September 21, 2014

Counting pitches just doesn’t add up

May 27, 2009 by · 10 Comments 

Why is it that pitchers in this ultra-modern era of American sports are the ONLY types of athletes whose attributes are deteriorating over time rather than improving? Two words: money and fear.

It’s time to change the group-think in baseball, fueled in part by the over-analysis of numbers, that says young pitchers need to be treated with kid gloves. It’s hurting pitchers and it’s hurting the game of baseball.

If you think about athletics and the way things generally work, people are getting bigger, faster and stronger. Records involving speed, strength and stamina are being broken all the time and we’re pushing the envelope when it comes to what the human body is capable of doing on a daily basis.

Except when it comes to pitchers…

Why are pitchers the only athletes who are going backward? How does it make sense that inferior athletes with inferior training and inferior medical care could do 30-40-50 years ago what modern day pitchers cannot do? How could guys like Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Cy Young and so on down the line toss 300+ innings – effective, dominant innings – often throwing God-knows-how-many pitches while pitchers today are lucky to make 200 innings and rarely make it past the 6th or 7th inning because they’re “around 100 pitches?”

Does that make any sense?

And who came up with that nice round number of 100 pitches? Why not 93 pitches? Why not 107? How in the world did 100 pitches become the gold standard? Because it’s easy to remember, that’s how, which gives you an idea about it’s validity as a measuring stick.

Of course it doesn’t, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it.

I love the fact that Nolan Ryan has eliminated the pitch counts in the Texas Rangers minor league system. It’s a bold move, one that will ultimately pay dividends for a franchise always starved for pitching, but it’s one that only a person with Ryan’s cache could pull off. If some mere mortal were to implement such a plan, and something were to go wrong with a prized porcelain pitching prospect, that person’s job would be in jeopardy. Thankfully Ryan seems to be above such things.

Here’s the thing – high pitch counts do not cause pitchers to get injured. Pitchers are going to have arm problems, some of them severe, and you’re just not going to avoid that. I’m not suggesting that the research done in this regard is wrong – Baseball Prospectus’ work is excellent in this area – I’m saying that the high pitch counts are not directly causing the arm problems we’re talking about.

The reason pitchers can’t handle pitch counts in the 120-140 range in the Major Leagues is because THEY ARE NEVER TRAINED TO THROW THAT MANY PITCHES WHILE THEY ARE BEING DEVELOPED.

Period. End of story.

When David Price has a ridiculous 5-inning limit in his minor league outings how could he then be expected to move up to the Majors and go 6-7-8 innings when it really counts? He can’t be expected to do that, at least not logically, and that’s what’s causing all the problems.

Teams want their starting pitchers to be workhorses but from the time they’re drafted they’re trained to be nothing more than miniature ponies, the kind you see at petting zoos.

Pitchers are athletes and it’s time Major League teams starting treating them as such and training them to do the job they’ll be required to do in the Major Leagues. Some young hurlers are going to get hurt and nothing that MLB does is going to change that, but you can better prepare your talented young starters for the rigors of the Major Leagues by gradually building up their arm strength and stamina in the minor leagues.

I’m not saying an 18-year-old pitching phenom should be allowed to throw 120 pitches on a routine basis, I’m saying he should be put on a program that will allow him to throw that many pitches on a regular basis after a 2-3 year period of strengthening and conditioning.

Are you just going to go out and run a bunch of 5K “Turkey Trots” or “Fun Runs” for 2-3 years and then jump right into the Boston Marathon? No, you’d be an idiot and you wouldn’t finish the race.

If you’re sitting at home right now thinking to yourself, “Gee, I’d really like to be able to bench press 250 pounds someday” you certainly can’t accomplish that goal by working out with 150 pounds for a year and then throwing an extra 100 lbs on there one day. You’ll kill yourself.

Pitchers need to be trained to throw 120-140 pitch games and 250+ innings over the course of a season.

The reason baseball went down this path is that awful combination of money and fear.

With signing bonuses reaching 7-figures in the MLB Draft, the fear of those investments going to waste because of injury has driven teams to try and prevent the unpreventable. In other words, non-baseball people decided out of fear to protect bonus babies with a system than only makes those high-priced hotshots even more fragile.

If guys who never lifted a dumbbell, ran on a treadmill or worked with strength  conditioning coaches could throw a ton of pitches – and therefore a ton of innings – then why can’t modern day pitchers who have all the advantages when it comes to health, nutrition and medical care?

Fear, my friends, fear.

The only thing we have to fear is, fear itself – and all the dopes who think with their wallets instead of with their brains.

Hopefully more teams will follow what Ryan is doing with the Rangers, but I’m certainly not going to be holding my breath…I don’t trust people who scare so easily.

