Adjusting Our Opinion on Pitch Counts

This is a continuation of my last article, Handling Young Pitchers. Both pieces focus on a recent article written by Craig Wright for the Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2011.

In part one, I analyzed Wright’s belief that pitchers in their formative years need to be handled with care, and discussed the difficulties teams face when trying to limit their young pitchers. For established pitchers, however, Wright carries a different viewpoint. Throughout the article, Wright argues against the current limitations of pitch counts, and suggests that some pitchers can handle larger workloads than others. While it may be a controversial stance, it could be time to revise our views on pitch counts.

Before we go any further, it’s important to define the current thinking regarding pitch counts. While much research has been done on the subject, Rany Jazayerli introduced Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP) in 1998. This research has been analyzed and updated over the years, but the conclusions remain similar: it is unwise to to allow pitchers to consistently accumulate high pitch counts.

Wright, however, argues that certain pitchers might be able to withstand higher workloads. Wright argues that pitchers who are able to withstand acceptable workload increases in their formative years, without succumbing to injuries or fatigue, could be pushed harder than most pitchers. On the surface, this argument seems logical: if a pitcher can handle a workload of 125-130 pitches per game, why limit him to 110-120?

Looking over the PAP leaders from the past three seasons yields some interesting findings. Since 2008, Justin Verlander has ranked 4th, 1st, and 1st in PAP. It is important to note that Verlander turned 25 in 2008, meaning the Detroit Tigers didn’t start pushing him hard until he had exited his formative seasons. Despite the increased workload, Verlander has accumulated 20.0 WAR in those three seasons without showing signs of decline or injury. It may only be three seasons of data, but it seems plausible that Verlander could withstand a higher workload than other pitchers.

CC Sabathia could be the poster boy for abandoning current pitch count limitations. While Sabathia threw a lot of innings during his formative years, he never appeared near the top of the PAP leader boards, and he stayed remarkably healthy. With the Milwaukee Brewers desperate to make the playoffs in 2008, Sabathia shouldered a heavy load. In Sabathia’s seventeen starts with the team, he threw 110+ pitches eight times. In his starts following those games, Sabathia remained effective and showed no signs of fatigue. As the 2008 season came to a close, Sabathia ranked 2nd on the PAP chart.

Though his heavy workload could have scared off most teams, the New York Yankees looked at Sabathia’s previous track record and determined he was a solid investment despite the workload increase. Sabathia has not succumbed to injuries or ineffectiveness like we would expect from other pitchers with such an aggressive workload. In his two seasons with the Yankees, Sabathia has started 76 games (including the playoffs) while posting solid peripherals.

I will admit, looking at eight starts over a small period is not the best way to convince anyone that Sabathia can handle a higher workload than most pitchers. But Sabathia passes each of Wright’s qualifications with flying colors. Sabathia was not misused in his formative years (he has remained incredibly healthy), and he has handled increased workloads relatively well thus far in his career. From that standpoint, Sabathia might an ideal candidate for an increased workload.

Talking about eschewing current pitch count restrictions is a risky proposition. The research has been around for quite some time, and has been adjusted and altered as we learn more about pitchers. But it seems foolish that the same restrictions should apply to all pitchers. Pitchers like Sabathia, and perhaps Verlander, might be able to withstand higher workloads, and if teams can get more innings out of those players, it would greatly benefit the team’s performance. Scary as it may seem, it might be time to start thinking about the effectiveness of current pitch counts.

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Chris is a blogger for He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

46 Responses to “Adjusting Our Opinion on Pitch Counts”

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  1. puffy says:

    You can’t draw definitive conclusions from pitch counts in a vacuum. There are dozens, if not thousands of factors that come into play. You impose pitch count restrictions to account for the factors you cannot “know”. It’s risk management.

    The Brewers were incredibly irresponsible with Sabathia, and CC will pay the price for that. As fans, we’re lucky that CC is simply that good. For his sake, at least he survived long enough to get paid. There’s little doubt that both he and the Brewers mortgaged some of his future for that playoff run.

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    • Aaron says:

      “You can’t draw definitive conclusions…” “There are dozens, if not thousands of factors…” “It’s risk management.”

      “”CC will pay the price…” “…he and the Brewers mortgaged some of his future…”

      Were these two paragraphs written by different people?

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      • puffy says:

        FYI – Smarter people than you get where I am coming from. It’s a blog reply, not a textbook.

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      • Aaron says:

        Understanding humor is a good indicator that you’re finally fluent in a language.

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      • puffy says:

        I have a very good sense of humor. Your post just isn’t smart enough to cater to it.

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      • Aaron says:

        Please stop emailing me, Puffy.

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      • Evan Kirkwood says:

        Aaron, thank you.

        Puffy: For someone that so clearly believes they are intelligent, you come off as…not so. First off, here is one other thing you can’t make definitive conclusions about: that something will happen when there is no evidence suggesting it. Sabathia has not worn down yet and has shown no signs of it. To say he will “pay the price” and has “mortgaged his future,” you should at the very least say WHY. The thing is, there is no “why.” You’re just assuming. Speaking of assuming, you should also not be so quick to assume someone else isn’t intelligent, i.e. Aaron. He made one (rather perceptive) reply questioning what you said, and you were quick to insult his intelligence. I think that says a lot more about your intelligence than his.

