Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Verdict On Pitch Counts

Here's a quick fact. In the 70s, Earl Weaver used to break spring training camp with 7 or 8 pitchers, or about 5 less than are on most major league rosters right now.

Here's another fact, by way of Tim Kurkjian: "In 2000, there were 454 starts of at least 120 pitches. Last season, there were 71 starts, or 1.5 percent, an 84 percent drop. In 2009, 1.9 percent of starts have been 120 pitches."

And here's one last fact. In 2008, there were 136 complete games pitched. In 1968, the last season of the higher mound, with fewer teams in the MLB, there were 897.

What all of this is saying, in a roundabout way, is that pitchers are being “protected”—by way of pitching fewer innings—much more than ever before. They pitch less complete games, and throw fewer pitches before being relieved. The practice begins way before any kid throws one pitch in the majors; rather it begins way down in the minors where young pitchers are given strict pitch counts, all in order to protect their organization’s investment in their arms.

The irony is, as Kurkjian writes: "More pitchers are on the disabled list today than ever before. It's a paradox: The less they throw, the more often they get hurt." How on Earth does that happen?

Perhaps, baseball guru, Bill James can explain. He writes:

Most injuries to pitchers are not the result of chronic overuse; some are, particularly to young pitchers, but most are not. They're catastrophic events, just like a heart attack or a torn muscle. They happen suddenly, and they happen when a pitcher goes outside the envelope of his previous conditioning.

Backing away from the pitcher's limits too far doesn't make a pitcher less vulnerable; it makes him more vulnerable. And pushing the envelope, while it may lead to a catastrophic event, is more likely to enhance the pitcher's durability than to destroy it.

Nolan Ryan would agree. He told his pitching staff before this season that a "Quality Start" to the Texas Rangers, would no longer be classified as 3 runs or less in 6 innings. No, now it's 3 runs or less with the starter going at least 7 innings. In point of fact, the Texas Rangers pitching staff is having its best season in years.

So…training pitchers to pitch more innings is a good thing, right? It toughens them up and gets them to survive longer. Well, not so fast.

The counterpoint argument would point out something called the "Verducci Effect" named after Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated who wrote:

"The unofficial industry standard (regarding pitch counts) is that no young pitcher should throw more than 30 more innings than he did the previous season. It's a general rule of thumb, and one I've been tracking for about a decade. When teams violate the incremental safeguard, it's amazing how often they pay for it."

A good example of this might be Fausto Carmona. His first season with the Indians, 2006, when he was 22, he pitched 74.1 innings. The next season, he threw 215 innings and had a stellar 3.06 ERA. He has never been the same, with an ERA since 2007, hovering near 6.00. It's a similar story for theTwins' Francisco Liriano, who at 22, in 2006, threw a hundred more innings than he had the year before. He was out with an arm injury in 2007 and this year, has thrown for a 5.80 ERA. The story is the same for Mark Prior, Bill Pulsipher and many others.

Which is why Joba Chamberlain threw only 3 innings in his last start and whose pitch count is being monitored with the kind of scrutiny usually only given to NASA Space Shuttle calculations. But are strict pitch counts and inning caps really necessary? Do they really serve any purpose? Or do they actually do the reverse of what they are supposed to do—that is, train pitchers to pitch less, and cause pitchers to actually get weaker?

Steve Treder of the Hardball Times wrote an excellent comprehensive piece a while back, with loads of statistical analysis. His conclusion of pitch counts: "It is, in short, a policy that has delivered an extremely poor cost-benefit. Pitchers get hurt a lot; they always have, and 15 years into the era of significantly reduced workloads, they still do.

Hal Bodley of mlb.com goes even further: "Baseball's obsession with pitch counts is one of the most disgusting statistics the sport has embraced in the past 15-20 years." Well, that's a tad overstated, Hal, but point made. The zealousness with which certain managers, GMs and members of the media (What's the first thing a journalist does when a pitcher gets injured? They blame the pitcher's workload. As Orel Hershiser says, "Pitch counts have crept into the heads of managers, pitching coaches and doctors in part because of CYA, cover your ass.") adhere to pitch counts is a bit small-minded. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon describes his philosophy of pitch counts quite well:

"With me, I think it's wise," Maddon said. "But they should vary according to the individual. Some guys you can have more latitude with, others less. It has a lot to do with the fastball and command of it. Guys who have good pitch counts usually have command of it and have a good defense behind them.

