Baseball's magic number: 100
When pitch counts reach the century mark, the end is near ... but why?
The offensive explosionThe past 15 years have represented perhaps the greatest offensive era in history. The reasons include smaller ballparks, a strike zone the size of a license plate, improved bat technology, steroids, weightlifting and harder baseballs. The 1999-2000 seasons were the apex of the offensive explosion: In 1999, more teams scored 20 runs in a game (nine) than in the decade of the 1960s combined (six). The game is different now than it was even 25 years ago. The Blue Jays' double-play combination, shortstop Marco Scutaro and second baseman Aaron Hill, has homered in the same game three times this season; it had never happened in the first 32 years of the franchise. So perhaps the explanation is as simple as this: Pitchers were hit so hard and so often in 2000, they were taken out of games long before they got to 120 pitches.
Specialization of relievers"That's the biggest change," said Padres manager Bud Black, who pitched in the big leagues from 1981 to '95. "We have 11-man, 12-man, 13-man pitching staffs today. We develop relievers in the minor leagues, college and even high school. It never used to be that way." In the 1970s, Orioles manager Earl Weaver often would break camp with eight pitchers. And back then, when the game's best pitchers threw 25 complete games in a season, Weaver would let ace Jim Palmer finish what he started, asking "Who do you want pitching the ninth inning with a one-run lead, Jim Palmer or the ninth-best pitcher on the team?" But now, the ninth-best pitcher on the team might come out of the bullpen throwing 95 mph. And the ninth-best pitcher on the team might be making a lot of money. "We've got two relievers on our team who are making $3.5 million a year, and they've never even seen the eighth or ninth inning," said one AL pitching coach. "When you're paying guys that much to pitch the sixth and seventh inning, you have to use them. We took our starter out after six innings the other day, and we lost. But when in doubt, teams take out the starter." Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan said, "Twenty years ago, did you ever hear a pitcher talking about his role? No. Now, everyone has to know his role, his specific role." Hershiser laughed, saying, "When I broke in, teams broke camp with eight or nine pitchers, nine to 10 at the most. Rookies prayed they'd keep 10 so they could make the team. Carrying 11 was unbelievable. It was like, 'What are you doing? Your bench is so short.' Now we've got 12 and 13 pitchers on the team! And we have a bunch of relievers who don't like to come into a game with runners on base. So we eliminate even more innings by a starting pitcher by allowing a reliever to start the inning with no one on base."
It's baseball's fault"We have conditioned our pitchers to go 100," Black said. "It didn't used to be that way. When I came up , we pitched until we were ineffective. We would go 125, 130 pitches all the time. Now it's 100. We have pitch limits in Little League, in high school. We are so cautious of their talent, we are not encouraging them to go on. Today's athlete is bigger, stronger and faster than ever. They should be able to do more, but we don't let them."
COMPLETE GAMES: A ONE-TEAM SNAPSHOT
How have the number of complete games fallen? Here's a look at complete games for the Baltimore Orioles since Earl Weaver was the manager in 1979. So far the O's have two complete games in 2009:
* = strike-shortened season
The quality startThe term has been a part of baseball for over 20 years, and is defined as any start that is at least six innings pitched and no more than three earned runs. We have a generation of pitchers thinking if they go six and keep their team in the game, then they've done their job.
"That's the biggest thing to me," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. "Six innings, that's about 100 pitches. That's where the magic number came from, I think. When I managed in the minor leagues [in the 1970s], when we got a guy to 120 pitches, we would start to watch, but we'd go as high as 140 pitches. But every year since, [the number of pitches] keeps on dropping."
PITCHES PER START
Justin Verlander averages the most pitches per game started, but Ubaldo Jimenez has thrown the most 100-pitch games in 2009 (18):
|Justin Verlander, DET||109.3|
|Ubaldo Jimenez, COL||107.9|
|Jon Lester, BOS||107.8|
|Yovani Gallardo, MIL||107.5|
|Tim Lincecum, SFO||107.2|
|Adam Wainwright, STL||106.9|
|Matt Garza, TAM||106.5|
|Josh Beckett, BOS||106.4|
|Cliff Lee, CLE||106.3|
|Kevin Millwood, TEX||106.0|
|Chad Billingsley, LAD||105.8|
|Felix Hernandez, SEA||105.8|
|A.J. Burnett, NYY||105.8|
|Edwin Jackson, DET||105.4|
|Zack Greinke, KAN||105.4|
Today's young general managerTwenty years ago, nearly 90 percent of all GMs had played in the major leagues. Now there are three out of 30: Philadelphia's Ruben Amaro Jr., the White Sox's Kenny Williams and Billy Beane of the A's. This decade has brought a new breed of GM, one who is highly educated, can run a spreadsheet and has mountains of data to support his theories. "We have a new wave of general managers who are deeply into mathematics, analysis, metrics -- I'm not saying it's wrong -- because that's what they charted in the minor leagues," said Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey. "I don't know the numbers, but the new wave of GMs are the ones who have charted that the chance of injury is, say, greater at 85 pitches than it is at 75. And with every five-pitch increment, there's a 22.8 percent more likely chance that someone gets hurt. With each 10 extra pitches, it goes up by five percent." The new GMs sometimes clash with the old-school manager about how the club should be run. Often, the GM wins. "My GM used to load reams and reams of paper on my desk about that night's game," one former manager said. "Sometimes I'd read it; sometimes I just throw it in the trash. But in the end, if it comes down to him or me, he's usually going to win. And if the discussion is about pitch counts, he is always going to win."
