Baseball has always been a statistician’s dream, but in recent years, a relatively new statistic has emerged: pitch counts.
Let’s be clear that at the Little League level, the danger isn’t just overusing a young arm. The greater risk might be from young kids trying to throw a curve ball.
As for Major League Baseball, pitchers used to stay in the game as long as they got batters out. Now the pitch-count police say a pitcher needs to be pulled from the game after throwing 100 or so pitches.
For those of you old enough to remember former St. Louis Cardinals great Bob Gibson, can you imagine a manager having the nerve to walk to the mound in the eighth inning and ask for the ball if Gibson had thrown 100 pitches while working on a four-hit shutout?
One glare from Gibson would send the manager scurrying back to the dugout for his own safety.
It’s doubtful that anyone told Jack Morris his pitch count during Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. He threw 126 pitches during 10 innings in that 1-0 masterpiece.
“From the minor leagues on up, today’s pitchers are taught that if they get to 100 pitches, their day is over,” Morris said. “How about finishing the game no matter what the score is?”
Morris, Bert Blyleven and Nolan Ryan combined to pitch 639 complete games. Minnesota Twins lefthander Francisco Liriano has none—not even from the minor leagues.
Nowadays, everyone knows the pitch count because it is broadcast prominently on scoreboards, and reported by radio and TV announcers.
In the past, pitchers didn’t want to leave the game unless they were ineffective. Some sinkerball pitchers actually get more effective as the game goes on. And I don’t know anyone who cares what the pitch count is for a knuckleball pitcher.
Morris said he believes pitchers need to throw their arms into shape, and that means stretching them well beyond 100 pitches.
“The concept is great; the reality stinks,” Morris said. “Kids are not throwing enough (innings) to learn how to get outs early in the count. It only works for veterans who understand what it’s all about. And quite honestly, so many guys are out of the game by the fifth or sixth inning, it’s just killing bullpens.”
On June 14, 1974, Ryan threw 235 pitches in a 13-inning start against the Red Sox.
“It obviously ruined his arm because he had to retire 19 years later,” statistics guru Bill James later told the Los Angeles Times.
Despite all the second guessing, there are legitimate reasons to monitor the pitch count. Good baseball pitchers are paid very well, and no manager wants to lose a top-line pitcher because of overuse.
In 1980, Billy Martin, knowing that he had a thin bullpen, pushed his young starters to an astounding 94 complete games. The downside, some say, is that he essentially ruined the potential shown by those pitchers before he rode them into the ground. All five of the promising young pitchers in his starting rotation experienced arm problems within the next couple years, and none had another season that approached the 1980 success.
The trouble is that there’s no formula that tells managers which pitchers will be durable and which pitchers will break down.
What is clear is that most Major League teams are now adopting the new-age limit of 100 pitches per game per hurler.
According to a Minneapolis Star Tribune article, teams have been pushing starters to the 120-pitch mark less and less in recent years, especially since 2000.
In 1996, pitchers in the major leagues threw at least 120 pitches in a game 444 times. In 2008, pitchers threw at least 120 pitches in a game only 70 times.
If pitch counts had been all the rage 25 years ago, it’s doubtful that Randy Johnson would have reached the rare 300-win milestone. His pitch-count totals from an eight-game stretch in 1992 were 146, 133, 141, 146, 133, 128, 128, 132, 159. He has thrown 120 or more pitches 209 times.
Right or wrong, don’t expect to see numbers like that again