Kevin Wheeler is the host of Sports Open Line (M-F 7-9 PM ET) on News Radio 1120, KMOX in St. Louis (www.kmox.com) and he is a baseball instructor with All-Star Performance (www.all-starperformance.net) and the St. Louis Gamers (www.stlgamers.net). You can reach him via e-mail at thebaseballgods@gmail.com

Comments

10 Responses to “Counting pitches just doesn’t add up”
  1. Jeff Polman says:

    Great article, Kevin. You went into far more depth than I had the patience for the other day in my pitch-count piece here. Plus you saved me the embarrassment of having to respond to myself concerning the following atrocity that happened today at Camden Yards:

    –Roy Halladay pulled from game after seven innings and 102 pitches with 8-3 lead.
    –“Bullpen” coughs up five Oriole runs immediately.
    –Jays lose 9th straight in extra innings.

    Thanks Cito, for making us look good again!

  2. Josh Deitch says:

    I too hate pitch counts, but as I get older, I’m a little torn. I played for a coach in college that said you don’t run a marathon to train yourself to pitch, you throw! Well, I don’t know one player that pitched for him that hasn’t experienced arm troubles…and we’re talking D III baseball!

    One other piece of the reliance on pitch counts is the growth of the closer as a premier role. In order to justify dropping $8-10 Mil on a guy that’s going to give 60-70 innings tops, organizations will find “proven” ways to consistently utilize their closers and maximize their investment. Getting your starter out after 100-115 pitches is a good way to ensure that.

  3. Hey Jeff – I thought of that w/ Halladay. Funny thing is that he’s usually one of the exceptions, one of the guys allowed to go deep into games with pretty high pitch counts. Thanks for the comments…

    Josh – The question that comes to mind is how that coach had you training. Throwing is one thing, throwing with a purpose and for the express reason of building stamina and strength (long toss, etc.) is another thing entirely. A lot of it has to do with strength & conditioning being taught using proper mechanics and under supervision.

    Most pitchers I’ve ever met (I was a catcher) have had arm troubles regardless of the workloads they worked. I don’t think kids (high school and below) should be building up to higher pitch counts because most coaches at those ages don’t know what they’re doing. I’m talking college and pro guys, under the supervision of coaches who are supposed to know what they’re doing.

    Thanks for chiming in fellas.

  4. Greg says:

    A decade ago, The Mets decided that their top minor league pitchers would be able to throw more pitches in the majors if they did so throughout the minor leagues. All 3 of those pitchers – Jason Isringhausen, Paul Wilson, and Bill Pulsipher, went down with major arm injuries. Isringhausen was never able to start again and ended up in the bullpen, Wilson’ lost his ability to miss bats, and Pulsipher ended up in the independent leagues. Generation K thus became Generation DL. If Ryan tries to repeat the Mets experiment, he’ll end up with the same results. Now, I have no doubt that a few starters could throw significantly more pitches than they do, but if you can’t identify those Livan Hernandez type arms beforehand you’ll end up destroying a lot of arms in order to find that unusual specimen.

    I don’t think that major league clubs do a particularly good job with pitch counts, and I certainly think that some starters could be left in longer, but if you try and train all the organization’s top young arms to throw deeper into games, your franchise is going to pay a steep price, because young pitches are far more vulnerable to overuse than veterans. There’s a reason that very few great young starter who comes up to the major leagues in their very early twenties and pitch well ever have long careers; they simply can’t handle the stress of major league workloads at that age, no matter how good they are.

  5. greg levi says:

    iresponded to jeff polman s article. tell me, why doesnt anybody in baseball listen to dr mike karshall? i think he has the credentials. tell me why? anybody want to tackle this?

  6. greg levi says:

    levon hernandez looks like he has the arm motion of what mike marshall teaches. DRMIKEMARSHALL.COM

  7. Rich says:

    In 1958 in the National League, the average NL starter went 6.3 innings.

    In 2008, they went 5.8 innings.

    So, in the good ol days, they got a whopping 1.5 outs more per start. That’s not much of a difference.

    Sure, in the second deadball era of the 60s and early 70s, they went around 6.5-6.7 but that’s still barely an inning more.

    Yes, superstars who are in the freaking Hall of Fame like Carlton and Ryan pitched a LOT of innings, but most guys did not.

  8. greg levi says:

    its amazing that no one wants to talk about mike marshall. is this like a real conspiacy? or is it that no one knows much about him. it seems that mike marshall is blackballed from baseball. too bad. if baseball listened to him you guys would have nothing to write about and pitching coaches would have nothing to teach.

  9. Jeff Polman says:

    The conventional ignorance continues:

    I was at Dodger Stadium last night (June 2) and watched in gleeful horror as Dan Haren was lifted in a game the D-Backs really needed to win, despite having a 5-1 lead and 2-hitter with only walk in seven innings. Darn those 110 pitches! Two Arizona hackmeisters instantly gave the Dodgers five runs and the ball game. But of course, it’s never the manager’s fault.

  10. Jeff Polman says:

    Wait. It gets worse.

    Down in Atlanta (also last night), the Cubs lifted a young pitcher named Wells and his darn 83 pitches with a 4-0 lead after seven innings. The Braves won in extra innings after beating up a tag team of relief clowns. I hate to keep belaboring my point, but managers make it easier to do so all the time.

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