"Look at Toronto's Doc Halladay [the AL starting pitcher]. He's never really been in heavy pitch-count trouble and he's throwing complete games because he's got great effectiveness with his fastball. I'm in favor of pitch counts, but I also believe it should be just one number for each guy."

Well said, Joe. Pitch counts are important, especially for younger pitchers and for pitchers not used to high workloads. But that doesn't mean if a pitcher is pitching a two-hit shutout, with 99 pitches in the 8th inning, you automatically yank him after the next pitch. This overcautiousness has, as Kurkjian pointed out, actually led to injuries. By babying younger pitchers in the minors, teams didn't properly prepare they're future aces for the workload waiting for them.

Tony LaRussa adds another point: LaRussa added, "Young guys today rely on stuff. They throw 100 pitches; they don't pitch 100 pitches. They are max effort on every pitch...Today's young pitchers are firing 85-90 pitches, fatigue sets in, and the next 15-20 they throw, they're still firing. A veteran at 70 pitches might have all kinds of stuff left. Clubs that have a lot of young pitchers are leery of pushing them because they know it's smart not to push them because they are throwing, not pitching."

LaRussa just described Joba Chamberlain to a tee. Chamberlain, as I've written before, doesn't know how to pitch yet. How to take a little off, how to reserve yourself for the long haul—he hurls every pitch, firing it violently up there. As a result, going all out and firing each and every pitch, they develop arm issues. Ask Kerry Wood.

Hershiser backs up LaRussa's point: "If your mechanics are good, you can throw 75 pitches without being taxed. But if your mechanics are not in order [as with some young pitchers], you could be worn out at 35 pitches. The light bulb goes on with a veteran pitcher about how to extend his career beyond injury and time by understanding the game."

Josh Beckett also talks about the difference between the types of pitches. "We've talked a lot about pitches per inning and the kind of pitches they are -- runners on second or third base with fewer than two outs—one pitch becomes a pitch and a half. Those are stressful. "

All of this is to refute John Kruk's outburst against the Yankees on Sunday night. In it, Kruk claims the Yankees have "wasted Joba Chamberlain" and why not let him pitch like King Felix (Hernandez).

Actually, John, Seattle kept Hernandez on a consistent workflow, never letting his arm jump in innings too much. In 2005, he pitched a total of about 170 innings. The next year, it increased only to 191. 2007 was almost identical and 2008 had him increase his workload by 10 innings. This year, Hernandez is expecting to jump a little higher, but definitely under the 30-inning threshold. Kruk's outburst of old-timey "just let him pitch" wisdom, while sounding good to the average fan, is a bit flippant. The evidence suggests that the Yankees playing it safe with young arms, is wise. Throwing an unprepared arm into the fury of a pennant race and a long playoff series would be foolish.

That said, while pitch counts should be kept, they should, as Maddon suggests, only be part of the data on a pitcher. As Steve Treder wrote in the Hardball Times, "...that there's a reasonable deployment of the tool, and there's an unreasonable, counterproductive fixation upon it, and over the past decade and a half we've left the former behind and driven ourselves right into the latter."



Ted said...

Thanks for synthesizing the various arguments on the topic, very enjoyable. In the end the verdict is no less complicated than where it started.

I was a catcher, and in my limited and narrow experience playing D-3 college baseball, every single pitcher is utterly and completely different. My teammate who pushed 90 with his sinker (quite a feat in D-3 ball) had a spaghetti arm and I never heard him complain about arm pain once. At the same time, the soft-tossers would piss and moan about arm pain all the time, shutting themselves down.

You just never knew what would happen, or how a guy would react to what. The 30-innings ceiling is probably the smartest universal rule any of us have, but beyond that, as you've elucidated, no single standard applies. Every different pitcher is his own lunatic collection of variables.

If anything, I've been surprised in my life how in touch with the halls of their own sanitariums (read: their arms) they really are.

blmeanie said...

nice article, I am on the side that says pitchers should not be babied and in Joba's case why worry so much about tomorrow? Is pitching him 35 pitches in a game helping him progress? If anything it reinforces what you call out P-Cat, that he doesn't know how to regulate effort during an outing.

As for the 30 inning increments per year, I think as a general rule, maybe that works, but each individual differs based on progression and body type. If a pitcher is going to break down, I believe, he will break down at some point regardless if you baby him with innings/pitch counts each year or not.

As you burn through Joba's cheap/inexpensive years being very careful and never knowing what you really have and then he gets to arbitration and to his first big multi-year deal and you have missed out on using him what will everybody say then? That he isn't worth it because he never pitched a lot of innings?