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July 26, 2014 at 6:43 pm ET
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Just What Is the Optimal Staff Size? Part One: The Travers Game.

traversWhile researching the Oquist Game, I found that the last pitcher before Mike Oquist to give up 14 runs in a game was Bill Travers. I remembered him and looked up the game and his career. When I did, a whole new set of questions and ponderings entered my head about pitching staffs, abuse, and how many pitchers do you really need on a staff.

Pitching staffs have changed dramatically from ye olden days to modern times, where at times managers have more pitchers on the active roster than position players. This causes a whole series of lineup and staff management issues, and a lot of consternation when those manglers wind up using up all of their position players AND still run out of pitchers in a game even with a bloated staff.

But in the mid-70’s, after the AL instituted the DH, things were a wee bit different as you can see by running through the Travers game.

In 1977, Bill Travers was in his fourth big-league season, and was coming off of an All-Star year in 1976. just 24, he endured a heavy workload after being a swingman for his first two years. He also missed almost the entire 1973 minor league season recovering from arm surgery. The workload of 1976 may have taken its toll in 1977, as he pitched just two games between May 12 and August 2nd. His third start after his long DL stint was August 14, the second game of a double header. He was pitching on four days rest. To that point, despite the DL stint, his numbers were pretty decent (4-5, 3.45) but his control was a bit off as he walked 37 in the 73 innings he pitched to that point, while fanning just 34.

The Brewers were in Cleveland for a double header, and 16,590 fans actually showed up to watch these teams duke it out for fifth place in the AL East. The Indians won the first game of the DH 12-4 as the Tribe plastered Jim Slaton and relief ace Bill Castro (who pitched 3 2/3 mop up innings) for nine runs in the fifth.

Milwaukee as abominable on offense that year, which is weird because their 1978 resurgence started with their offense. Manager Alex Grammas lost Sixto Lezcano for about a month and had to play guys like Jim Wohlford, Von Joshua, Jamie Quirk (who hit like a shortstop yet was their DH), and Lenn Sakata way too much. They’d have to win with pitching. Travers was one of their key guys.

Was.

It didn’t start out well for Bill that day. Cleveland plated two in the first on an Andre Thornton home run and five more in the second as Travers was pilloried about, with the capper being a Thornton triple. It was 7-0 after two. Now, a starter may be asked to get another inning or two at the most after that kind of performance. Not in 1977.

Cleveland scores two more in the fourth behind key hits by Bill Melton and Ron Pruitt. Travers trudges on, down 9-2, and has trouble in the sixth and seventh but gets out of it. It’s now the 8th, and he’s STILL in there.

Two singles and two walks score one run against him. Double, strikeout, and single make it 14-3. Does Grammas get him then? NO! Only after Frank Duffy doubles does the manager relent and put in Bob McClure who faces on batter.

Travers’ line:

7 2/3 18 14 14 4 4. 1 HBP.

Yes, he gave up 18 hits and four walks and hit a batter. 23 baserunners. He faced 45 batters.

Bill Travers wasn’t an economical pitcher. He had relatively high walk totals for his era and hit a lot of batters, too. But 45 batters? At four pitches a batter, that’s at least 180 pitches.

Alex Grammas let a young All-Star pitcher that had arm surgery in his past and had missed 2 1/2 months with arm trouble that season throw about 180 pitches.

Needless to say, Travers was toast for the rest of 1977. He made seven more starts, and went 0-6 with an 6.37 ERA.¬† As for his career, Bill came back to around league average performance for three years, signed a four year deal with the Angels in 1981, and then had more arm issues in 1981 and threw just 42 innings during that contract. While this one game can’t be THE cause of his issues, because pitchers do get hurt, it couldn’t have helped any. It certainly affected his 1977 performance, and the performance of the Brewers the rest of 1977, since one of the guys they were counting on to keep them in games was totally wrecked.

How does this tie into the size of pitching staffs?

The 1977 Brewers used 13 pitchers – total. That’s it. 13.

Now, that’s not totally unheard of- as the 1976 Tigers used just 12 and other teams didn’t yo-yo pitchers up and down like they do now. But of those 13 pitchers, two (Rich Folkers and Barry Cort) threw just 30 2/3 innings between them and were basically fill-ins while Travers was hurt. Mike Caldwell was a mid-season pickup from the Reds to also make up for Travers’ absence. Gary Beare was up and down as well. So even though the grand total was 13, the actual number was less. Now, teams can use 13 pitchers in a three game series if they use their DFAs and minor league options judiciously.

Basically, the Brewers had a nine-man staff, and just a four man bullpen. Castro, Sam Hinds (a rookie that basically just mopped up), McClure and Eduardo Rodriguez, who was also the swingman. Rodriguez pitched 142+ innings in 42 appearances, including five starts. In this game, Castro was out because he threw in game one, and Rodriguez had to start in another double header two days prior in place of Moose Haas, so he was out. The day before, Hinds threw one inning in relief of Caldwell, so he was supposedly fresh. Well, as fresh as you can be in mid-August.

So yeah, the Brewers had two pitchers ready to relieve Travers, but chose not to until he had already thrown an amount of pitches that would make Rany Jazayerli and Will Carroll froth at the mouth. The end result was that Milwuakee stunk, Grammas was fired, and George Bamberger (and some key free agents) molded the team into the Brew Crew that terrorized AL pitchers.

Nine men seemed like a very short staff, and it was. In the early DH days, managers shortened the staffs because they thought they could keep their starters in longer since they didn’t need to pinch hit for the pitcher. Earl Weaver used to break camp with just eight pitchers and added one or two after April, when the off days were fewer. But Earl Weaver also knew how to break in young pitchers and specialized in pitchers that threw strikes and didn’t mess around. If you don’t throw a lot of pitches per batter, you can pitch a lot more innings. But 8-and-9 man staffs assumed that your top guys could go deep every game and not break down. A lot of these pitchers couldn’t handle it, but in the epoch before real sports medicine pitchers toughed it out, lest they be made fun of like Steve Barber in Ball Four. Too often, it was too late.

It wasn’t until Billy Martin wrecked the young A’s arms in the early 80’s did¬† teams really move to larger staffs with more judicious use of relievers and a lot less emphasis on complete games. Ten man staffs were regular, then it moved to eleven with the advent of dedicated one-inning wonders as ‘closers’. Offense began to dominate, and teams had to add more and more pitchers. Then uber-hyper specialzation became the vogue and now we have times where 13 pitchers make up the active 25-man roster. That’s just too many.

In the second part of this easay, coming soon, I’ll try to find what the optimal number of pitchers are, and what KIND of pitchers you need to make up an optimal staff that also allows you to make the most of each of your roster spots.

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