Monday, March 8, 2010

Thoughts on pitch counts

The thing about modern baseball that most seems to annoy old-timers, (for ex., Tim McCarver), who are an easily-annoyed bunch, is pitch counts. "Nolan Ryan didn't need 'em", they'll say. "Neither did Carlton. Imagine trying to put a pitch count on Bob Gibson!" But I argue here that pitch counts make sense-if pitchers are most likely to get hurt when they're tired, why not take them out before they reach that point? In a 162 game season, and with the possibility that even mediocrities like Brett Tomko can have careers of ten or fifteen years if they can stay healthy, why not put a serious priority on preventing pitching injuries where they happen-on the mound?

The first thought that might come to mind is, well, Ryan was a freak of nature. He was throwing 95 MPH at 46! (Of course, by then he couldn't stay healthy for very long). He had had 232 K's in 1990, leading the AL, at 43. Of course he didn't need pitch counts-he really was a freak! (It should be mentioned that he was in great shape, too.)

But there is one interesting fact about Ryan's workload that ought to be noted. While Nolan broke into the majors at 19 (though only pitching just three innings), and threw 152 innings in 1971, at age 24, he didn't reach a more or less career average number of IP till the following year, when at age 25, he threw 284 innings for the Angels after being traded from the Mets. If the "injury nexus" closes at 25 or so, then Nolan's workload, whether through injuries, ineffectiveness, or dumb luck, had actually been managed pretty well to that point.

The larger issue is that, obviously, most pitchers aren't Nolan Ryan. Most pitchers need their workload managed much more carefully. Think of Larry Dierker, who pitched serious innings for Houston as a teen-ager, had 305 IP at age 22 in 1969, had several more 200 IP years, and was out of baseball at 30. Or Catfish Hunter, who had 132 IP at age 19 for the A's, had two 300 IP seasons and eight 200 IP years, and was out of the game at 33, after several ineffective and/or injury shortened years. And there are dozens of other guys with similar career tracks, who could be mentioned, such as Jim Bouton.

The fact is that pitching in injurious to elbows and shoulders. Always has been, always will be. Limiting pitches and innings is the best way, along with proper mechanics and, perhaps to a lesser extent, conditioning (think of David Wells, CC Sabathia, Mickey Lolich, and many more-mechanics really do seem to be more critical than conditioning-if your mechanics aren't right, it won't matter whether you're in shape or not) to lengthen the careers of expensive pitching talent.

And now, even Dusty Baker seems to have seen the light, and along with the rest of baseball, isn't allowing his starters to hit 120 pitches very often. The average pitch count in baseball is settling in at just under 100 per game. This is a good thing, folks. And you old-timers-keep in mind that an idea isn't bad just because you didn't grow up with it.

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