Do pitch counts do more harm than good?

“Baseball is a better game for the fans when you have two starting pitchers engaged in a duel, rather than each pitching five innings and turning it over to a long series of interchangeable relievers.” – Bill James

I was watching an interview the other day with Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins.  He was talking about his workload as a starting pitcher.  Reminiscing about the good old days, Jenkins opined about the 4-man rotation and innings and pitch limits.  Being the ace of the Cubs staff,  Jenkins was slotted to pitch against the other team’s ace pitcher – say, a Bob Gibson of the rival St. Louis Cardinals – at every opportunity.  For home games, Jenkins would always pitch the marquee matchup on Fridays and would then pitch the following Tuesday. However, if the other team’s rotation shook out so that their ace was pitching on Sunday, well, Jenkins would pitch on the Sunday too – 3 times in one week.

It didn’t stop there.  In Jenkins’ day, he would make 40 starts easy.  Of those 40 starts, typically 75%, or 30 of them, he would complete.  Because he was expected to.  He wasn’t getting pulled in the 5th inning because he had pitched 2 days prior and he CERTAINLY wasn’t getting pulled from the game because he had reached the magic number of 100 pitches.  Of course he was also throwing his side bullpen sessions on his off days.  I was left incredulous.

Certainly Jenkins must have been on the DL with arm ailments throughout his entire career!  Based on the way the game is played today, Fergie would have been good for a minimum of 2 reconstructive elbow surgeries as well as a frayed labrum and torn rotator cuff.  When I looked at the numbers, this was not the case. In his 17 seasons as a fixture of an MLB club’s starting rotation, Jenkins started 29 games or more 16 times.  He pitched more than 200 innings 13 times.  He pitched more than 300 innings 5 times. 

Fergie Jenkins’ career stats

There are some that would argue that Jenkins was a control pitcher and because of that fact he didn’t put a lot of stress on his arm. That’s all well and good. Let’s look then at his contemporary and archrival, Bob Gibson – a power pitcher in every sense of the word.

Gibson had a hard fastball and the hardest and perhaps best slider ever to have been pitched in Major League Baseball.  If you don’t know, the slider puts an extraordinary amount of stress on a pitcher’s arm.  Gibson didn’t start as many games as Jenkins but was good for approximately 35-36 starts per season.  In his prime, Gibson would complete over 82% of his starts.  Like Jenkins, he was durable and started at least 29 games 11 times and pitched over 200 innings 12 times. Like Jenkins – based on the way the game is played today – Gibson would have been good for a minimum of 2 reconstructive elbow surgeries as well as a frayed labrum and torn rotator cuff.  And the way he threw that slider… I am surprised his arm didn’t come clean off or shatter into thousands of pieces. Again, like Jenkins, Gibson would also throw his side sessions in the bullpen on his off days.

Bob Gibson’s career stats

With the information above, you can imagine how I am surprised at the latest news on Stephen Strasburg.  The young phenom of the Washington Nationals was placed on the 15-day DL with inflammation in his shoulder and will miss a minimum of 3 starts.  Now, Strasburg is a power pitcher in every sense of the word, so it only makes sense that he was bound to break down sooner or later.

Or does it?

Strasburg has been handled with “kid gloves” every since his college days.  In college, Strasburg only had to pitch on Friday nights with 6 days off in between.  Not only that, but he was on a pitch count in those starts to limit the wear and tear on his arm – and he should thank his lucky stars too.  Often times college pitchers are forced to throw 140, 150 and even 160 pitches in a game.  Sometimes on 1 – 2  days rest.

Since 1988 there has been a clear downward trend in the number of pitches that managers have allowed their starting pitchers to throw. The maximum pitches thrown in a game declined from highs in the 160s and 170s in the 1980s and 1990s to highs in the 130s in the 2000s. In 2010, Arizona pitcher Edwin Jackson threw 149 pitches in a no-hit game, which was only the third time in the 2000s that a pitcher had thrown that many pitches. In the 1990s, that load was met or surpassed at least 49 times.

