Episode 14: September 3, 2010
In the past month two pitchers have been pulled from games while in the process of throwing a no-hitter. In general, pitchers today don’t throw as many pitches as they used to. What’s the deal with pitch counts? Do they really help keep pitchers healthy? Or do they prevent them from building the endurance they need to have long careers?
Please note: this is not an exact transcription of the episode.
In 1903, New York Giants pitcher "Iron Man" Joe McGinnity pitched both games of a doubleheader *three times* in one month and won all 6 games. In 1904 Jack Chesbro completed 48 games for the Yankees, and Cy Young completed 749 games in his career. Today there are only 5 active players who have pitched even 30 complete games and it's been 10 years since anyone finished 10 in a season. Today's pitchers are a bunch of pansies.
I'm Alex Reisner...
Now, obviously I'm kidding. Today's pitchers are not pansies. There aren't as many complete games today primarily because baseball has changed:
* there are radar guns everywhere so we're more aware of speed, and there's more pressure to throw hard; a lot of pitchers throw over 90 MPH; we don't know how fast Joe McGinnity threw but presumably it was not as fast
* hitters have gotten used to pitches so more pitch types are necessary (eg, slider, splitter) which are rough on the arm
* in the early days of baseball there was more contact, more balls put in play, which meant fewer pitches per game; historians say Christy Mathewson rarely exceeded 80 pitches in a game
* games used to be faster, so pitchers are sitting longer between innings
* strategy has evolved so there are situational pitchers
* though whether they can actually pitch "situationally" remains a question
* outside of the all-time greats like Rivera, Hoffman and Eckersley there haven't been many who've shown consistency
* there is more concern about prolonging pitchers' careers for financial reasons (players are assets)
And that brings us to what has become an important technique in preserving pitcher health: pitch counts. It's become standard in recent years for managers to keep an eye on the number of pitches a pitcher has thrown and decide even before the game starts, when to remove the pitcher. It varies based on the pitcher's health, the time in the season, and the importance of the game, but 100 pitches is generally when you start thinking about ending a pitcher's outing. 110 is OK occasionally and 120 is the beginning of the danger zone.
Since 1988, when pitch-by-pitch data became available, the maximum number of pitches thrown in a single outing each year has declined. Until 1994 it was usually in the 160s, from 1998-2004 it was mostly in the 140s, and in the past 4 years it's been in the 130s outside of Edwin Jackson's 149-pitch no-hitter in June.
Now, just to get the history straight, managing by pitch count isn't as recent as most people think. There has been an awareness of pitch counts going back to the 'teens when Ernie Lanigan published records for the fewest pitches needed to complete a 9-inning game. Christy Mathewson was the leader with 65. The first manager I've heard of to enforce a pitch *limit* was Paul Richards with the Orioles in 1958, who wanted to be careful with a 19 year-old Milt Pappas. But it wasn't until the early 80s that other managers started to enforce pitch limits for their starters. If there's any one thing that started the general use of pitch limits it would probably be the Oakland Athletics pitching staff in the early 80s. In 1980 the A's had an extremely promising young rotation. Rick Langford, Matt Keough, Mike Norris, Steve McCatty, and Brian Kingman were all between the ages of 24 and 28. In three years, from 1980 to 82, under manager Billy Martin, they threw a total of 196 complete games. By the end of '82 the staff was decimated. They all had career-ending arm injuries. Only McCatty was able to pitch a 100-inning season after that, and even his career was over at the age of 31.
So, you'd better believe other teams noticed the destruction of Oakland's great young pitching staff, and pretty soon even Nolan Ryan's pitches were being limited, which, of course, he hated. And it's not just Nolan Ryan that hates it. Fans, players, managers, and journalists all have some pretty strong opinions about how pitch counts are used. For example I got a call this week from Pat Kerrigan in La Crescent, Minnesota who's questioning the way the Twins are managing their pitchers:
... he doesn't allow these pitcher to build up endurance.]
So here we have Gardenhire pulling Kevin Slowey in the middle of a no-hitter (after 106 pitches). A week later, the Rangers pulled Rich Harden after 6 2/3 no-hit innings *against* the Twins (111 pitches). In both cases the no-hitter was lost by the bullpen and the manager was booed. Gardenhire even said *he* would have booed if he were a fan, but as a manager he wouldn't hesitate to make the same decision again.
Now of course fans want to see a no-hitter, but baseball teams are trying to get to the World Series, which means winning games and staying healthy. Both Slowey and Harden were returning from injuries and it seems like common sense that you don't want to go crazy right after an injury. Also, both pitchers are key players on teams with very good chances of making the playoffs, so the need to stay healthy is even greater.
But what about Edwin Jackson's 149 pitch no-hitter two months ago? Well, that was before the All-Star break for a last place team. Even in June the Diamondbacks were pretty clearly out of contention so a crowd-pleasing no-hitter was probably justified. Plus, Jackson is an unusually resilient pitcher. It sounds crazy, but he hasn't even iced his arm in the past 7 years, and his performance since the no-hitter has been, if anything, better.
