September 4, 2001
The Daily Prospectus
No-NoLast night's performance by Bud Smith really illustrated for me one of the difficulties of being a major-league manager. Smith, as you probably know, no-hit the Padres last night in just his tenth major-league start, becoming the second Cardinal rookie in three years to throw a no-hitter (Jose Jimenez in 1999).
The hard part for Tony LaRussa was allowing Smith to complete the game. Smith tossed 134 pitches, a figure that would normally have us screaming for LaRussa's head, given Smith's age (21) and his talent level. Of course, last night wasn't an ordinary circumstance; no-hitters never are. Smith entered the ninth inning having thrown 114 pitches, a reasonable figure, and if he hadn't been gunning for history, I would have endorsed his removal.
The situation, though, dictated a looser hand. Pitchers don't often get the opportunity to throw no-hitters, and allowing a pitcher to complete one falls comfortably into the category of reasons to exceed a safe pitch count. Smith went to deep counts on the first three hitters in the ninth inning, walking D'Angelo Jimenez in the process, before getting Phil Nevin to ground out on a 2-1 pitch to end the game.
For all our ranting about pitcher abuse, we fully realize that there are situations in which an individual game's importance takes precedence. A few years ago, Jaret Wright was worked hard down the stretch and in the postseason as the Indians went to the World Series. Tim Hudson threw a lot of pitches in getting the A's close to the postseason in his rookie year of 1999, and then again in September of 2000. There were good reasons to push these pitchers, despite their age and inexperience: team goals can be placed in front of individuals' needs.
There's a big difference between these cases, and pushing a pitcher into the high 120s or low 130s just to get him a complete game, or to "build his confidence." Last year's Ruben Quevedo fiasco, or the more recent Paul Wilson debacle, don't carry the justification that last night's Smith start, in the middle of pennant race, does.
Tony LaRussa has the luxury that this is September, and with some extra pitchers lying around, he can push Smith's next start back a day and even limit his pitch count in his next outing. Smith threw 15 more pitches last night than his previous major-league high, and did scuffle a bit in the ninth inning, so here's hoping that's exactly what LaRussa does.
I can't criticize LaRussa for allowing Smith to complete the game, and I would not criticize him had he elected to remove Smith at some point. I'm actually pretty sure LaRussa would have removed Smith had he failed to retire Ryan Klesko with one out in the ninth, as much over concern about losing the game as to protect Smith's arm. It was a tough situation for LaRussa, and a good reminder that not every decision has clear right and wrong sides.
For another perspective on last night's game, I'll turn the column over to Craig Elsten. Craig is the co-host of the Padres pre- and post-game shows on flagship radio station KOGO (www.kogo.com) in San Diego, and a longtime friend. He was at the game, and sent in this report:
After last night's game, a couple of callers to the Padres postgame show expressed outrage that a "Quadruple-A pitcher" could throw a no-hitter against San Diego. First of all, BP readers know that Bud Smith is anything but a fringe pitcher. Smith, in fact, threw TWO no-hitters in the minor leagues last year, albeit of the seven-inning variety.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.