Commentary

The pitchers who changed baseball

High pitch counts, injuries, big defeats … cases that changed the sport

Originally Published: July 28, 2009
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com

Back in 1920, Leon Cadore of the Brooklyn Robins and Joe Oeschger of the Boston Braves battled to a 26-inning, 1-1 tie. It's been said neither was ever the same after that.

In 1955, Pittsburgh's Vern Law pitched 18 innings. Hey, he didn't allow a run after the fourth.

Nolan Ryan once pitched 13 innings, walked 10 batters and struck out 19. By one estimate, he might have thrown 240 pitches.

Unfortunately, we have complete pitch-count data going back only to 1988, so we don't really know how many pitches Cadore threw in that 1920 game or how many Ryan threw in 1974, when he pitched 332 innings, struck out 367 and walked 202. Suffice it to say, Ryan was rather unusual.

Baseball-Reference.com has some data from Dodgers games in the late '50s and early '60s, and we know Stan Williams once pitched 11 innings, walked 12, struck out 11 and threw 207 pitches. We know Sandy Koufax beat the Cubs 3-2 with a 13-inning complete game in 1961, striking out 15 and throwing 205 pitches. But for the most part, pitch counts were ignored for much of baseball history, with injured young arms chalked up as the price of the sport.

As as Tim Kurkjian outlines, injuries weren't the only reason we got to the "magic number" of 100 pitches. Here are some famous cases of high pitch counts, however, that helped create the way the game is now managed. (Pitch data from Baseball-Reference.com.)

Gary Nolan, Wayne Simpson and Don Gullett

[+] EnlargeGary Nolan
Diamond Images/Getty ImagesGary Nolan, pitching during his 1967 rookie season with the Reds.
In the late '60s, the Cincinnati Reds drafted three gifted high schoolers. Considering their brilliance at young ages, if the three had stayed healthy, the Big Red Machine might have won four or five World Series in the '70s instead of just two.

The first of these three was Nolan, the team's first-round pick in 1966. He debuted in the majors in 1967, still just 18 years old, and had one of the greatest teenage seasons in baseball history, going 14-8 with a 2.58 ERA and leading the National League with 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings.

We don't have pitch-count data from back then, but using an estimator created by analyst Tom Tango, we can approximate Nolan's rookie pitch counts. We get a season high of 141, done twice -- including his second start April 20, when he threw a complete game with 12 strikeouts. He exceeded 130 two other times, but they came back to back in a four-start stretch in late May/early June, when he threw roughly 131, 131, 125 and 127 pitches. For the season, he averaged about 110 pitches per start.

Nolan would make 22 starts in 1968 and 15 in 1969 (pitching well both seasons), and then went 45-27 with a 2.90 ERA in 97 starts from 1970 through 1972. The workload finally caught up to him, as he missed almost all of the '73 and '74 seasons. He did return to win 30 games for the Reds' World Series champions in '75 and '76, surviving as a control specialist. He threw his last pitch in 1977, when he was not yet 30 years old.

Simpson was the team's first pick in 1967 and arrived in the rotation in 1970 at 21 years old. He had an electric first half as he went 13-1 with a 2.69 ERA and nine complete games in 20 starts. And that was pretty much it -- for his career. He won just one more game that year, ending the season on the disabled list as the Reds lost the World Series. Simpson's estimated high pitch count was 153, in a 3-1 complete-game win over the Phillies on June 12, in which he allowed eight hits, walked five and struck out 11. That kicked off a six-start stretch of 153, 110, 135, 135, 124 and 124 estimated pitches.

With Simpson, it's pretty easy to draw the line on when his arm broke down. After the 124-pitch outing July 5 that pushed his record to 13-1, he started on three days' rest and lasted 2.2 innings. He then started on two days' rest and gave up five runs in 5.2 innings. After a complete-game loss July 17, he then started again on three days' rest. He made only four more starts that season. Simpson finished with 36 career victories.

Gullett, the team's top pick in 1969, also arrived in 1970, as a hard-throwing 19-year-old lefty. He pitched 77 innings that season, mostly in relief, but in 1970, he went 16-6 with a 2.65 ERA in 31 starts. Perhaps considering Simpson's health problems from the year before, Gullett was handled more carefully, as he had just four complete games (he also had better control). He did have a 147-pitch, 10-inning effort in May but topped 120 pitches just two other times and averaged about 102 for the season.

After pitching 217.2 innings in 1971, Gullett pitched 134.2 innings in 1972. He was healthy in '72 and '73 (228.1 and 243 innings, respectively), and then battled arm problems the rest of his career. When healthy, he was always good -- he had a 109-50 career record (.686 winning percentage) and a 3.11 ERA. But rotator cuff problems did him in, and he made his last pitch for the Yankees in 1978 at the age of 27.

