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Marichal, Perry reflect on 'opener' strategy

Hall of Fame starters say evolution is sign of the times
MLB.com @sfgiantsbeat

SAN FRANCISCO -- Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry, relics from a bygone age of pitching, agree that the concept of starting a ballgame is finished. At least in the classic sense.

More than 10 teams -- including the Giants, the club that propelled Marichal and Perry into the Hall of Fame -- reportedly are considering the employment of relievers to start ballgames, a trend that began last season. This downscaled version of a starter, known as the "opener," would pitch three innings or fewer before yielding the mound to a succession of relievers. Among them might be an erstwhile starter who would bridge the gap between the early and late innings by pitching long relief.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry, relics from a bygone age of pitching, agree that the concept of starting a ballgame is finished. At least in the classic sense.

More than 10 teams -- including the Giants, the club that propelled Marichal and Perry into the Hall of Fame -- reportedly are considering the employment of relievers to start ballgames, a trend that began last season. This downscaled version of a starter, known as the "opener," would pitch three innings or fewer before yielding the mound to a succession of relievers. Among them might be an erstwhile starter who would bridge the gap between the early and late innings by pitching long relief.

Marichal and Perry performed in a time when the notion of an opener would have been unthinkable. During their six seasons together in the Giants' rotation (1966-71), they combined to record 245 complete games, more than any pair of teammates in the Major Leagues (Perry started part-time in 1964-65). The next most-prolific duo in this category was St. Louis' Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton, who amassed 195 complete games together during this time span. Marichal led all Major Leaguers with 132 complete games in this period, edging Gibson's 129.

Both Marichal, 81, and Perry, 80, suggested in recent interviews that today's starters simply aren't capable of working entire games consistently.

Video: Costas on Spahn and Marichal's epic 16-inning battle

"It seems to me that after the fifth or sixth inning, a left-hander cannot pitch to right-handers, and right-handers cannot pitch to left-handers," said Marichal, the high-kicking Dominican who compiled a 243-142 record with 244 complete games in 457 lifetime starts from 1960-75.

Said Perry, who completed 303 of his 690 career starts, "A lot of clubs are going to have to [resort to an opener]. Their bullpen and relief pitchers are the most important thing they've got."

Perry spent the first 10 of his 22 big league seasons (1962-83) with San Francisco and owned a 314-265 lifetime mark overall.

Purists might imagine that Marichal and Perry would regard the opener as an abomination. Instead, the right-handers view this option as an almost predictable development in an ever-evolving sport.

"The game has changed so much that I am not surprised to see that," Marichal said.

He added that baseball's economics discourage teams from using any starter as a workhorse: "[Starting pitchers] make too much money, and the teams have to protect those guys."

Video: SF Retired Number: No. 36, Gaylord Perry

Such caution at least partially explained why eight starters shared the Major League lead in complete games last year with a whopping two apiece. Any time a current-day pitcher comes close to logging nine innings, Perry said, "It's a bonus."

By contrast, Marichal pitched 30 complete games in 38 starts in 1968, when his durability peaked. That year, according to Hot Stove Stats, starting pitchers averaged 6.65 innings per outing. That figure has steadily dipped since, reaching 5.36 in 2018.

Tweet from @HotStoveStats: Average innings pitched per game by a starting pitcher:2018 - 5.362008 - 5.811998 - 6.061988 - 6.361978 - 6.471968 - 6.651958 - 6.371948 - 6.501938 - 6.731928 - 7.051918 - 7.701908 - 7.70

Marichal's most remarkable effort occurred on July 2, 1963, when he worked all 16 innings in a 1-0 victory over Milwaukee. Willie Mays homered off Warren Spahn, who also went the distance, to end the confrontation, which may never be duplicated.

Marichal recalled that he had to convince Giants manager Alvin Dark to keep him in the game.

"He wanted to take me out in the ninth inning and the 14th inning and the 15th inning," Marichal said. Before the Giants batted in the 16th, a concerned Marichal told Mays, " Alvin's mad at me. I don't think I'm going to go any longer.' Willie told me, 'Don't worry. I'm going to win this game for you.'"

Perhaps it's unfair to judge today's starters alongside those from Marichal's and Perry's heyday. The peer group of the Giants' duo included Gibson, Carlton, Tom Seaver, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Ferguson Jenkins, Jim Bunning, Catfish Hunter, Sam McDowell, Jim Maloney, Mel Stottlemyre, Luis Tiant, Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich and Jim Kaat -- performers whose status ranged from formidable to iconic.

Virtually every team in this era possessed an ace pitcher such as Marichal or Gibson, complemented by a capable No. 2 starter such as Perry or Carlton -- who soon developed into aces themselves.

As these pitchers thrived collectively, starters who ranked a notch or two below them in class were dismissed as "seven-inning pitchers." Then, it was a pejorative term. Now, starters who regularly last that long earn annual salaries approaching or exceeding $30 million, including Arizona's Zack Greinke, Los Angeles' Clayton Kershaw, Boston's David Price, Washington's Max Scherzer and Houston's Justin Verlander.

Matters were different when Marichal, Perry or any of their contemporaries went to work.

"If you didn't go nine innings," Perry said, "you might not get another start."

Chris Haft has covered the Major Leagues since 1991 and has worked for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat.

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