An Open Letter from Christy Mathewson

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Joel Pineiro throws to the plate during the third inning of a base ball game against the San Diego Padres, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Dear Cardinals bugs,

It is I—the ghost of Christy Mathewson. I daresay I did not expect to be "posting" a column in such a fashion when I woke to follow this year's pennant race, but so many odd things have happened here in A.D. 2009 that to-day's peculiarities hardly surprise me at all. Nevertheless I have been asked by your magazine's editor to pen a new edition of my column, Pitching in the "Pinch", on the occasion of having left the body of your work-horse pitcher, Joel Pineiro, and I intend here to discuss my reasons for—and the efficacy of—this brand of hoodoo.

Onward, St. Louis partisans, past the fold—that we may learn about my friend Joel's year to this point, and his chances henceforth!

Friends, I am no betting man, but I believe it safe to say that before the start of this year's championship season you placed little of your base ball hopes on the shoulders of Joel Pineiro, the Pop-Gun of Rio Pedras. Following his poor performance in 2008, I hear, many of you found for him another nick-name entirely! While his control was finer than it had been in his Seattle heyday he proved so hittable, both within the pinch and without, that it seldom mattered, and his appetite for the home run was rapacious even in this living ball era. Some felt him but a mean approximation of a starter at all!

Surely his options were limited by age and arm-fatigue; he could scarcely expect to strike-out as many men as he did in his youth, when his fast-ball roared down the lane and his drop curve could be found at every corner of the striking zone. It seemed there was little recourse for the man, once a hero of so many young Puerto Rican yannigans. So when he approached me about enrolling in my by-mail instruction course I was heartbroken to inform him that, having died some time ago, I was no longer able to access my post office-box.

It was then that we came to an agreement, and a fine agreement it was—I would possess him, on days when he was called upon to pitch, and show him thusly how it was done. Some might call this method unorthodox, but it is not for nothing that my book is subtitled Baseball, from the inside. 

In that way we trained, all through spring. As a taskmaster I am tough but fair. I said:

  • Never walk a batsman. If necessary, allow him to strike the ball, but it is vital that he put it on the ground.
  • Never allow a home run. I am told they are more common in to-day's game, but when Joel assured me that there was no hope of moving these St. Louis Nationals to the Polo Grounds, or knocking down the center field wall, we had little choice but to make it even more important that he put the ball in-to the "dirt." 
  • Never cause a batsman to "strike out." It was at this last instruction that Joel struggled most vigorously. But with pitch counts in vogue I was not about to let my young charge be satisfied with five or six innings. 
In this way we worked. And after a few rough starts, including one regrettable incident in which he had six combined strikeouts and walks, things improved quickly. I've composed the following table—

  GS IP H ERA BB/9 K/9 HR/9
BIG SIX 1912 34 310.0 311 2.12 0.99 3.89 0.17
LITTLE SIX 2009 19 128.1 125 2.95 0.91 3.79 0.21

 

It was as thrilling as you would imagine to be hurling fadeaways again as I had in my youth, competing with your oafish circuit clouters, giving them a taste of the deadened-ball era. But I've long told Joel that our success was unsustainable. For one thing, my brand of possession creates a hold that is tenuous at best—even the brief stints he spent on the mound, even though I worked as fast as I could, became taxing on our psychic connection. Furthermore, as was best dramatized in your documentary on the subject, Angels in the Outfield, celestial help is banned in the heat of pennant races.

For another thing—and it pains me to say this—recently I spoke to Brian Bannister, and he tells me that the pitching style I had cultivated with Joel was unsustainable in to-day's game, with its home runs and ill-fitting trousers and dreaded-locks. We discussed Bob Tewksbury and Carlos Silva, among other hurlers, and he convinced me that players who strike out and walk so few batters have such a razor-thin margin for error that they rarely maintain their lofty heights for more than a year! "Six," he tells me, "it may be that that margin is enough for you, but we aren't all so fond of 'pitching in the pinch'!" Maybe so, I say. Maybe so.

So for his last start of July I sent young Joel out on his own, and it was, I must say, a tougher adjustment for me than it was for him! Since then, much to my chagrin, he has doubled his strikeout rate and pushed his walk rate to a more manageable 1.3 per nine frames. That combination of power and control is much better hedged against what I understand to be the inevitable "regression" toward the "mean" of his home run rate. Another spectral pitcher of which I am fond, currently haunting Arizona every fifth day, survives on much the same gameplan.

Now that his strikeout rate is over four for the season, and not just over four but trending toward five, he will be able to counteract the inevitable mistakes that will come from pitching without my help. It is perhaps a more boring method of pitching, but it is also one that might be repeated in 2010. Seeing him now, after watching him in 2008—one is almost tempted to forgo his rough-and-ready façade and shed a tear!

With my work done here I must return to the great sporting-bar in the sky from which I follow the game. But I felt it my duty, before I left, to explain Mr. Pineiro's recent work here, and write encouragingly about his chances in future years.

Yours truly,

Christy Mathewson

P.S. It was I who dubbed the "mixed-tape" we Cardinals are so fond of playing following victories; I have long considered Huey Lewis and his News a concise distillation of everything old "Matty" stands for! Fear not—I have allowed them to keep it.

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