Going the distance and shutting ’em out

Rick Reuschel was one of the prototypical Cubs of the 1970s. He was from downstate Illinois (Quincy, to be exact), which is an area that, as George Will put it, is “infested with Cardinals fans.” You might think that Illinois folk would have a predisposition to root for the Illinois teams in Chicago. But you would be misguided in that.

As a college professor of mine once put it, “Outside of Chicago, there’s this place called Illinois.”  So the folks living in Quincy, which is just upriver from St. Louis, are more likely to identify themselves as Cardinals fans than anything else. And yet, Rick Reuschel and his brother Paul Reuschel still made their way to Wrigley Field in the early to mid-1970s.

When Rick Reuschel broke into the majors in 1972, baseball was a much different game than it is today. There was no such thing as a Designated Hitter, Divisional play was still a new thing, and the reserve clause was still in effect. Do you ever wonder why Brooks Robinson played for the Orioles for so many years? For most of them, he didn’t have a choice.  The reserve clause meant that he was an Oriole for as long as they wanted to keep him. He wasn’t able to play wherever he wanted. And so it was with Rick Reuschel, too.

Reuschel tossed five complete games his rookie season, with four of them being shutouts. It sounds impressive enough to our modern ears, but consider that the National League’s leaders that season were Steve Carlton, who pitched thirty complete games, and Don Sutton, who pitched nine shutouts. Who knows how many millions that would have meant for them in today’s game? But, as I said, it was a different game back then.

Seven other National League pitchers, besides Reuschel, threw four shutouts in 1972. In other words, his accomplishment wasn’t such a big thing back then. But the game began to change over the course of Reuschel’s career. Free agency set in, and pitchers like Carlton became a true investment for teams. Gone were the days when starting pitchers threw 300+ innings per season, as Carlton did in Reuschel’s rookie season.

Teams also switched from a four-man starting rotation to a five-man starting rotation. You won’t see a pitcher get 40 or more  starts in a season anymore, which hasn’t happened since 1979. Fewer starts necessarily means that fewer complete games, and fewer shutouts, are now being pitched.

Pitch counts have also dramatically changed the way starters pitch. Pitchers once pitched until they were tired, but those days are no more. Innings pitched is a reflection of this trend. Between 1973  and 1980, Reuschel pitched between 234 and 260 innings every season. He was a workhorse back then, but he would be considered almost superhuman in today’s game.

When Rick Reuschel split the 1988 season between Pittsburgh and San Francisco, he again pitched four shutouts, but this time it was tops in the National League. His 12 complete games also led the league, but would have been no better than eighth in the NL in his rookie season. He was still the same pitcher at age 38 that he was at age 23, but the game itself had shifted under his feet. Change is indeed the only constant.

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