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Bob Turley, one remarkable season, and the glamorization and pitfalls of overuse

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Bob Turley’s career should be seen as a warning of the damage overuse can do to a pitcher’s arm.

1957 World Series - Game 6: Milwaukee Braves v New York Yankees Set Number: X5404

On Wednesday I wrote an article about the Yankees 1958 World Series victory. While researching that piece, I came across a legendary pitching performance from Bob Turley that I had never heard about before

During the regular season, Turley threw 245.1 innings en route to winning his first (and only) Cy Young. Thanks to a lively fastball, he pitched to a 21-7 record with 168 strikeouts while posting a 2.97 ERA, 119 ERA+, and 4.04 FIP. He threw 19 complete games. 19! Of those, six were shutouts.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go his way in the playoffs... at first. After getting shelled in Game 1—he lasted just 0.1 innings while surrendering four earned runs—he was virtually unhittable the rest of the way. In the following 16 innings Turley pitched in the World Series, he struck out 12 batters, gave up just seven hits, and posted a 0.56 ERA while holding batters to a ludicrous .135/.224/.192 slash line. But, as I mentioned on Wednesday, that’s not even the wildest part. After Game 1, Casey Stengel used him as a fireman-type reliever. While that’s not bizarre in and of itself, this is: the 16 innings Turley pitched after Game 1 came in three consecutive games spread out across just four days. One of those games was a complete game shutout. Naturally, a performance like that not only locked up the World Series for the Yankees, but also earned him the World Series MVP.

So, to recap, Turley’s 1958 season saw him throw 245.1 innings, win the Cy Young, become a World Series hero, win the World Series, and win the World Series MVP. Why am I talking about this? Well, mostly because it struck me as odd that, prior to researching this article, I had never come across the name Bob Turley before. Part of my ignorance could be the fact that I was born 29 years after his last season in the majors, but you’d think more would be made of this guy. Thankfully for me, a commenter (thanks to tommy carroll!) pointed out that Turley started experiencing arm issues after the 1958 season. I looked it up myself and, sure enough, the rest of Bob Turley’s once-storied career was reduced to, for the most part, ineffectiveness, at least based on the lofty standards he set for himself.

Let’s take a look at the first half and second half of his career, using 1958 as the dividing line. Turley became a full-time pitcher in 1953 for the St. Louis Browns. From 1953 until 1958, Turley threw exactly 1108 innings very solid innings across 173 games (151 of which were starts). He pitched to a 3.32 ERA, 111 ERA+, and 3.85 FIP. During this time, he threw an ungodly 63 complete games.

After 1958, Turley pitched five more seasons in the big leagues. From 1959 until 1963, he managed to throw just 597.1 innings across 136 games (85 of which were starts). His ERA inflated to 4.19, his ERA+ dropped to 87, and his FIP jumped to 4.34. He maxed out at 173.1 innings and eventually had to be converted to a reliever. His fastball reportedly lost a ton of life after the 1958 season, and he suffered through elbow discomfort for a big chunk of the rest of his career.

Obviously, baseball has changed over the six decades or so since Bob Turley took the mound for the Yankees. Pitchers generally throw much faster now than they did back in Turley’s days, and their pitches—fastballs included—tend to have a lot more movement nowadays. As fans we have a tendency to romanticize a lot of things, and unfortunately innings pitched is one of the hot button topics caught in the crosshairs of the so-called “modern” baseball debate between old-school and new-school fans.

Coming across stories like Turley’s 1958 campaign, it’s easy to see why the “old-school” fans miss the bygone days of pitchers routinely throwing complete games and not needing rest and everything else that tends to get romanticized along the way. And I don’t blame them for romanticizing that stuff one bit, because they make for great stories. I generally like to think of myself as a bit of a new-school thinker when it comes to understanding baseball, but even I got swept up in the narrative of Turley’s postseason heroics. I mean, can you even begin to imagine something like that happening today? The closest we got was probably Madison Baumgarner’s absurd 2014 playoff run.

But it’s important to take a step back and remember that, most of the time, that’s exactly what these are: just stories. These performances do not exist in a vacuum, so we must take a look at everything that came before and everything that comes after them. Don’t believe me? About Baumgarner’s 2014 run I just mentioned... As dominant as he was prior to that stretch, he has completed just two full seasons in the seven since then. And, sadly, Baumgarner is just one of the many examples of workhorse pitchers breaking down earlier than they probably should have.

While we’ve all heard about Nolan Ryan’s 13-inning, 235-pitch performance and how Cy Young threw 400+ innings many times, we have to remember that pitchers that are able to sustain that kind of stress on their arms are the outliers, not the industry standard. In fact, guys like Turley and Baumgarner, who were routinely overused early in their career and left to gradually breakdown, are probably closer to the standard than you think. Now, both of them won the World Series so they’d likely see it as a decent tradeoff, but I imagine that’d be a tough pill to swallow for the pitchers who aren’t winning awards or titles.

In short, here’s what I’m getting at: when we advocate for bringing guys along gradually and limiting pitch counts, we’re not trying to coddle pitchers, we’re trying to save their arms and their careers. Turley’s career provides a framework for why we do that.