But for pitchers who aren't Edwin Jackson, in general, how much do pitch counts matter? Does managing by pitch count really prolong pitchers' careers or does it prevent them from building endurance, as Blyleven says? Former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton says that he wishes he had pitched in today's game for a manager who was more concerned about the health of his arm. In two years, starting at age 23 Bouton threw over 500 innings and 23 complete games. By the time he was 26 he couldn't pour a countainer of milk without his arm hurting. But would Bouton really have lasted longer if he had thrown fewer pitches? Obviously we'll never know for sure, but it seems to me that there are other factors besides the number of pitches and innings that could contribute to arm problems:
1. throwing very hard, which, as I mentioned there is a lot of pressure to do,
2. throwing stressful pitches like the slider, especially when you're young
It's well-known that the slider can damage a pitcher's arm, but just about any breaking pitch can be dangerous. In the 70s, Steve Stone was a good pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles. He had a .500 record with a 4.00 ERA and struck out about 100 batters a season. In 1980, at age 32, he decided he'd rather have 1 great year than 5 more good ones so he threw a ton of curveballs. Over half the pitches he threw that year were curveballs. He ended up winning 25 games and the Cy Young award, and he had to retire the next year because of tendinitis.
3. natural body structure and how inherently injury-prone you are
4. training techniques and how they modify your natural body structure
5. pitching mechanics
In addition to the type of pitches you throw, it seems pretty obvious that *how* you throw them can have an effect on your health. I'm far from an expert on mechanics but if you watch videos of Jim Bouton pitching in the early 60s you'll see that his motion is not exactly smooth and easy. He's not quite one of the so-called "max effort" guys like Jake Peavy, but he's more like Peavy than like Randy Johnson or Greg Maddux, and it seems to me that *that* could be the real source of his problem; that even if he had thrown _half_ as many innings each year he would have had a major problem at some point. Maybe he would have lasted a little longer, maybe not.
There's no way yet to quantify pitching mechanics, so we can't do a statistical study, but anecdotal evidence suggests a correlation between "good" mechanics and a long career. Randy Johnson threw *way* more pitches year after year than anyone in baseball and pitched until he was 46 without ever suffering a major injury. I don't think it's a coincidence that most experts consider his mechanics to be pretty close to ideal. Jake Peavy's mechanics are considered quite bad and he's currently recovering from shoulder surgery. Stephen Strasburg's mechanics were also highly criticized and now he's having Tommy John surgery. Other pitchers with exemplary mechanics are Greg Maddux, Nolan Ryan, and Roger Clemens, all of whom had long injury-free careers. Mark Prior, despite what Tom House says, did not have good mechanics and his career was over at the age of 25.
Unfortunately there hasn't yet been a lot of good statistical research to tell us about managing to pitch counts and limiting the innings of young pitchers. Baseball Prospectus invented a measure called Pitcher Abuse Points about 10 years ago and did some studies, but the basis of Pitcher Abuse Points is pretty flawed and I think the results of those studies are very questionable.
But eventually we will have good statistical studies on the short- and long-term effects of pitch counts, and my guess is that they will show that, on average, pitchers last longer and have fewer problems when they throw fewer pitches. On average I'm pretty certain that is true. But even if it is, it doesn't necessarily mean that pitch limits are a good solution. Imagine you have 100 race car drivers and half of them are constantly crashing into walls and driving off the track and messing up their cars and getting hurt and it's only a matter of time until these guys' cars and bodies are so messed up that they can't drive anymore. In that situation, the fewer laps each driver takes, the longer their careers will be. Their laps will be spread out over more time, they might get more time to rest and repair between races... So yeah, on average they'll last longer. But what if, instead of limiting their driving, you could just teach them not to crash? Then they could drive more laps and still have a long career.
Now I don't know how feasible this is with Major League pitchers. I don't know how much you can change a guy's mechanics, even at the age of 20, if he's been pitching since he was 9. And if you can't improve mechanics then maybe pitch limits *are* the way to go. If your delivery is such that every pitch you throw brings you a little closer to pain, and eventually injury, then pitch limits do seem to make sense, even if it's a case of treating the symptoms rather than the disease.
But maybe you can't treat the disease. This is where we need someone who knows more about this than me. I don't know to what extent coaches try to improve pitchers' mechanics once they're in the Majors. I don't know to what extent coaches can even recognize good mechanics. I rely primarily on Chris O'Leary for analysis because I understand his theories and his results always make sense. But Tom House, a former big league relief pitcher and long-time pitching coach, the guy responsible for Mark Prior's delivery, is much more influential. Former Major League reliever and now pitching coach Mike Marshall thinks Tom House has ruined thousands of pitchers' arms, and I'm sure there are guys who don't like what Marshall's doing. So I don't know how much consensus there is on what makes good mechanics, and I don't know to what extent the desire and ability to correct pitching mechanics exists. If anyone listening to this has more insight, please let me know.
Anyway, I think there's something kind of subtle going on here. A lot of fans don't like pitch counts. But I think that's mostly because pitch counts are the device by which managers try to keep their pitchers healthy. I think the thing we actually don't like is the increasingly short outings. If there was a different method for limiting pitchers' use, we'd hate *that* just as much. The logic of pitch limits is almost irrefutable: all other things being equal, fewer pitches means less chance of overexertion. But for whatever reason, we don't like it. We want no-hitters. We want to see a horse go out to the mound inning after inning and finish the damn game.
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