Counting More Pitches

I'm not a pitch count evangelist.  I don't cry to the heavens that the sky is falling every time a pitcher throws more than 100 pitches. There are situations where a reasonably high pitch count (125-135) is not dangerous to a pitcher's long term health.  However, there are an awful lot of injuries to young pitchers who accumulate consistently high pitch counts and there just aren't enough examples of pitchers faring well after that kind of workload to suggest that the number of pitches doesn't have an effect on his long term health.  

Old timers will throw out guys like Bob Feller as pitchers who thrived on heavy workloads as a youngster.  What they tend to forget is that Feller's arm was probably saved by World War 2.  It gave his arm three full seasons to recuperate from logging an immense number of innings and pitches.  He was 22 went he joined the Navy and 26 when he returned to the majors.  He pitched 36 complete games in his first full year back, but was never the same pitcher after.  His innings dropped by 20% the following year and he had only four more years of star quality performance.  Essentially, the career of one of the greatest pitching talents ever peaked at age 27 and was done by age 32.  

So when I look at pitch counts, especially for young pitchers (anyone 26 or under) I err on the side of caution.  Over the last few weeks, there have been several cases that bear closer examination.  

Jake Peavy
In Peavy's most recent outing against Milwaukee, he carried a shutout into the ninth inning.  Opening the ninth, he had already thrown 110 pitches.  Under normal conditions, that wouldn't be a very big deal.  Let the kid try to finish what he started and maybe get a shutout under his belt.

However, Peavy has AVERAGED 104.3 pitches per game this season.  He has thrown the 6th most total pitches in NL and 9th most in the big leagues.  For a 21-year old who, along with Adam Eaton, is the key to the Padres' future, letting him throw another inning's worth of pitches in a season that's a lost cause is just not smart management.  Heap all the praise on Brian Lawrence you want, but the future of the franchise is Peavy and Eaton.  Peavy's quasi-slinging delivery is already stressful on his arm joints and working him this hard, all for the sake of a shut-out, simply yields greater risk than reward for him.  If Peavy ends up out for 18 months sometime this season due to reconstructive surgery, how important is that shut-out?  If he stays healthy and becomes the excellent pitcher his talent suggests, how significant is one shut-out in a 15-year career?

Given how awful the bullpen has been for the Padres of late... well, really all year... I understand why Padre manager Bruce Bochy would want his starter to go the distance.  But since it has been obvious since spring training when Phil Nevin and Trevor Hoffman went down that the Padres would not be competing for the playoffs, wouldn't the smart move be to use this season to prepare for next year, concentrate on teaching a young team the correct way to play and not injure any of the franchise's valuable assets?  The Padre bullpen is full of retreads and never-will-be's.  I don't want to be insensitive here, but doesn't it make more sense to burden them with the dangerous workloads, a group that is far more replaceable than the guys who are the foundation of your organization's future?  Isn't it easier to find and call-up another Mike Matthews or Matt Herges in the minors than it is to find another Peavy?

There was a time when Bochy was fairly cautious with his young arms.  But because Joey Hamilton and Matt Clement didn't develop the way the Padres thought they would, maybe the Padre skipper has figured workloads don't really matter.  He was careful with those two guys and they never learned how to pitch.  At least not while they were with the Padres.  

But since 1999, Bochy has taken the opposite track.  It was two 140+ pitch outings that probably did in Sterling Hitchcock in 1999 (which, oddly enough were also in an effort to get complete games).  Hitchcock had suffered some lower leg pain since the spring and was altering his delivery to compensate.  It was during this time that Bochy thought it'd be a good idea to "extend" Hitchcock.  And after starting the year reasonably well count-wise in 2001, then 23-year old Eaton averaged 115.3 pitches per start (including a 132-pitch outing) in his last 10 starts that year before blowing out his arm.  Before shoulder soreness sidelined him last August, 20-year old Oliver Perez was averaging 105.5 pitches per outing.  And Bochy is repeating the same handling with Peavy.  

(editor's note: Perez' shoulder soreness was precipitated by a head first slide into first base in which he strained his shoulder.  It should be noted, however, that once Perez returned after the injury, he averaged just 89.4 pitches per start)

The Padres fired pitching coach Greg Booker recently because of the staff's poor performance.  It's probably time the Padres took a closer look at the man who's ultimately responsible for the performance on the field.  Bochy has never shown much competence with young players and his teams are notoriously poor fundamentally.  In fact, no team in baseball has made more errors than the Padres the last 3 years.  The only times the Padres have ever done well under him is with veteran-laden teams.  With as much value as they have in their youth, they probably need a change in leadership in order to save the future of the franchise.

Sidney Ponson

Against the Angels last time out, Ponson had a similar dilemma as Peavy facing him, although he wasn't throwing a shutout.  The difference is that Ponson is 5 years older than Peavy and not as great an injury risk with a high pitch count.  However, his mechanics fell apart in the last inning as the pitches mounted and it was clear he was using maximum effort to try to squeeze those last few outs from his arm.  

Ponson has endured some pretty harsh workloads early in his career and survived, so injury is not the greatest risk here; bad mechanics are.  Ponson's shoulders were flying open in the 9th, so unless he or pitching coach Mark Wiley address that in side sessions, it may become a bad habit.  It would not surprise me at all if his next outing is not particularly good because his mechanics are a tad off.  But that should be the extent of the damage as everyone will then be looking at videotape in order to correct the flaw.

AJ Burnett

Burnett is out for the season for reconstructive surgery.  At age 26, he has never averaged under 100 pitches per outing in his 5-year big league career, with a high of 109 pitches per start last year.  Burnett had some history of arm trouble in the minors so it shouldn't be at all surprising with his workload that surgery was eventually needed.  In fact, many have been expecting this to occur for a while now and were surprised that it's taken this long.

Kerry Wood

Much has been said about Wood's 141-pitch outing a few weeks ago.  More should be said of his 113-pitch average per start.  But at age 25, he's past the greatest risk age so I'm not convinced that injury is imminent.  But it would be nice to see him get in a few low 100s pitch outings just to be safe.  I am much more concerned about Mark Prior's 108-pitch per outing average at age 22 than I am with Wood's workload.

Dusty Baker has never been kind to young arms.  Over his 10-year stay in San Francisco, his young pitchers endured some pretty heavy workloads and none of them improved their control as they became more acclimated to the majors.  Not only did they not improve, but several spent time on the operating table during his tenure.  It's possible, unfortunately, that we may find out more about the workload limits of young pitchers the expensive way in Chicago, even those who have already undergone reconstructive surgery.  

It should be noted on the eve (well, it's coming soon enough) of Roger Clemens' 300th win, that he averaged 118 pitches per start at the same age Kerry Wood is.  The caveat is that Clemens vigorously pursues one of the most strenuous workout programs of any player in the last 30 years, so he may be more capable of heavy workloads simply because he's more physically fit.

The Oakland A's

Oakland pitching coach Rick Petersen has done a terrific job of keeping the A's Big Three healthy and part of that is due to monitoring pitch counts.  And despite all three being fairly young for as successful as they are, none of them pitched a full season in the rotation before the age of 22.  As I suggested three years ago in a column on pitch counts, the risk of breakdown or reduced effectiveness is greatest before age 23.  After that, a "regular" workload becomes less of a concern for serious injury, although in cases of continuing overwork, such as with AJ Burnett, it's still a danger.

Speaking of the A's, David Cameron wrote a terrific piece on Moneyball and the A's farm system.  I encourage you to read it and his other analyses of the minor leagues.