Bill James has written that Larry Shepard, the Reds' pitching coach at the time, was criticized for his handling of the three young pitchers. Perhaps not coincidentally, manager Sparky Anderson eventually became known as "Captain Hook" for his quick moves to the bullpen.

Mark Fidrych

Perhaps the most famous case of a young pitcher burning brightly, Fidrych went 19-9, led the American League in ERA and became a national phenomenon as a 21-year-old rookie with the Tigers in 1976. Manager Ralph Houk also had him complete 24 of his 29 starts (he went at least 11 innings four times), and he threw nearly 200 innings from mid-May until the end of August. But how high were his pitch counts? Using the Tango formula, the start-by-start estimates: 109, 112, 176, 150, 122, 113, 128, 126, 115, 125, 114, 150, 130, 81, 126, 106, 119, 129, 114, 148, 109, 147, 87, 152, 125, 69, 120, 116, 114.

Now, in all likelihood, Fidrych did not throw that many pitchers. He didn't walk many, didn't strike out many and induced a lot of quick at-bats, so the formula might slightly overestimate his totals. Nonetheless, he racked up the innings and started 13 times on three days' rest, and by 1977 his shoulder had turned to spaghetti.

Mike Norris

The 1979 A's were a dreadful ballclub nobody watched or cared about. Norris was a nondescript 24-year-old right-hander with a 4.80 ERA that season. In came manager Billy Martin in 1980, with a reputation of turning teams (and pitching staffs) around. Norris went 22-9 with a 2.53 ERA, pitched 284 innings and finished second in the Cy Young voting. Tango's formula estimates Norris threw 140-plus pitches 10 times, including 180 in a 14-inning complete game win over Baltimore on June 11. (He was held to 144 pitches the next game.) Perhaps the most egregious usage came in his penultimate start Sept. 26, in a meaningless game against the Brewers. Norris led 7-5 entering the ninth but was left in to give up five more runs (Ben Oglivie hit an inside-the-park grand slam, followed by a Gorman Thomas home run) and seven hits (he allowed 17 in the game).

Norris never again matched his 1980 numbers and was done by 1983 (other than a brief return to the majors in 1990). The future arm problems of rotation mates Rick Langford (28 complete games in 1980) and Steve McCatty also brought attention to how Martin handled his pitchers.

Al Leiter

In 1989, Leiter was a promising 23-year-old lefty with the Yankees. He'd compiled a 3.92 ERA in 14 starts in 1988 and began '89 in the Yankees' rotation. In his second start, April 14 against the Twins, he pitched eight innings and got the win. He struck out 10. And walked nine. He threw 163 pitches, finally getting removed in the top of the ninth. Two starts later (he struck out just three batters in those two starts), he was traded to Toronto, where he made one start, got injured and didn't start in the majors again until 1993. Leiter's 163 pitches are the seventh-most in a game since 1988.

Orel Hershiser

Baseball-Reference.com's pitch-count data goes back to 1988. In that span, the most pitches in one game belongs to Tim Wakefield, who threw 172 in a 1993 start for the Pirates. Tied with another Wakefield start at No. 2 is Hershiser with 169. In the final game of the 1989 season, with the 76-83 Dodgers playing at the 63-96 Braves before 4,840 rain-soaked fans, Hershiser pitched 11 innings. The game story the next day in the Los Angeles Times did mention Hershiser's pitch count (the paper had it as 161 pitches) but stressed nothing unusual about the outing and had no quotes from Hershiser or Lasorda about it. Hershiser recently told Kurkjian that he wanted to finish 15-15. "I stayed in that whole game because I was one game under .500 coming in, and I didn't want to finish with a losing record," Hershiser said. "I told [Dodgers manager] Tommy [Lasorda], 'I'm not coming out of this game. I have to win.' I knew I was going to have to have surgery after the season. That game wasn't the reason."

Anyway, the Oct. 3 edition of the Times had a season-in-review column and made the prophetic citation that Hershiser would begin the 1990 season having never missed a start in his career -- a string of 191 starts. Four starts into 1990 he tore his rotator cuff. He would return in 1991 and fashion a nice career, but he was never again the dominant starter he was in the late '80s.

Cal Eldred

Eldred was 25 when he led the NL in innings pitched and batters faced with the Brewers in 1993, but it was his first full season in the majors. He had gone 11-2 with a 1.79 ERA in 14 starts in '92 and then carried Milwaukee's staff in '93. He topped 130 pitches 10 times, averaged 117 pitches per start and had one stretch of 144, 149, 120, 154, 106, 130, 127. The next season saw more of the same, including a nine-start stretch in May and June during which he averaged 125 pitches. He battled arm problems the rest of his career.