We, the media"What year was it that Pedro Martinez was left in the game against the Yankees in the playoffs?" asked Wakamatsu, referring to the 2003 American League Championship Series when Red Sox manager Grady Little chose to leave Martinez in the game. Martinez lost the lead, the Yankees won in extra innings and knocked the Red Sox out of the playoffs, and Little was fired after the season essentially for leaving a starting pitcher in too long. "After that, the education of the public has changed so much. There was so much public scrutiny over that." Duncan agreed, saying, "If you're a die-hard supporter of a team, or someone who covers the team, what happens when the top pitcher on the team breaks? Everyone looks at the pitch count. The first thing they're going to do is see if there's any possible way that the pitcher was abused. The media is now setting the standards for how many pitches to throw." Hershiser said, "The advent of video, and timeline video, and games on TV, have changed a lot of things. There used to be two or three games a week on TV. Now every game is on TV. Scouting has changed completely, also. The mystery of pitching has gone away."
InjuriesMore pitchers are on the disabled list today than ever before. It's a paradox: The less they throw, the more often they get hurt. Long before 2000, there were cases in which pitchers perhaps threw too much and got hurt, including the young A's staff in the early 1980s (Mike Norris, Rick Langford, et al.), followed by the Mets' young trio of Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen. In 1998, sensational Cubs rookie Kerry Wood won 13 games and had a 20-strikeout game, but he broke down the following spring training and missed the 1999 season. That seemed to start making teams be even more cautious with young pitchers. "It's all about protection now," Beckett said. The Braves did a great job of protecting their pitchers, and winning games, in the 1990s and into this decade. Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine never went on the disabled list in the 1990s for Atlanta. Maddux had 14 120-plus pitch games with the Cubs in 1991-92. He had five with the Braves in 1993, only four the next two years and none by 1996. Surely other teams noticed the success and durability of the Braves' starters, and followed their lead.
So many young pitchers"I'd like to know the average age of the rotations in baseball before 2000," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "It seems to me, back then, we had one guy in his 30s, a couple of guys in their prime at 29 to 31, and only one of the five in his early 20s. And those guys could all throw more than 100 pitches in a game. But now, it seems, we have three of the five in the rotation who are in their young 20s. [Former manager] Paul Richards once explained this to me, and it makes a ton of sense: As a young pitcher, the arm is growing. It is developing strength. It doesn't have the musculature that it's going to have in a few years. That's how you develop arm and elbow strains, even core injuries, because a young body isn't like a mature body, and it is just not as strong as it's going to be."
“La Russa added, "Young guys today rely on stuff. They throw 100 pitches; they don't pitch 100 pitches. They are max effort on every pitch. And in the minor leagues, they're doing whatever they can to get from Double-A to Triple-A, so the stress level is higher. They're getting to the big leagues younger, there is maximum pressure to perform, and because of that, they are letting it fly. That's how young pitchers develop arm injuries and fatigue. In the old days, pitchers spent time in D ball, C ball; they threw 500-600 innings, sometimes 700-800, on lower levels. There was no carrot out there like there is now to move up. Today's young pitchers are firing 85-90 pitches, fatigue sets in, and the next 15-20 they throw, they're still firing. A veteran at 70 pitches might have all kinds of stuff left. Clubs that have a lot of young pitchers are leery of pushing them because they know it's smart not to push them because they are throwing, not pitching." Hershiser said, "If your mechanics are good, you can throw 75 pitches without being taxed. But if your mechanics are not in order [as with some young pitchers], you could be worn out at 35 pitches. The light bulb goes on with a veteran pitcher about how to extend his career beyond injury and time by understanding the game. The biggest point of Greg Maddux's career came when he understood that softer was better, that throwing an 83 mph sinker was better than throwing an 88 mph sinker. As a pitching coach, I'd tell our guys that your best day is not your hardest day. That's a huge lesson to learn for young pitchers." It will take time for young pitchers to learn that. In the meantime, look for the magic number to stay at 100 for a while. But former Orioles pitching coach Mike Flanagan, who won the AL Cy Young in 1979, had an interesting idea on dealing with pitch counts. He had a pitcher who would ask him after virtually every inning, "How many pitches have I thrown?" Finally, Flanagan decided to count every pitch the pitcher threw that day, including every warm-up pitch in the bullpen before the game and every pitch between innings. After six innings, the pitcher came off the field and asked Flanagan, "What am I at?" Flanagan said, "250 pitches." The pitcher never asked again. Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.
Young guys today rely on stuff. They throw 100 pitches; they don't pitch 100 pitches. They are max effort on every pitch. ... They're getting to the big leagues younger, there is maximum pressure to perform, and because of that, they are letting it fly. That's how young pitchers develop arm injuries and fatigue.” -- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa
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