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Pitch Counts

Mike SteffanosMonday, January 19, 2009
By Mike Steffanos

When I linked to the Rick Peterson article on FullCountPitch.com a couple of days ago, I found it interesting that what sparked the most comments and debates was Peterson's belief in and defense of pitch counts.

Pitch counts have seemed to be one of baseball's hot-button issues of the past few years, particularly since complete-game starts have all but disappeared. There is a growing belief among some observers of the game that pitchers are being babied too much nowadays. They believe that pitchers could go deeper into games if only they were trained to do so.

If you listen to Met telecasts, you'll often hear Ron Darling and/or Keith Hernandez talk about how pitchers used to finish what they started much more often than they do today. I can certainly attest to that, being a couple of years older than Darling. I actually remember back to a time when the best pitchers would finish at least half their starts. For instance, Tom Seaver completed 25 of 31 starts as a 26-year-old in 1971.

Darling's high for complete games was 7 in 1988. He never finished more than 4 in any other season, and finished his career with 37 in 364 major league starts. That's great compared to today, but pales in comparison to Seaver's efforts, who had 231 in his Hall of Fame career.

Seaver was still pitching when Darling was starting off. They were actually teammates for a short time in 1983. Yet the game was already drastically changing by that time.

Lineups were getting tougher to negotiate. Seaver could count on facing at least 2 or 3 automatic outs on every team he faced, and some teams had very little past fourth or fifth in the lineup. There was a lot more bunting and far fewer home runs. If Seaver was facing 7, 8 and 9 against most teams in the league he could enjoy virtually an inning off, saving his energy for the top of the lineup.

Offenses were much more dynamic by the prime of Darling's career, and by the time he was finishing up in the mid-90s even more so. I remember when a guy who could hit 20 home runs was considered an elite power hitter, and anyone who could hit over 10 was considered to have power. We sneer at those numbers from middle infielders these days.

Most teams have very few hitters that can't hurt you at any given moment, some have practically no holes in their lineup. Combine this with the way most clubs are training their hitters to take pitches and work a starting pitcher and you have a much different reality from those golden days of yesteryear.

Even back then a lot of pitchers faltered under the expected workload, and most that made it had relatively short careers. Nothing in sports requires you to put the sort on strains and stresses on your arms as the unnatural motion of throwing a baseball overhand.

It's not surprising that teams work so hard to protect their pitchers these days, and I don't expect that to change any time soon. I do think that teams will be more flexible with that magic number of 100 pitches and place more value on how much difficulty a pitcher is in.

Also, guys with rubber arms should be allowed to pitch more. Back three decades ago some young pitchers saw their careers destroyed before they even got going because they were asked to do too much. Now, you often seem to have the opposite problem where teams are afraid to stretch out a pitcher who has demonstrated that his arm is resilient. One size doesn't fit all, and teams have to learn to be more flexible.

Perhaps as research into what causes injuries provides us with more knowledge teams will coddle their pitchers less. On the other hand, I don't see us going back to a time when starters will routinely throw 130 or more pitches a start.

Pitchers lose their effectiveness as they tire, and also are more prone to getting hurt as fatigue causes their form to deteriorate. A pitcher who has lost something off his fastball might attempt to compensate by overthrowing, putting even more strain on those valuable but fragile tendons, ligaments and muscle.

You can train a pitcher to pitch more, but you can't change the fact that every pitch stresses his arm. Every pitcher will break down eventually. You can only delay that process by researching and implementing techniques to slow it down.

Moreover, with the specialization of bullpens, it makes sense to get your starter out of a game when his effectiveness drops. Managers have lost their jobs over staying too long with a starter and losing an important game. He's liable to get execrated on talk radio for making this mistake at any time.

It will be interesting to see how this issue evolves over the coming years, but I honestly suspect that few pitchers will be asked to go much deeper than 100 pitches on a game-in, game-out basis. It's just too hard to develop effective starting pitchers to risk losing them to injury.

Thinking longer term, given the cost and difficulty in putting effective rotations together, even prolonging the prime of a good starter's career by a year or two is valuable enough to warrant some coddling. So yeah, with a few reservations I agree with Peterson's take -- I'm generally in favor of the philosophy behind pitch counts. I know that's not a very popular stand, but I still believe that it's the right one.

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 (6)

mike, have you ever listened to seaver go off about pitch counts when the subject is brought up? i'm sorry to say that i'm with him on this one. too much time wasted watching counts. a visit to the mound should be sufficient. there are tell tale ways for a good pitching coach to say when his boy has had enough. that's his job to know his staff. if we go soley on counts why pay another salary for nothing?

William - I think I pretty much laid out my case for the difference between when Seaver pitched and now. I also didn't advocate a slavish adherence to any particular pitch count. But keeping track of pitches is as good a way to measure workload as any, I just think any one-size-fits-all approach to an exact pitch count is flawed.

Speaking of Seaver's time, remember Gary Gentry. He pitched 625 innings in his first 3 seasons before he was 25. He only managed 258 combined in his next 4, and was all done before the age of 30. Gentry had good stuff. If he was used a little less hard early on he might have had a pretty good career.

It's easy to say that pitchers should just pitch and look at the guys who succeeded. Sometimes people forget there were a lot of Gentrys who didn't.

I don't know when pitch counts became the standard for handling a pitcher, but I do remember the era of complete games, and starters regularly going 8 or 9 innings. I think it's a mixed bag, while there were the greats Koufax, Seaver, Gibson, Carlton, Marichal, etc, how many pitchers careers may have been shortened because they were expected to finish games in those days? How many "would have beens", may have been able to extended their careers if they were under pitch counts? Of course with better technology today, guy tears a ligament, rotator cuff, surgery is performed and said pitcher is good as new sometimes coming back like "Steve Austin" the 6million dollar man! While my personal opinion is that pitch counts are somewhat overrated, I believe they do have some significance. If today's technology were available then, would the Gentry's, David Clyde's, Don Gullets, and so on been able to extend their careers and be top tier pitchers? Take a guy like J.R. Richard who had no arm troubles, but wound up with a blood clot and then a stroke, would better attention being payed to pitchers, and the medical knowledge of today, been able to save him from that disaster?

Your comment about Gary Gentry is dead-on.

We just don't remember the players who looked good for a season or so and then fade into oblivion, unless they were really special for a while, like Gary Nolan for instance. Danny Cox, remember him? Cox was a pretty big deal for a while.

Not remembering them we tend to think that the world is constructed along the lines of what the Tom Seavers of the world could do. But Seaver was one of the very best ever to pitch a baseball; that's simply too high a bar for most athletes.

Re the Petersen article- Where did he com up wi the batting averages after a count? None of that jibes wi any stat I have ever seen.

I don't know, Luis. You might try contacting the author of the article.

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