David Cone

Cone had led the majors by averaging 123 pitches per start in 1995, so it wasn't surprising that Yankees manager Buck Showalter had a long leash with Cone in the deciding Game 5 of the Division Series. What was surprising was that Cone was left in for 147 pitches (tied for the most pitches by a starter in any postseason game since 1988). The 147th pitch was ball four to Doug Strange with the bases loaded in the eighth inning -- Cone's third walk of the inning -- and forced in the tying run. When the Mariners won in the 11th inning, Showalter was out of a job. Leave in your ace in a tough spot or go to your bullpen? In big postseason games, the managers now almost always go to the 'pen.

Kerry Wood and Mark Prior

Wood and Prior once were dubbed "Chicago Heat" by Sports Illustrated, but Cubs fans now blame Dusty Baker for their demise. Analysts can argue the blame, but there's no denying the subsequent injuries to Wood and Prior brought even more attention to the handling of young starters.

Before Baker took over the Cubs, however, Jim Riggleman managed Wood. In Wood's rookie season in 1998, he turned 21 years old and made 12 starts of 120-plus pitches. On Aug. 26, he threw 133 pitches in a 9-2 Cubs victory. He missed all of September, returned for one playoff start and then blew out his elbow in spring training 1999. Luckily, thanks to the marvels of modern medicine, Wood returned in 2000, still possessing his blazing fastball.

Wood was still healthy in 2003, starting 32 games and leading the NL in strikeouts. The Cubs battled for a playoff spot that year -- they eventually won the division by one game -- so every contest was critical. In Wood's final six starts, he threw 125, 120, 122, 114, 125 and 122 pitches. In four playoff starts, he threw 124, 117, 109 and 112 pitches. He was 26 years old, the Cubs were trying to win a World Series and the usage, while heavy, wasn't necessarily excessive. He missed time in 2004 with a sore triceps, has battled arm problems since and now pitches in relief.

[+] EnlargeMark Prior
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesMark Prior in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS.

In 2003, Prior was in his first full season in the majors, was 22 years old (he turned 23 in September) and dominated, with a 2.43 ERA and 10.4 K's per nine innings. While he walked only 50 batters in 211.1 innings, he did throw a lot of pitches -- his 113 per start led the majors (Wood was No. 2). In September, with the Cubs again fighting for the NL Central crown and fighting to win a World Series for the first time in nearly 100 years, here's how Baker used Prior:

Sept. 1: 131 pitches, W, 7-0, 8 IP (STL)
Sept. 6: 129 pitches, W, 8-4, 7 IP (MIL)
Sept. 11: 109 pitches, L, 2-3, 5.2 IP (MON)
Sept. 16: 124 pitches, W, 3-2, 8.2 IP (NYM)
Sept. 21: 131 pitches, W, 4-1, 7.2 IP (PIT)
Sept. 27: 133 pitches, W, 4-2, 6.2 IP (PIT)

Prior fanned 37 over those final three starts. Most of the games were close, the team's bullpen wasn't great (4.17 season ERA) and the Cubs needed to win every game. What would you have done?

Prior threw 133 pitches in his first playoff start, a complete game, with the Cubs winning 3-1. He threw 116 pitches in Game 2 of the NLCS, staying in for seven innings even though the Cubs led 11-0 after five. In Game 6, he threw 119 pitches. The Cubs led 3-0 through seven innings, and you know what happened from there. Prior missed the first two months of 2004 with an Achilles tendon injury and a sore elbow. He returned in June and pitched six shutout innings in his first start, made 20 more starts that season and made 27 in 2005 (leading the NL in K's per nine innings).

Did the heavy workload of 2003 lead to his arm problems? It's unfair to suggest a direct correlation, but the speculation over the demise of a talented young pitcher will remain.

Pedro Martinez

The scene: Yankee Stadium, Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. Pedro Martinez, the AL's best pitcher (he led the AL in ERA and K's per nine innings that year), was desperately trying to hold on to Boston's 5-2 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning. Of course, you know manager Grady Little left Pedro in, the lead vanished and the Yankees won the game in extra innings. You might know Pedro threw 123 pitches. You might also know that during the regular season, Pedro had allowed a .208 opponents' batting average on pitches 1 through 100, but a .298 average after pitch 100. You know Little was fired, and his handling of Martinez was undoubtedly the major factor.

But here's what you might not know: That outing drastically changed how pitchers have been managed in the playoffs. In the five postseasons from 1998 to 2002, there were 34 games in which a starter threw 120-plus pitches. In the five postseasons from 2004 to 2008, there were two instances of a starter throwing 120-plus pitches (for the record: Jon Lieber of the Yankees and Jason Marquis of the Cardinals, both in 2004).

Martinez and Little changed the game of baseball. Managers, whether in fear of losing their jobs or fear of criticism or fear of seeing their starting pitchers throw 120 pitches, now manage the game differently than they did just a few years ago.

David Schoenfield is a senior editor for ESPN.com.

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