I was happy to see Steve recently reference Norm Charlton’s contributions as a starter during Cincinnati’s 1990 World Championship season. Twenty-seven years later, most Reds fans remember Charlton as a Nasty Boy, a hard-throwing setup man (and occasional Mike Scioscia bulldozer) who set the stage commendably for his fellow Nasties Rob Dibble and Randy Myers. While researching a piece that will appear here next week, however, I was reminded that Charlton played a huge role in the success of the Reds in a different capacity during the second half of the 1990 season.
When Jose Rijo went on the 15-day disabled list on June 29 of that year, Cincinnati needed to fill a slot in its starting rotation. Initially, the team turned to Scott Scudder, who started two games in May while Danny Jackson was briefly sidelined with an injury. Scudder’s first start in Jackson’s stead was a good one – he threw 7 1/3 innings of five-hit ball in a May 6 victory over the Cardinals – but his second was far uglier, as he was pulled against the Cubs on May 11 after just 2/3 of an inning, during which he gave up three home runs.
The script was similar during Scudder’s next start on July 4, when he took Rijo’s spot in the rotation against Montreal. After retiring the first batter, the next six Expos reached base before Scudder was yanked. Due to the timing of the All-Star break, he did not pitch again until the second half.
At that point, the Reds got creative. As a 25-year-old rookie, Charlton started 10 games for the Reds over the final six weeks of the 1988 season, going 4-5 with a 3.96 ERA. The following year, he made the team out of spring training but was used as a reliever instead. Charlton flourished in the bullpen that season, going 8-3 with a 2.93 ERA. In 95 1/3 innings over 69 games, he struck out 98 batters and had the lowest WHIP, FIP and H/9 of his entire tenure with Cincinnati.
During the first half of 1990, Charlton appeared in 38 games out of the bullpen, going 6-3 with a 2.98 ERA and 56 strikeouts over 48 1/3 innings. He then threw another 1 1/3 innings during the team’s second-half opener on July 12. Just three days later, however, he was back on the mound as a starter. There was no extended period of “stretching out,” no quick trip to the minors to make sure he could handle a heavier workload. Charlton was simply asked to remember (and subsequently do) what he did two years prior.
Against the Mets on July 15, Charlton pitched six shutout innings, giving up just two hits in the process. It was the first of an improbable and remarkable 12 consecutive quality starts, during which he went 6-3 with a 1.94 ERA. (Needless to say, he remained in the rotation after Rijo’s return, although he was used exclusively as a reliever during the postseason.) He came back to Earth a bit during his final four starts (“only” two of which were quality), but overall, to say that the Charlton-as-a-starter experiment in 1990 was a success is an extreme understatement.
In 2014, the Reds – who were still decent just one year removed from earning a postseason berth as the second Wild Card qualifier – started the second half seven games over .500 and only 1.5 games back in the NL Central. With Joey Votto injured, though, it was painfully (no pun intended) clear that the team needed to make a move to address their lack of organizational depth at first base if they hoped to truly contend. When Enquirer writer John Fay asked then-GM Walt Jocketty at midseason if he had explored any such options, the answer was shocking: “Not really. We’ve got Jack for that.”
The “Jack” to whom Jocketty was referring was light-hitting backup infielder Jack Hannahan, who himself was injured at the time. It was a clear sign that the cavalry would not be coming, and indeed, the Reds fell apart completely in the second half, during which the team won just 25 of 67 – yet another example of a season in which they started hot and ended ice-cold.
Three years later, the Reds – who were supposed to be in the throes of yet another rebuilding season – again got off to an unexpected hot start. Although our expectations as fans were tempered, it was impossible not to fantasize about how good the team might be if only they had another reliable starting pitcher or two. Accordingly, we eagerly anticipated the returns of Homer Bailey and Brandon Finnegan, for against all odds, the team was only eight games back when Bailey was activated from the DL on June 24.
Over the next 48 hours or so, however, it became clear once again that the cavalry would not be coming – or at least, not in the form of Bailey or Finnegan. Meanwhile, Sal Romano just became the latest Louisville Bat who was asked to temporarily stop the bleeding as the Reds limp to the All-Star break.
If this season is truly a lost cause, though, why not try anything and everything? In other words, if the results of this year’s games don’t matter, what’s the point of having an arsenal of strong bullpen arms who close out meaningless victories? Unless there’s a genuine concern of injury, why not consider Michael Lorenzen – or, for that matter, Tony Cingrani, Raisel Iglesias or any other current Reds reliever who has started in the past – as an option whenever the team next needs someone to bridge a gap? Sure, Bryan Price might have one less tool at his disposal in the short term as Lorenzen (or whomever) gets stretched out, but if the Reds drop a game in the meantime that they might have otherwise won, what’s the harm?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that a pitcher who’s used to relieving be thrown into the deep end and asked to swim on three days’ rest, as Charlton was. Just as no starting pitcher will likely ever again throw 200 pitches, I realize it’s a different era now, and I’m in favor of whatever path of preparation is least likely to shorten a pitcher’s career. I’m also well aware that for every Norm Charlton, there are two (or more) Randy Myers or Danny Graves examples who didn’t cut it as starters.
Still, it’s one thing not to know what you’ve got until it’s gone. It’s another thing entirely not to know what you’ve got, period. We’ve already seen the team squander its chance of seeing what Aroldis Chapman could accomplish as a starter. Why wait until next March to give Lorenzen and others that opportunity? Until the Reds make a more concerted effort to see what their current major league pitchers are truly capable of, they’ll remain mired in purgatory, and the Louisville Shuffle will continue indefinitely. If the Reds took the same approach in 1990, perhaps they’d be flying one fewer championship banner today.