Despite the recent growth in the popularity of using pitch-count limits to protect pitchers, I have been unable to find any studies pertaining to the efficacy of setting pitch limits to regulate effectiveness and prevent injuries among major-league pitchers. While it is intuitive that limiting use ought to prevent fatigue that can dampen future performance and result in injury, it is also possible that higher pitch counts may enhance durability, which might improve stamina and performance.

It is my opinion that the spate of injuries to young pitchers is due to their being handled with “kid gloves.”  When pitchers are given set pitch counts, innings limits and skipped starts, franchises are doing a disservice to the pitcher.  The reason for this is that they aren’t getting enough reps (pitches) to strengthen their arms.  A guy like Stephen Strasburg may be able to throw 100mph but he won’t be able to do it on a regular basis because he hasn’t had a chance to build it up.  Arm strength comes from – surprisingly enough – throwing.  Long toss. Bullpen sessions.  If you give a pitcher too much rest, his arm doesn’t get a chance to get strong enough to be able to handle a starting pitcher’s workload.

For example, let’s say you buy a gym membership and hit up the gym once ever 5 days.  You’re not going to get the same results as when you hit it up once every other day or once every 2 days are you? The same can be said about pitching.  This isn’t a perfect correlation because if one were to throw 120 pitches every 2 days they are going to have some serious problems, but the commonality is there.

That being said, I do believe there is some merit in pitch counts as it applies to young kids.   I spoke with Eric Cressey of Cressey Performance (where Tim Collins trains) and in regards to pitch counts he says:

I think there is merit.  Young kids absolutely should be limited, as some are still skeletally immature and haven’t had time to build up the strength, stability, and flexibility to endure high inning counts.  Mechanics change as kids fatigue, and most coaches need something to keep them honest.

Plus, a lot of them still haven’t gotten their mechanics optimized with years of repeated deliveries in a consistent fashion.  You don’t optimize motor control when there is considerable fatigue.  Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and other guys like that are durable in part because they’re consistent with their mechanics.  Young pitchers just don’t have that.

I agree, especially with junior players and pitchers who may not have the proper cardio and arm strength. Once their mechanics change during the game then the risk for injury is increased.  However, in my mind, the practice of babying a  player once they are in their early 20s at the major league level has diminishing returns and hinders their development as they won’t get a chance to stretch themselves out.

Strasburg has been shut down at the 109 inning mark (minors and majors combined) this season. That’s the same amount as the total number of innings he’s pitched in his entire college career.  Many are saying that it was inevitable that Strasburg would become injured after such a sharp increase in his workload.

Maybe not.

There was a similar case of a hot shot pitcher who was drafted by the Blue Jays.  Except he wasn’t even a pitcher.  His name was Dave Stieb.  Originally an outfielder, Stieb dabbled in pitching in college – throwing a grand total of 17.2 innings.   He was drafted in 1978 and was converted to a pitcher, throwing 26 innings in the minor leagues.  The following season his workload increased from 26 innings to 231 (minors and majors combined) at the age of 21.  He might not have been skeletally mature but he went on to throw 200+ innings in 6 of the next 7 seasons.  Stieb also threw a slider as violent as Strasburg’s or Gibson’s.

Dave Stieb’s career stats

Strasburg has been pitching his entire life and Stieb essentially throws 231 innings in his first season of being a full time pitcher, ever.  Just a few missed starts in 1981 for Stieb.

Is it just a case of a softer new-generation of pitchers?  Are players like Strasburg and his ilk simply scoring high on the “wuss” factor?  Let’s use the modern-day example of pitcher durability from today’s current generation, built in the same mould as Fergie Jenkins, Bob Gibson & Dave Stieb: Roy Halladay.

 

Roy Halladay has never been on the DL with an injury as a result of his actual pitching.  If it weren’t for line drives breaking his leg or his appendix bursting, he’d be good for 200+ innings pitched every single season.  He’s only had tenderness in his forearm due to throwing so many cutters.  Yes, he is on a pitch count but he is allowed to throw more pitches per game than any other pitcher not managed by Dusty Baker or AJ Hinch.  And his off-days are not spent lounging around.  His workouts are the stuff of legend.

