Pitch counts: Calculated risks

Pitch counts are a topic of hot debate in the big leagues with the line usually drawn between new age and old school.

Originally Published: May 10, 2004
By Alan Schwarz | Special to ESPN.com

The strict use of pitch counts, the practice of removing an otherwise strong pitcher to ward off possible (some say inevitable) arm trouble, has become one of the most divisive issues in baseball today. Older management who remember the days of 160-pitch complete games in four-man rotations duel with younger executives wanting to minimize asset risk. Meanwhile, fans watch the pitch counts of young pitchers carefully with an increasing sense of dread as they inch higher and higher, like a guillotine.

While Jayson Stark tackles the hot-button issue of when a manager should take his starter out, several other angles to the pitch-count controversy remain -- the minor leagues, the history of pitch counts, sabermetrics and more:

COUNTING COUNTS
Times when a starter went over a certain pitch limit. From STATS Inc.:
Year 120 + 140 + Highest
1998 475 21 152 (Livan Hernandez)
1999 414 11 153 (Pedro Astacio)
2000 400 6 148 (Ron Villone)
2001 196 2 147 (Randy Johnson)
2002 193 1 150 (Randy Johnson)
2003 228 2 141 (Kerry Wood)

Pitch counts in the minors
In a poll of executives I conducted recently, few questions got such mixed response than the one regarding pitch counts. Asked, "Your top pitching prospect just threw 126 pitches in Double-A -- how do you feel?", 22 percent of front-office personnel said they'd have no objections, 38 percent said they'd all but have an aneurysm, and 40 percent said they fell somewhere in the middle. You can't get much more mixed than that.

Mike Mussina
Mike Mussina is second in the American League with 812 pitches thrown this season.

"It depends on the circumstances and how tough the 126 were," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "I don't think 126 is a lot. It depends on how many days' rest, injury history, body type, delivery, whether he had a no-hitter intact. You can't blanket it."

Many organizations have developed staggered pitch limits at each minor league level, low at first and gradually increasing as the pitcher reaches the major leagues. No club takes the same approach: Many make distinctions between high school and college signees, with 21-year-olds given more slack; Montreal limits counts for three-start stretches; Atlanta has one of the more elaborate programs, assigning limits based on pitchers' years of professional experience rather than level. (One club refused to disclose its limits, fearing a lawsuit should a pitcher exceed them even once.)

Meanwhile, the Angels have bucked the trend by having no hard limits. "It's not like we'll let them go 150 and not care, but we encourage complete games," farm director Tony Reagins says. "If a guy is up 1-0 in the eighth at 100 pitches, we're not going to take him out. We'll let him try for the complete game." If the pitcher reached 120, Reagins says, he'd probably be yanked.

Jim Duquette, whose Mets blew out their promising Wilson-Pulsipher-Isringhausen threesome a decade ago, doesn't want to take any chances. He checks managers' reports every day for starters' pitch counts. "We don't want them going over it at all," he says. "Maybe there's an exception when it's 3-and-2 and a guy fouls a few off you don't take him out. But we give them a range for a reason. Guys get ticked off when they've thrown 90 pitches and get relieved in the fifth. Our response is you should go well into the sixth on 90 pitches."

What if a manager goes over the limit? "My first phone call is to hear his thought process," Duquette says. "The next time I wouldn't care what his answer was."

This is a relatively new phenomenon. Most veteran pitchers don't recall being on any pitch limit in the minor leagues. Innings in a season, perhaps, but never pitch limits for one game. Says Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, "I was watching a game during the '81 strike, and saw an A-ball pitcher throw 205 pitches. I never heard from him again."

Red Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace says he remembers hearing about pitch counts in the early '80s -- right when the cost of signing amateur pitchers in the draft began to skyrocket. Steve Rogers, a workhorse for the Expos in the 1970s who now works for the Players Association, phrases the financial consideration this way: "When I was in the game, what did they have invested in you? Two hundred grand, tops? The investment has dictated that they take care of their talent."

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Innings vs. pitches
Speaking of history, old-timers like to regale us with stories of how they threw 250 pitches on 110-degree days without a sweat. (This is the pitcher's equivalent of grandparents trekking to school in 12-foot snowdrifts and doing homework on the backs of shovels.) But were yesteryear's pitchers as hearty as they claim to be? Pitchers certainly don't throw as many innings as they once did -- none has reached 300 since Steve Carlton's 304 for the 1980 Phillies -- but innings are not quite what they once were.

First, it takes far more pitches to dispense with today's hitters. Data on old-time pitch counts is hard to find, but in 1932, Baseball Magazine reported that the average nine-inning game saw about 115 pitches. Today it's in the high 150s, one-third higher than before. That means that what got you through nine innings back then now only gets you into the seventh.

Also, evidence suggests that pitchers once were able to save their strength during games by easing up on weaker hitters. Christy Mathewson, Baseball Magazine wrote in 1913, "takes things comfortably where he can, not exerting himself, once he has the game well in hand, pitching only enough to win, and using the minimum amount of strength ... Matty's system has been generally incorporated in the repertoire of almost every other progressive twirler in the game."

As baseball has progressed through the generations, lineups have gotten more consistently strong, with fewer places to let up. Also, hitters' gradual ability to drive pitches the opposite way out of smaller ballparks has taken away the easier option of putting balls over the outside of the plate and letting the field dimensions play defense.

Maddux
Maddux

Follow my lead
Future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, as a 22-year-old Cub in 1988, threw 167 pitches in an 11-inning loss to the Cardinals. But he soon learned to dispatch with hitters so quickly, getting at-bats over with in one or two pitches, that he never had to run up such high counts again.

The example Maddux set throughout the 1990s is now being followed even by young strikeout pitchers, who are responding to baseball's current offensive emphasis on taking pitches by learning to be as efficient as possible.

"I'm big on early count strikes," Marlins right-hander Josh Beckett says. "Just get outs early. That's the only way to go deeper into games."

Crunch the numbers, not the arms
It was only a matter of time before the sabermetric community turned its attention to pitch counts. One of the most thorough and interesting statistical studies belongs to Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner of Baseball Prospectus, who use a system they call Pitcher Abuse Points. "It's not the number of pitches thrown that gets guys into trouble -- it's the number of pitches thrown tired," Jazayerli says.

Rather than looking at average pitches per start -- which would hide 130-pitch outings if they were followed by 70-pitch ones -- Pitcher Abuse Points assigns a quickly increasing number to each pitch count above 100. (A start of 110 pitches gets 1000, 120 pitches 8000, and so on. Last year's top five in Pitcher Abuse Points per start were Kerry Wood, Javier Vazquez, Mark Prior, Mark Redman and Livan Hernandez.) What makes their system significant is that Jazayerli and Woolner discovered a correlation between starts above 100 pitches, particularly those above 120, and both decreased short-term effectiveness and increased chance of long-term serious injury.

Duncan says he has read studies like these. "I believe in a lot of them," he says. "You've got to use your common sense and be informed."

Does the Braves' Leo Mazzone agree? Not exactly, evidencing how split older coaches remain toward using pitch counts at all. "I don't want to see them," says the most successful pitching coach of his generation. "My eyes are gonna tell me more than any (expletive) number."

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His first book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," will be published by St. Martin's Press in July.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer for Baseball America. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," can be ordered on his website, www.alanschwarz.com.

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