable-narrator mix of acute technical analysis and old-time baseball horsepuckey.

Once upon a time, Jordan explained, pitchers were defined by their “stuff”—the searing or dancing or dive-bombing pitches each man uncorked on helpless hitters. The Phillies stars, products of the modern game, are “masters of deception” who throw “small pitches,” fooling the hitters rather than overwhelming them.

A reason for this, Jordan wrote, is “as one pitching coach has said, ‘the game never changes to help the pitchers.’”

Having established this very important piece of historical perspective, Jordan then pretty much ignored it, spending the rest of the piece switching between analyzing the individual Phillies’ techniques (when they deign to give him access) and consulting a Greek chorus of ex-ballplayers and old baseball hands about how soft and unimpressive today’s pitchers are.

In particular, Jordan focused on the fact that modern pitchers rarely pitch complete games, as proof of “how far the bar has been lowered for greatness”:

It’s that third and even fourth time through the opposition’s batting order that dooms most of today’s starting pitchers. It’s something of a fallacy that today’s starting pitchers don’t complete games simply because they lack the stamina, or because teams fear injury. Starting pitchers today don’t have the quality or variety of pitches, the depth of talent, required to go nine innings.

This business about the declining variety of pitches is simply nonsense—many more pitchers throw a split-finger fastball now, for instance, than they did when Pat Jordan played. But setting that aside: it was a lot easier for the heroic pitchers of yore to pitch a complete game when neither league had the designated hitter, when it was normal for middle infielders to be hopelessly feeble with the bat, and when talking a walk was considered lazy and unmanly. (Even in the DH-free National League, where the Phillies play, the decline of the full-game pitcher means that from the late middle innings on, the opposing manager has no qualms about pulling his own pitcher for a pinch-hitter.)

To oversimplify, but not by much: in the old days, pitchers would throw nine innings against six or seven guys who could hit; today, pitchers throw six or seven innings against nine guys who can hit.

But old players always know the game was better when they played it themselves. Ty Cobb thought hitting home runs was for chumps. And so Pat Jordan quotes Jim Palmer on the softness of today’s short-game pitchers:

“Young pitchers never find out where their heart is until they’ve been tested over nine innings.”

Do tell, Jim Palmer. I turn now to my handy copy of Weaver on Strategy—by Palmer’s manager, Earl Weaver. Page 103:

Often our disagreements centered on how much Jim should pitch. There were times that Jim wanted to come out of a game and I wanted him to stay on the mound. But those were sincere differences of opinion about what was best for the Orioles—Jim felt a reliever would be more likely to get out of the jam.

Now, that’s the Jim Palmer I knew (and loved): a man who was scorned by the caveman culture of his day for being a baby, for refusing to go ahead and pitch on guts when his arm was tired or sore. And who lasted for 19 years, won three World Series, and went to the Hall of Fame. As Weaver wrote in defense, or semi-defense, of Palmer:

Jim is a perfectionist. He wants every pitch to be in the exact spot he’s selected. He wants to feel 100 percent healthy before he takes the mound. In other words, he wants to feel his best so he can give his best. Sometimes, I suggested that he pitch even though he wasn’t 100 percent, as long as he wouldn’t further injure himself.

Jordan’s other great avatar of Pitching Done Right is Nolan Ryan , the most terrifying “stuff” pitcher of his age, who melted hitters with 100 mph fastballs and vicious plunging curves. None of the Phillies pitchers have Ryan’s intimidating presence on the mound.

Here is where never having played the game is an advantage. As a fan in the ‘70s and onward, I never knew the subjective dread of standing in the batter’s box, waiting for one of Nolan Ryan’s unhittable fastballs. All I knew, in my ignorance, was the objective fact that when Ryan’s name was listed as the night’s opposing pitcher, the Orioles were probably going to beat him.

Fear and stuff don’t win ballgames. Nolan Ryan is the all-time strikeout king , 17 percent ahead of runner-up Randy Johnson—but he’s also the all-time walk king , and by a 52 percent margin. (He also threw more wild pitches than anyone but Tony Mullane, The Apollo of the Box, who had the disadvantage of playing before the catcher’s mitt had been invented.)

Smart teams like the old Orioles sat back and let Ryan beat himself: he was 10-17 against them, which means that if every pitcher in the American League had been Nolan Ryan, the O’s would have won 102 games per year.

Still, the legend of Ryan is more entertaining than the facts. Jordan also quotes Mike Schmidt, the Phillies Hall of Fame third baseman, about the menace of facing an old-fashioned monster like Ryan:

“Ryan kept me awake. Ryan! Ryan! Ryan! My plan was, don’t miss his fastball if he threw it over the plate. If he got two strikes on me, I’d have to face his curveball.” He turned and looked at me with his small blue eyes, which had fear in them. “Ryan was scary!” he said.

Add Mike Schmidt to the Joe Morgan file of players who were a lot smarter playing baseball than they are talking about playing baseball. Against Nolan Ryan in his career, Schmidt batted a meek-looking .179—but with a gaudy .405 on-base percentage and a .484 slugging percentage. In 56 at-bats, he had 5 home runs. Maybe he was scared of Ryan’s pitches, but he had his way with Ryan’s pitching.