Halladay is far and away the league leader in complete games over the past 10 seasons and would be in innings pitched if it weren’t for those unforunate incidents in 2004 and 2005.  He even had a Gibson-esque 36 starts in 2003 when the Blue Jays experimented with a 4-man rotation and Halladay was gunning for the Cy Young award. At the time of this post, Halladay has gone at least 6 innnings in last 50 road starts, longest streak by any pitcher since Walter Johnson (1911-1915).

Again, Halladay has never hit the DL as a result of his extraordinary workload.  He’s not the only pitcher to steer clear of the DL on a regular basis despite a high pitch load.  Randy Johnson (before he became a 45 year old fossil chasing 300 wins), Roy Oswalt, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander (who regularly pitches 125+ pitches in games while featuring a 100mph fastball) and CC Sabathia are other great examples of throwback-style pitchers who pitch late into games without shattering their arms.

When it comes to pitching on 3 days rest, CC Sabathia stands as a shining beacon in the night for those who wish to see a return to the 4-man rotation.  Near the conclusion of the 2008 season, Sabathia made his last 4 starts on 3 days rest.

“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal going on three days’ rest,” Sabathia said. “Everybody made such a big deal of it last year.

“When healthy, I think anybody is able to do it.”

In his final 3 regular season games on short rest in 2008 he went 2-1 with an 0.83 ERA.  But was there anything in those starts that could be used to suggest a foreshadowing of problems to come in the future? The short answer is no.  In CC’s career pitching on 3 days rest, his numbers improve in every category: ERA: 1.01 to 3.66, k/bb: 4.33 to 2.77, k/9: 8.8 to 7.4, WHIP 0.825 to 1.218, OPS against: .413 to .684.  It’s safe to say he has been spectacular on 3 days rest with 2 caveats: small sample size (4 games) and an unusually low BAbip (.239 to .291).  You can see for yourself here.

If you are not satisfied with this flawed example, you would be well served to view this powerpoint slide presentation by two gentleman much smarter than I.  Using a very large sample size (all performances of starting pitchers from 1988-2009), they came to the conclusion that days of rest have little impact on performance.  Another caveat:  given that few pitchers in the sample pitched after less than three days of rest, the results should not be extrapolated and applied to shorter rest periods such as 2 days or 1 day.

True, Sabathia is a horse and as we know not all mean are created equal.  Some pitchers can’t handle that type of workload and are better suited to a bullpen role a la Dennis Eckersley.

At the end of the day, to prevent pitcher injuries, I am of the belief that the kids need to “man up” like Nolan Ryan and go deep into games.  Work hard.  Play plenty of long toss.  Throw the damn ball and work on your conditioning!

Nolan Ryan is not impressed with your pitch counts.

Nolan Ryan once threw 259 pitches in a 15-inning game in 1974. He pitched 13 of those 15 innings and he loved it.

It comes as no surprise that Nolan Ryan is leading the charge to do away with pitch counts.  Ryan has outlawed the use of the pitch count in determining how long a pitcher stays in the game throughout the Rangers organization in regards to starting pitchers.  He has, however, introduced a year-round fitness program for the starting pitchers in order to “establish a foundation” for them.

Ryan said he “had to develop stamina because my intent was to pitch a lot of innings” and that he wants his pitchers to do the same.  He is trying to change the culture in the organization and has passed on this message to pitching coach Mike Maddux.  Says Maddux:

“You don’t need a pitch count to know when your day is done. The hitters will let you know that.  This is a mental thing we have to overcome. We have to change the attitude of the starters to want to go deep and believe they can.”

Of course the elephant in the room is player contracts and the amount of money that each organization has invested in their starting staff.  Gaudy contracts for starting pitchers are the whole driving force behind pitch counts, isn’t it? It’s important to keep pitchers off the DL at any cost because at no point in time have the financial stakes ever been higher.  However, If more team presidents like Nolan Ryan seek to get the highest return on their investment through the banishment of pitch counts, there will be a paradigm shift in baseball.  Despite that fact that having Nolan Ryan and his reputation behind the effort lends tremendous credibility to the concept, we need to know if his system works first.  If the Rangers’ starters remain durable and pitch significantly more innings over an extended time – that’s how results will be gauged.  It will take years to know if the experiment will work or not, but I am confident it will.  We will be back to the days of pitching duels between starting pitchers that last 9 innings.

