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Pitch Counts

Mike SteffanosWednesday, April 18, 2007
By Mike Steffanos

It's become something of a given that pitchers today aren't taught to finish their own games as much as they did in the good old days. That's true to a point, but it fails to take into account the changes in the game in the intervening years. No doubt that pitchers are babied more than they used to be, but even the "horses" from that era would have difficulty completing what they started given the current emphasis on longer at bats and the small size of the strike zone.

I found this interesting item on pitch counts on Rob Neyer's ESPN InSider blog:

The underlying question, of course, is about pitch counts. As in, how many pitches is too many pitches. Of course, the old-timers like to say that 1) nobody counted pitches in the old days, and 2) nobody got hurt in the old days. Well, we know that young pitchers did indeed get hurt in the old days. And I don't think it's true that nobody was counting pitches then, either. In a Baseball Digest article from 1965, Reds pitching coach Jim Turner says, "We don't use the number of innings pitched to tell us the strain on a man's arm. We use the number of pitches made. The pitcher who works 300 innings must have the sort of control to limit himself to around 110-115 pitches in a game. If he's up around 135 or more, he's throwing too many for his own good."

The difference between baseball in the 1960s and 1970s and baseball today is that those 110-115 pitches don't go as far as they used to. It was very much a pitcher's game in those years. I love a well-pitched game as much as anyone, but we had too much of a good thing back then. The strike zone was called much wider in those days, and even mediocre pitching would dominate hitting. In the middle infield, catcher and centerfield positions, a good glove would win out over a solid stick. Some of the worst-hitting shortstops of all time came from that era.

There were hitters that had a knack for drawing a few more walks but, with the pitcher usually getting the benefit of the doubt on anything close, the premium was on trying to get a good pitch to hit rather than working a pitcher for walks. 110-115 pitches could get a pitcher through 9 innings quite often, whereas today it won't get many pitchers into the seventh.

It is beyond question that starting pitchers from that era were asked to do more than their counterparts today. 250+ innings pitched were common, as was 40 starts. But as far as working into games, there weren't many guys who would consistently throw outrageous pitch totals on a consistent basis. They didn't need to. It was a different game back then. Smaller strike zones and small ball parks have changed things considerably.

There were a lot of pitchers from that era who were worked hard and basically finished at 30 years old. Now I think the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction and pitchers are babied too much. It wouldn't hurt to ask a little more of healthy young hurlers than we do today. However, the only way we'll see a significant increase in complete games would be to start calling the wider strike zone of the 60s and 70s, and I'll pass on that. I think baseball is better when there is a balance of offense and pitching/defense.

First Tom Glavine, now Billy Wagner. Ben Shpigel interviews Wagner on how the closer is changing his style to be more efficient:

"I'm evolving more into a pitcher than a guy who's trying to get his stats," Wagner said. "Strikeouts have always been a big part of what I've done, but I don't expect them as much anymore."

It is not because his velocity has decreased. Quite the opposite: Wagner said he was throwing harder now than he was last season. The big difference is his control. He has learned to value efficiency more than showmanship, and he said he was more than happy to sacrifice strikeouts if that meant keeping his pitch count down.

"I want these quick, short innings so I can be fresh in October," Wagner said.

He has not thrown more than 17 pitches in an inning this season, and he has retired the side in order three times. He is throwing an average of 12.8 pitches an inning, which is more than four fewer than last season (17.2) and more than three fewer (16.4) than his career average. Wagner had been prone to making the ninth inning into somewhat of an adventure, running deep counts.

It takes a lot of guts for a guy like Wagner to make changes this late in a great career. Three out of five appearances for Wagner without allowing a baserunner is a welcome change from the constant drama of 2006.

Brett Meyers -- Setup Man?
I know the Phillies need relief from their bullpen, and Brett Meyers has struggled early on, but I don't think I would be happy about this move if I was a Phillies fan:

Manager Charlie Manuel said Wednesday the Phillies will move Brett Myers into the bullpen, while inserting Jon Lieber into the starting rotation.

Manuel said he was comfortable using Myers in either the seventh or eighth innings and might even use the former starter to close on days when Philly's regular closer, Tom Gordon, is not available for use.

All spring I was reading how Meyers was ready to step up and be an ace starting pitcher. Now he's a middle reliever and part-time closer? Weird.

About Mike: I was the original writer on this web site, actually its only writer for the first 15 months of existence. Although I am grateful for the excellent contributions of my fellow writers here, I have no plans of stepping back into strictly an editorial role. I started this thing in the first place because I love to write and I love the Mets, and blogging here keeps me somewhat sane. If you haven't had enough already, more bio info can be found here.

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Comments (4)

Interesting about Myers.

Hey, what do any of youse think about the idea of acquiring Ryan Madson? He's young, throws harder than hell, has several other pitches, and as of now his career is going no where. Sounds like the perfect reclamation project to moi.

I once detested the Tony LaRussa way of managing pitchers. The constant quick trigger to the pen drove me nuts. But you can't argue with the results. Twenty years ago, you never saw pitchers last into their late 30s, much less their 40s. Now we see guys like Glavine, Clemens, Johnson, Maddux and Moyer all lasting and succeeding into their 40s. And I have to believe controlled pitch counts have something to do with that phenomenon.

While I agree that the pendulum may have swung too far the other way with pitchers of today, I am just not sure how succesful managers will be trying to push for more innings out of younger arms in present day baseball. So many of these young guys are now held to miniscule pitch counts in the minors that it's hard to see their arms being ready to push towards 120 or so pitches per game on a regular basis. If pitchers are going to be asked to go deeper into games, the movement has to start from the ground up, at the low minor league levels.

Quick hits:
1. I think Salman is right. The only way a pitcher will see 300 wins is thru longevity, especially now torque requiring pitches such as the slider/curve are so important..

2. I think the Myers issue could well be a death toll in Philly. Myers is a great talent and does not deserve the demotion. In hindsight the Freddy Garcia trade was VERY poor as they did not need a starter. In contrast we can already see the impact Alou has had, being identified as the missing piece last yrs Mets needed.

3. With the emergence of Smith, improvement from Feliciano, and Mota's impending return, what for Heilman? He is a specialist now (and a good one), but relief prices are soaring and I think a swap is pending...( i know, often said) but I am watching the Brad Lidge situation with interest.

4. Lastings 4-4 last night!! And jon Nieve may have made his intro.

dd - I guess it would depend what they would want for him. Hard to believe they'd be willing to let any potential bullpen arm go at this point.
Salman - I think bullpens are becoming so specialized that it would be the rare starter that would be left in a game to pitch those extra 20 pitches.
Ed - I just think they are desperate for a solid bullpen arm and Meyers is the best fit.

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