It seems like every time a former great makes a public appearance, we get a rant filled article about how the game was better ‘back in their day’. We get the standard fare from former Tiger Mickey Lolich in a recent MLive piece:
Of course we got the predictable eschewing of pitch counts and dismissal of analysis and statistics, but this was the quote that got to me the most:
“If I had to throw one right down the middle, go ahead and hit it. I dare you,” said the Tigers’ all-time leader in strikeouts (2,679). “You have to challenge the hitters. You can’t nibble at the corners. Go after them. Today, pitchers are starting to do that. Many times, I’d throw one right down the middle of the plate, belt-high, and say, ‘Here, hit it.’”
It seems like the former greats fail to recognize that the game has changed over the years. Actually, Mickey does recognize it, but he more or less attributes the all of the differences to the “wussification” of the game (particularly the pitchers).
Today’s hitters are better than the hitters that Lolich faced in the 60’s and 70’s. He may have gotten away with throwing the ball right down the middle, but a pitcher of today would get hit a lot harder if he tried that strategy. The average batter over the time span of Lolich’s career had an OPS of .691 (total, not just against Lolich himself). The average hitter over Justin Verlander’s career has an OPS of .749.
That means, on average, Lolich’s opponents were the caliber of Rod Barajas (.694 career OPS), Chad Kreuter (.692), and Timo Perez (.690), while Verlander has faced competition on the level of Gates Brown (.750), Delmon Young (.750), and Don Slaught (.749).
Bradon Inge’s career (.697 OPS) would have been considered about average “back in the day”, but his batting line gets credit for 96 runs below average in his FanGraphs WAR calculation.
I respect Mickey Lolich for what he did on the mound in his time, but I don’t need to take everything he says seriously. The players are different today; we shouldn’t act like they aren’t. Just because he did something in 1968 doesn’t mean that should be common practice today. And that doesn’t just go for grooving fastballs right down the middle. That applies to pitch counts, days of rest, and pretty much everything else.