Written By

has written for Mopupduty.com since 2006. Follow Callum on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram (@callumhughson)

  • All this pitch count mumbo jumbo is a serious pet peeve of mine. Great post and here’s hoping Nolan Ryan can change some minds about how pitchers should be handled.

  • mathesond

    Were Gibson, Jenkins, et al. representative of pitchers of their age, or were they unusually durable? Have any stuidies been done to show whether a high proportion of pitchers in the 60s, 70s etc. who threw a ton of innings suffered career ending injuries before they could be fully established as stars?

  • Greg W

    I would suggest ‘Baseball, Behinds the Numbers’ by baseball prospectus. And think of poor Kevin Appier when you write articles like this.

    Personally, I think 4-man rotation, 100-120 pitches, and lots of long toss inbetween. Its not about the number of pitches, it is, as alluded to with Halladay, the breakdown in the pitching motion due to tiredness.

  • L.A. TARONE

    I’m old enough to have watched baseball during the Jenkins-Gibson era and they were NOT unusual. Sure, they were better than most other guys, but pitchers such as Marichal, Seaver, Blyleven, Carlton, Jim Perry, Gaylord Perry, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Vern Law, Catfish Hunter, routinely threw 250-plus innings per year. And I can’t tell you how many pitches they threw per game because no one counted them. This pitch count nonsense is destroying pitching and seriously harming baseball. Just from the “common sense” stand point, when you yank a pitcher in the 6th inning and go to the pen, by definition, you’re going to a lesser pitcher — or that reliever would be a starter! This “kid gloves” BS will destroy Strassberg, just as Joe Girardi’s treatment of Joba Chamberlain (starting rotation but 3 IPs??!!!!) has messed him up to the point, I believe, of no return. Let them pitch! Who cares how many pitches they throw. The average guy’s got a career of five years of so; what are they saving his arm for? This stupidity has made watching baseball tougher and tougher — and I have loved it and played it since I was about seven years old. Give me four man rotations and “iron men” like Marichal, Gibson and Seaver and I’ll beat your “pitch count limited” staff over the course of a season. I really hope Nolan Ryan can restore some sanity to pitching.

    • Ken

      Couldn’t agree more. Tonight the Reds pulled their starter after seven innings because he had trhown 98 pitches – he was pitching a one hitter and had struck out 10 batters! If a manager had tried that stunt in the “golden days” he’d have been lead away in handcuffs – btw, the Reds bullpen prompltly gave up 4 runs in the 8th inning.

      As you state, baseball is getting harder and harder to watch…

  • Alex Filides

    Finally, someone with half a brain that knows something about pitching. Great article!

  • earl weaver

    I think pitch counts may be a bit overrated with certain pitchers, but this article really misses the point completely. It is not really about usage with these pitchers mentioned, instead it’s more about pitching mechanics.
    Yes, Nolan Ryan pitched a ton of innings and threw lots of pitches, but he was able to do so because he had fantastic mechanics. Strasburg does not, check out Chris O’Leary’s work on studying pitching mechanics and how certain flaws in timing or the delivery (i.e. the Inverted W) can lead to specific injuries (i.e. ulna nerve problems.
    Roy Halladay can pitch 250 innings a year because his mechanics are great and put less strain on his arm, not because he throws lots of pitches! Pitchers like Wainwright, Strasburg, or Prior were like ticking time bombs, and yes, a pitch count helps these guys but really only delays the inevitable – an arm injury due to poor mechanics.
    It’s not pitch count vs no pitch count; it’s good mechanics vs bad mechanics.
    Love, Earl Weaver

  • Don

    Great Article, I just wrote something similar on my site. Glad to see that Nolan is trying do something to change the current way of thinking.

    And Earl Weaver, if these pitchers mechanics are the problem then shouldn’t the organizations FIX THEM?! If they are ticking time bombs, why not defuse the situation rather than trying to milk them until they inevitably explode.

  • Ask Your Uncle

    Terrific take, Callum.