Commentary

Pitch counts 'encouraging mediocrity'

Hall of Famers say that strict pitch counts essentially don't allow pitchers to grow

Originally Published: July 28, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

For those who think the pitch count is a relatively new phenomenon, Tom Seaver provides evidence to the contrary. He remembers life in New York in the pre-Watergate days, when Mets pitching coach Rube Walker kept track of workloads in the dugout and even the staff horses had limits.

Seaver generally had the latitude to stay in games for 135 pitches. Teammate Jerry Koosman's informal ceiling was closer to 145, and Nolan Ryan might throw 150 or more if necessary.

The totals aren't available from Ryan's first start in 1970, when he struck out 15 batters and walked six in a complete-game, 7-0 victory over Philadelphia. But it's safe to say Ryan didn't polish off the Phillies with Mark Buehrle-like economy.

"We did have pitch counts," Seaver said. "They weren't mandated. Mine was 135 and I knew it, and Rube knew it. And when I got to Chicago, I told [pitching coach Dave Duncan], 'I'm at 135.'"

Seaver and Ryan both rode their arduous workloads all the way to the Hall of Fame. But on those rare occasions nowadays when Seaver flicks on the TV and watches a game, he sees the obsession with pitch counts building in the early innings. If a starter has thrown 75 or 80 pitches after four, the middle relievers are already on alert in the bullpen.

Ryan recently visited Seaver at his vineyard in California, and the subject came up in conversation. The former Mets teammates are big believers in the concept of "foxhole guys" -- starting pitchers who will fight a manager to stay in the game -- and Ryan is working diligently to cultivate that mindset among his staff in his current capacity as Texas Rangers president.

[+] EnlargeTom Seaver
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireTom Seaver threw more than 200 innings in 16 of his 20 seasons in the majors.
But Seaver thinks enough impediments exist that Ryan's little experiment might be doomed to failure. Major league teams are hesitant to overwork young starters for fear of injury. They're wary of the injury risk to veteran starters on big contracts. And of course, they're obligated to make use of closers who are well-paid, and the six or seven other pitchers who now inhabit bullpens.

"There are always individuals who want to [pitch deeper in games], but aren't allowed because of the economic ramifications of a guy blowing out his shoulder," Seaver said. "And sometimes decisions are mandated from above.

"I want a manager who'll go to the mound and say, 'Kid, you're throwing great. Go get 'em, and I'm not coming back.' I want to see that, but you'll never see that."

At the Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown, N.Y., over the weekend, some of baseball's greatest pitchers lamented the changing mindset in the game. Although the criticisms have a certain "Gee, the game was better in our day" air of crotchetiness to them, it's clear that specialization and micromanaging have changed the expectations and the way pitchers are taught to think from an early age.

Among the Hall of Famers' pet peeves: (1) starters who look toward the dugout for a bailout at the first sign of trouble; (2) teams that carry 12 or 13 pitchers in contrast to the 10-man staffs of two or three decades ago; and (3) praise for starters for going six innings or more and allowing three earned runs or less.

Don Sutton, who won 324 games over 23 seasons and never spent a day on the disabled list, calls the quality start a "ridiculous and absurd" statistic that rewards a 4.50 ERA. Sutton favors a new definition, with six innings and two runs or seven innings and three runs as the barometer for quality.

"

I think they indoctrinate the younger pitchers who are coming along, and they don't identify the foxhole guys. Some guys are 110-pitch guys, and some guys are 135-, 145-pitch guys. Not everybody is cut from the same cloth.

" -- Tom Seaver

He also views the 100-pitch barrier as an "unsubstantiated, artificial limit" that conditions pitchers to feel fatigued based on a predetermined barrier established by others.

"We're teaching it in Class A ball," Sutton said. "We're telling kids we're not going to let them pitch, we're not going to extend them, and we're not going to see what they're capable of. We're encouraging mediocrity and being very successful at it.

"If I told my daughter all I wanted was a C average, she's going to give me C's. Will I ever know if she can make A's? No, because she is working up to my expectations."

The retirees also wonder, if the goal is protecting arms, why so many disabled lists are clogged with tender elbows and torn labrums. Although the DL numbers might be a product of better detection and pre-emptive moves to prevent pitchers from incurring more serious problems down the road, it's hard to argue that the current approach is serving its desired purpose.

"I have never seen so many bad shoulders or bad elbows or bad arms in major league baseball. That was never the case," said Jim Bunning, Hall of Famer and U.S. senator from Kentucky.

Bunning, 77, threw 1,050 innings in the minor leagues before breaking through as an All-Star and a 20-game winner in Detroit in 1956. Rick Porcello, in contrast, made 24 minor league starts covering 125 innings before graduating to Detroit's starting rotation this spring.

When Bunning reflects upon his career, he credits his lengthy apprenticeship in the minors as a factor in his longevity.

"Because of the lack of depth in major league pitching, young pitchers aren't in the minors long enough to have a losing experience," Bunning said. "You will notice that if people have experience in failing in the minor leagues, they are more equipped to handle success and failure at the major league level."

The process begins well before the minors, according to Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver. Young pitchers need to build arm strength, which can come only from throwing, and leg strength via consistent running if they want to handle more demanding workloads.

[+] EnlargeDon Sutton
AP Photo/Rod BerenDon Sutton averaged just less than 230 innings pitched per season in his 23 years in the majors.

"Our pitchers ran foul line to foul line every day that they weren't pitching," Weaver said. "Their legs were in shape, which makes it easier on their arms."

Weaver grew accustomed to second-guessing from reporters and fans for leaving starters in the game too long or pulling them too quickly. But the scrutiny was minimal compared to today, in the aftermath of Grady Little's demise in Boston for leaving in Pedro Martinez to throw 123 pitches against the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

Nobody was paying much attention in 1980, when Billy Martin ran Mike Norris, Rick Langford, Matt Keough, Steve McCatty and Brian Kingman into the ground in Oakland. But everybody was paying attention when Dusty Baker heaped lots of innings on Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in Chicago.

The pivotal distinction for a manager, in Seaver's eyes, is distinguishing between pitchers who can and can't handle the load, rather than throwing the same blanket over everyone.

"I think they indoctrinate the younger pitchers who are coming along, and they don't identify the foxhole guys," Seaver said. "Some guys are 110-pitch guys, and some guys are 135-, 145-pitch guys. Not everybody is cut from the same cloth."

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer