Neyer: The harrowing history of MLB teams promoting starting pitchers

From SABR member Rob Neyer at VICE Sports on July 7, 2016:

The King’s Court hasn’t convened since May 27, when [Felix] Hernández gave up six runs and lost to the lowly Twins; shortly afterward, he was placed on the DL with a calf injury. He won’t return to the Mariners’ rotation until after the All-Star break. Even the King, who leads the major leagues in innings pitched since 2009, isn’t a sure thing. Which reminds us once again just how dicey starting pitchers can be. Even the best of them.

Still, promoting starting pitchers to goose the box office is irresistible. The phenomenon is hardly new—it has been happening since at least 1912. That September, the Boston Red Sox altered their rotation so Smoky Joe Wood, who’d won 13 straight decisions, would face the Washington Senators’ Walter Johnson, who earlier in the season had set a league record by winning 16 straight decisions, in a “challenge match.”

According to one of Wood’s biographers, “a circus-like crowd estimated at 35,000 packed every crevice of Fenway Park—filling the stands, outfield and even foul territory along the right- and left-field foul lines—and cheered wildly with every strike Joe burned across.”

Wood beat Johnson 1-0, and ultimately tied Johnson’s record with 16 straight wins (an American League record equaled twice in the 1930s, but never broken).

Generally speaking, though, promoting pitchers has never been easy. The notion of a set “rotation” of starters was largely impractical until the 1950s or ’60s, so fans could not plan on seeing a particular starting pitcher until a day or two before the game.

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Originally published: July 7, 2016. Last Updated: July 7, 2016.