Counting pitches changing the game of baseball

Back in the day—OK, way back in the day—when I pitched Little League and college baseball, no one kept track of the number of pitches I threw.

In those days, a pitcher kept throwing as long as he was reasonably effective at getting hitters out, or because there was no relief in sight due to a shortage of pitchers on the team.

Things are much more sophisticated nowadays, not that there’s unanimity on how long a pitcher should be allowed to throw.

On one hand, some want to limit the number of pitches thrown to protect pitchers’ arms. On the other hand, there are those who think we’ve gone overboard by counting pitches.

Another issue up for debate is whether a 10- or 12-year-old pitcher should even throw curveballs because it may hurt his arm.

In Major League Base­ball, most scoreboards show the number of pitches thrown by each pitcher. The same is true when watching games on TV. It’s as if the scoreboard or a pitcher’s arm will explode if more than 100 pitches are thrown.

Pitching great Tom Seaver generally had the latitude to stay in games for 135 pitches. Teammate Jerry Koosman’s informal ceiling was closer to 145, and Nolan Ryan might throw 150 or more if necessary.

In a 2009 story on ESPN.com, Seaver said: “We did have pitch counts. They weren’t mandated.”

Seaver and Ryan both rode their arduous workloads all the way to the Hall of Fame.

Today, if a starter throws 75-80 pitches after four innings, the middle relievers are on alert in the bullpen.

Are today’s pitchers soft or are teams being more cautious with pitchers’ arms because of the amount of money being invested in player contracts and the perceived injury risk?

Seaver argues that not all pitchers are created equal. “Some guys are 110-pitch guys, and some guys are 135-, 145-pitch guys. Not everybody is cut from the same cloth.”

Don Sutton, who won 324 games during 23 seasons and never spent a day on the disabled list, calls the quality start a “ridiculous and absurd” statistic that rewards a 4.50 ERA. Sutton favors a new definition, with six innings and two runs or seven innings and three runs as a barometer for quality.

“We’re encouraging mediocrity and being very successful at it,” said Sutton. “If I told my daughter all I wanted was a C average, she’s going to give me C’s. Will I ever know if she can make A’s? No, because she is working up to my expectations.”

Although the number of pitches being thrown today is monitored more closely than ever before, the number of bad shoulders, bad elbows or bad arms in Major League Baseball seems as great as ever.

Recently, Wichita West High School coach Jeff Hoover and pitcher Colby Pechin were suspended for the Pioneers’ first game of the Class 6A baseball tournament because of a violation of Kansas State High School Activities Association rules.

Pechin threw 10 innings of West’s 16-inning regional championship win over Garden City, and KSHSAA rules allow for only nine innings in one day.

My problem with the rule is that there’s nothing magical about the number of innings pitched. If a pitcher throws 100 pitches in five innings, a pitcher could wind up throwing 175 or more pitches during nine innings. In this case, Wichita Eagle reporter Sean Boston had tracked 157 pitches by Pechin.

“His velocity was the same as it was in the third inning,” said Hoover. “Every­thing was good. He felt fine.”

Speaking of counts, my editor limits my word count. Some would say, he doesn’t limit me enough, but as you know, that’s never stopped me. However, I better save my words for now and further expand on this topic in two weeks.

Hillsboro resident Joe Klein­sasser is director of news and media relations at Wichita State University. He can be reached at Joe.Klein­sasser@wichita.edu.