'It's a dying breed. And it sucks': The decline of the starting pitcher -- and what it means for baseball's future

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

ALEK MANOAH IS a man of many opinions, and one of those is that with a gilded right arm and 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds of mass to buttress it, he should throw the baseball as much as he can. But during spring training in 2021, as the Toronto Blue Jays were mapping out Manoah's first full season in organized baseball, they approached him to discuss a different plan. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he hadn't seen game action for almost 18 months, and he had pitched sparingly in the minor leagues during his 2019 debut. They wanted to be cautious -- careful even. They wanted to set an innings limit, and they asked Manoah what he thought it should be.

"I don't think there should be a limit," Manoah said.

He wasn't trying to be contrarian. He just doesn't agree with the arbitrariness of prescribed restrictions that over the past four decades have taken the starting pitcher -- baseball's marquee attraction, the workhorse -- and, through a cocktail of fear and math, reduced it to show pony.

"I'm a big f---ing guy," Manoah, 24, says now. "I'm strong as a horse. I'm built for this stuff. ... I can take some hits, man. If you don't let a pitcher pitch, you're never building him up. You're never letting him struggle. I say this all the time: 'Let me get my ass kicked.' They understand that dog in me. I want to be out there."

For most starters in 2022, the dog within is more Pomeranian than pit bull. This season, pitch counts for starters have cratered to an average of 84.4, 10 fewer than the standard that held for decades. The typical start -- long, steady, around six innings -- has fallen to barely five. Complete games have almost vanished.

And yet efforts to keep pitchers healthier by limiting their workloads have been a failure. Arm injuries remain omnipresent, with upward of $100 million in salary this season lost to time on the injured list. Teams' purported prudence in lessening pitchers' workloads simply altered how those pitchers approach the game. They bide their finite time on the mound with maximum-effort throws, despite evidence that those high-effort pitches add stress and strain to the vulnerable joints in the arm. Less, it turns out, is not more.

"Everyone's here guessing," one National League farm director says. "Even the doctors don't know. Pitching is just a hard thing to do."