Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ron Necciai - A Cautionary Tale

Among the (many) things that long time baseball fans gripe and complain about "baseball today" is that pitchers, and particularly young pitchers, are held to strict limits in regard to innings pitched and even to the number of pitches that they throw in any given game.

"By, God", they say, "Warren Spahn/Bob Feller/Robin Roberts/Fill In the Blank never worried about how many innings they pitched or how many pitches they threw.  They'd throw thirty or more complete games a year and they're in the Hall of Fame."

Well, yeah, they are, but I wonder that for every Bob Gibson and Bob Friend there were, how many contemporary pitchers of theirs were there that we have never heard of because their arms were shot by the time they got to Class C baseball because they were told to pitch 'til their arms fell off.  Ten, twenty, fifty?  No way to know, but that brings me to the tale of Ron Necciai.

If you are a really, really, REALLY longtime Pirates fan, you know the story.  As a nineteen year old phee-nom out of Monongahela High School in 1952, Necciai pitched back-to-back games for the Bristol Twins, the Pirates Class D affiliate in the Appalachian League, where he struck out 27 batters and threw a no-hitter, followed by a two-hitter where he stuck out 24 batters.  He was then promoted to the Carolina League, where he recorded 172 strikeouts in 126 innings pitched.  The numbers are not available to me, but God only knows how many pitches Necciai threw in those 27 and 24 strike out games.

In August of that year, the now twenty year old Necciai was promoted to the Pirates (who stunk and would lose 112 games that season) where he went 1-6 with a 7.08 ERA and had 31 strike outs in 54.2 IP.  He went into the military in 1953, where he was soon released with a medical discharge.  He never pitched in the majors again, kicked around the minors for a few years, dealt with a torn rotator cuff, and was out of baseball after 1955.

The long time Bucco fans look at that 27 K's game of Necciai's and say, "Man, what if he never got injured?  Think of how great he'd have been for the Pirates."

Here's some other points that they should be asking:
  • Instead of leaving him in those games to strike out 27 and 24 batters, what if Pirates management, in the person of no less than Branch Rickey, the Old Mahatma himself, had said "Make sure that that boy never throws more that 75-80 pitches in any game"?
  • Instead of promoting him to a higher league, what if they kept him at Bristol, reduced his workload, and promoted him to a higher league in 1953 with some expanded IP limits?
  • What if they did that to make sure that Necciai was properly prepared for the big leagues when he was, say, 25 years old, in 1957, and he could have joined a staff that included Bob Friend and Vernon Law?
I wonder if Ron Necciai, still alive and 84 years of age, ever wonders the same things.

Of course, maybe Necciai never would have made it, and the medical science of the time when it came to things like torn rotator cuffs was no doubt worlds behind what it is today, but we'll never know what precise damage that heavy workload put on a 19 year old arm back in 1952, nor will we know how many other "Ron Necciais" there were that are now lost in the dust bins of baseball history, but I'll bet there were a lot more of them than there were "Warren Spahns".

The point I am trying to make, I think, is that there is a reason that the Pirates and every team is protecting assets like Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Chan Kuhl when they keep them in the minors for too long (according to all of us experts) or monitor their pitch counts.  We all need to remember that.

Of course, another aspect is the investment that teams have in these guys.  The Pirates invested millions of dollars in guys like Taillon and Gerrit Cole before they ever threw a professional pitch.  Rickey probably signed Necciai for a couple of thousand bucks, if that.  But that is another subject for us Old-Timers to rail about.

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