THREE OAKS, Mich. — Pitching’s changed dramatically in the near half century since Denny McLain last pitched.
There are openers and closers. Complete games have been supplanted by holds and saves. Everything is predicated on a pitch count.
Through it all, one thing has remained constant.
“Strikes, strikes, strikes,” the 10-year big leaguer best known for winning 31 games in 1968 said during an appearance Saturday at the Acorn Theater. “Every good pitcher threw strikes, no matter how hard they threw. Nobody’s ever hit .900, .800, .700, .600, .500. Ted Williams is the only one out of thousands to hit .400. It’s the only game in the world where you can fail seven out of 10 times and make $10 million a year. Guys hitting .225 make $12, $14 million a year and they want to complain about it. It’s unbelievable.”
The Tigers’ ‘68 World Series team featured the combination of the right-handed McLain and left-hander Mickey Lolich, who, McLain said, “had the best arm, the best stuff he ever saw in his life,” but was inclined to tinker.
“He’d get 0-2, throw a slop slider and the guy would cripple it,” McLain said. “You couldn’t tell him. (Dick) McAuliffe and (Norm) Cash used to get so mad at him. If Mickey got a lead in the sixth inning, the game was over, but he was also a guy who could give up a touchdown in a hurry.”
McLain has co-authored The Art of Pitching with Thomas Saunders, an 80-page book aimed at teaching the basics to youngsters.
“What’s gone from the game is we don’t have a philosophy anymore,” McLain said. “There’s a lot more that goes into pitching than people believe. You get ahead of a hitter, go get him. Most hitters, you give them a ball above the waist, they will swing at that. If you keep that (inside), you will win so many games, you just won’t believe it.”
The old adage about keeping the defense on its toes by throwing strikes still applies.
“Guys in the outfield don’t like to stand around and watch a game go 2-0, 3-1, 3-2 every count,” McLain said. “They hate it. I gave up some home runs because when I got a lead, I would challenge a hitter. I’d go after every hitter one pitch after another. If you give up two hits in a row, change your formula for a while, then go back where you were after you get the next guy out.”
Still a big Tigers fan, McLain rues the day the organization moved the trio of David Price, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Scherzer broke his nose in a batting practice bunting mishap Tuesday, but still pitched the next day. Sporting a right eye shiner, he shut out the Phillies over seven innings, fanning 10.
“There’s only one Scherzer in baseball,” McLain said. “I told Max before left (Detroit), if you get with a good ball club that can score some runs, you’ll win 35 (games) if you pitch every fourth day. But they won’t let these kids pitch every fourth day. They make $30 million a year and they can’t pitch every fourth day. My God, we pitched 40, 41 games a year.”
While he played in a different era, McLain isn’t an opponent of sabermetrics. He said his father-in-law Lou Boudreau, a 15-year major leaguer who also managed, was ages ahead of his time in understanding the analytical side of the game. It’s simply a matter of applying both the cerebral side and the instinctive side.
“They need to understand both sides,” McLain said.