Pitch Counts (part 1)  (05/18/00)

There 's been a lot of gnashing of teeth recently about pitch counts, from both sides of the fence.  Old timers complain that pitchers these days are coddled, that back in the days... pitchers routinely threw 300+ innings and never had a problem with injuries.  The more statistically minded counter that throwing 140+ pitches per start can't be good, especially considering that the act of throwing a baseball 80+ mph puts tremendous stress on an arm.  So who's right?

Baseball has a long history of young pitcher's blowing out their arms.  Matt Kilroy was a phenomenal rookie back in 1886.  "Matches" made his debut at the tender age of 19.  That year, the lefty led the league in complete games (66) and strikeouts (513) and finished 2nd in innings pitched (583) by just 2/3 of an inning.  The next year he led the league in wins and in innings pitched.  After that, he was never the same.  It took him 10 more years to equal the number of wins and innings pitched that he had won in his first two seasons.

Of course, baseball was a bit different back then.  The pitching mound had not yet been moved to it's present distance of 60' 6" and pitching staffs were comprised of 3 or 4 pitchers rather than the 10-12 they are today.  Because of this, pitchers didn't throw all out every pitch as they do today.  Still, 1100 innings in 2 years is a lot of innings for someone who's not even old enough to buy a drink legally.

So let's take a more recent case.  Gary Nolan was an equally promising rookie back in 1967.  Also just 19 in his debut, Nolan threw 226.2 innings his rookie year, striking out 206, while posting a 2.58 ERA.  He suffered through injuries for the next two years before posting his next 200+ inning season, but it was clear he wasn't the same pitcher.  His strikeouts dropped dramatically after 1970 and he was out of baseball by 1977.

Even more recently, Steve Avery had thrown over major league 700 innings by the time he was 23.  He's now 30 and his total innings stands at just over 1500.  Dwight Gooden also endured excessive workloads at a very young age and never realized the promise in his golden arm.  As a matter of reference, of the top 100 innings totals by pitchers under the age of 23, only 10 - Bob Feller, Walter Johnson, Rube Marquard, Babe Ruth, Catfish Hunter, Don Drysdale, Waite Hoyt, Hal Newhouser, Wes Ferrell, Don Sutton - are in the Hall of Fame.  Only a few others (Blyleven, Maddux, Eckersley) might eventually make it.  One of the Hall of Famers (Drysdale) had abbreviated careers do to arm injury.  The biggest reason Eckersley might make it is because of his work as a reliever.  The vast majority on the list are guys like Nolan, Avery, Gooden, Vida Blue, Alex Fernandez, Bret Saberhagen, Frank Tanana... guys who had Hall of Fame arms but were managed by guys with little league heads.  An 13% success rate with the most promising arms in history is not exactly inspiring.

But it's not just excessive innings that can do a pitcher in.  Excessive pitch counts can be just as detrimental.  The theory is that pitches under difficult circumstances (men on base, close games, etc) tend to stress an arm more.  The more pitches you have to throw, the greater likelyhood of excessive stress on your arm.  The greater the stress, the greater the chance for a serious injury.  This has been clearly illustrated by the injuries suffered by Matt Morris, Alan Benes and Kerry Wood.  In Wood's rookie season, he was asked to exceed 118 pitches in 12 of his 26 starts.  It probably would have been more had he not developed a sore arm in August of 1998, which limited his use.  In defense of then Cubs manager Jim Riggleman, he was not the first to abuse Wood's tremendous arm: his high school coach had him throw 175 pitches in one day during a tournament.

So why don't guys like Randy Johnson have injury troubles?  He throws a ton of pitches.  So did Warren Spahn and Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan and... well, yes, he does and they did.  But none of those guys endured those kind of workloads until they were at least 25 or 26.  As I understand physiology, the male physique isn't fully developed until that age.  Yes, an underaged arm will recover and be perfectly able to do normal things, but throwing a baseball 90 mph is not a normal thing.  Even so, there's a limit to what even a mature arm can endure.  Ever wonder why Sandy Koufax retired so young?  Arthritis, yes?  Well, perhaps the fact that his manager, Walter Alston, routinely let him exceed 150 pitches an outing had something to do with it.  D'ya think?

So what is a good limit for young pitchers?  Some have suggested 100 pitches.  Others say that's too conservative.  There have been several studies showing 350 pitches over 3 consecutive starts as a safe mark.  That averages out to about 116 pitches a start.  Personally, I believe there should be a sliding scale depending on the age of the pitcher.  One of the biggest problems with pitch counts is that most young pitchers are asked to do more in the majors than they did in the minors.  Rarely are pitchers in the minors asked to go more than 7 innings, with most starts averaging about 6.  Then the kid is asked to go the route (pitch a complete game) once he reaches the big time.  Additional stress, additional workload - not particularly logical handling.

My guess is that if a team wants it's youngsters to throw a lot of innings in the majors, they should probably throw a lot of innings in the minors.  However, they need to teach efficiency by maintaining a reasonable pitch count.  Ask the pitcher to go 7 innings but only allow him to go up to 110 pitches.  Let the youngster figure out how he's gonna accomplish that.  That way, he'll learn to use his defense (strikeouts require more pitches than groundballs), learn to set up hitters (in order to induce groundballs) and keep his arm at a safe workload.  Then, once he's in the majors, immediately put him in the bullpen for a year or two.  He'll be exposed to tough situations while he's still fresh.  That way, he's less likely to make a mistake due to fatigue and more likely to figure out how to succeed in each situation.  After a year or so of quality relief, then give him his chance at the rotation.

This is not a new theory.  Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver espoused this philosophy 40 years ago.  It's amazing that the theories of someone that successful can be ignored by so many.

Part 2: What about the Frankenarms, or treatment and care of a surgically repaired pitcher.