        It seems to me like you may have a bit of a problem drawing “definitive” conclusions yourself, particularly without evidence. Just sayin’.

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      • baty says:

        What are you crabbing about Aaron, didn’t you get the defensive remark you originally hoped for?

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    • SpokaneMsFan says:

      Why is there little doubt? I mean I certainly wouldn’t say definitively that they didn’t mortgage his future, but I would say his results since then indicate that it is possible he’s no worse for the wear. I mean this whole article gives some conditional evidence that perhaps we should in fact doubt that there was anything wrong with the decisions. “CC will pay the price for that” sounds like a foregone conclusion and I just really don’t see how anyone can say with certainty that extra innings he threw 3 years ago are going to cause him to suffer, or that they won’t for that matter, but still not something I am willing to state as fact either way.

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  2. philosofool says:

    I would like to see a study on how pitch counts are actually being used. I think their role in management is being exaggerated by people who say that pitch counts are ruining baseball. Where’s the evidence that increased walks from good hitters aren’t responsible for the decrease in complete games?

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    • puffy says:

      Hitters are better now than they’ve ever been. Raul Ibanez at his peak was probably better than Babe Ruth. What I mean here is, if you take Ibanez with our advanced technology and compare him to Ruth without it, and Ibanez is a much more effective hitter.

      Pitchers don’t benefit as much from technology, other than managing park effects more intelligently. This is a long way of saying that hitting is more heavily weighted towards science than pitching is, which is more of an art.

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      • puffy says:

        btw – this is a long way of saying that pitchers have to work harder now. More velocity, more break. A lot of guys that would have been adequate starters in the 40’s, are not even good enough for middle relief now. The added effort required to be effective in today’s game is shortening the life cycle of the major league pitcher.

        That’s my view. I don’t care enough to generate scientific evidence. I’m just smart.

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      • Evan Kirkwood says:

        Man, Puffy, your comments today are true achievements in jackassery. Please, post as much as possible on every article on this site, this is just too rich.

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      • DownwiththeDH says:

        Oh man I finally found someone else out there who believes! It’s Tru!!! I’ve been trying to prove that for years (Ibanez>Ruth)… just haven’t been able to for some reason?

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        btw – this is a long way of saying that pitchers have to work harder now. More velocity, more break.

        FWIW, Orel Hershieser agrees. Pitchers are throwing balls out from the beginning of the game. They know there are relievers to be used, and there are no easy outs. They have no reason to hold back (as oppossed to back in the day).

        But, there’s no performance reason for a pitcher to hold back because they’re out of the game after the 7th anyway. Holding back in terms of preventing injuries (less intense pitches) is not supported by data either.

        But, your other comments regarding Raul Ibanez being equal with babe Ruth need some quantification/ Is the 100m swimming time in 2010 compared to 1920 thing?

        What has probably happened in all sports is that the “replacement level” has increased drastically over decades and decades of increasing the available sample (desegregation, international, more kids playing sports v. working, etc), and training methods.

        But, this is why we compare guys to their peers, because Walter Johnson on a modern day training program, might have been a right-handed Randy Johnson with control from the start. It just doesn’t work one way (today’s player are better than previous).

        Babe Ruth swung a 55oz bat. Give him one with the same barrell size, handle shaved down,end cupped out, made out of superior material and one that now weighs 32o. Imagine the bat speed increase? Now, perhaps, he hits homers at the same pace and reduces K’s?

        The comparison of athletes in different eras, does not make sense to me,in this regard.

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  3. Calc16 says:

    Why doesn’t anyone discuss the true issue here in terms of elevated pitch counts. Examine pitchers effectiveness by using opponents OPS in segments: In doing so you will find significantly higher opponents OPS for pitches 100+ as compared to pitches 1-75. Our game has evolved to a late inning specialty matchup (this is why Ryan Howard is NOT a 25 million dollar poor fielding 1B) and let’s face it; a reliever with a favorable matchup L on L that is throwing his first few pitches of the day, is a far better option than most starting pitchers who are facing that same hitter for maybe the 4th time in that game with a pitch count around 100 in late innings.

    Of course we wan our pitchers to be able to work deep into games but when it comes down to winning games the reliever is a far better option!!

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    • Jimbo says:

      I think what the article is suggesting is perhaps a general metric (like OPS for pitches over 100) shouldn’t be applied in all cases. The facts are the facts, so data points aren’t going to change, but the decision of reliever vs tired starter should be made based on the individual and not any rule of thumb.

      One of the risks of the saber-age…just because we *can* get a stat doesn’t mean it *should* drive decisions.

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  4. Mr Punch says:

    On Sabathia, bear in mind that some observers thought he was over-used during the regular season in ’07, and that that’s why he was outpitched in the postseason by Beckett (runner-up for CY) who was rested.

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    • Ian says:

      He also pitched poorly in his one 2008 postseason start for Milwaukee after going repeatedly on 3 days rest in order to get them there.

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  5. Scout Finch says:

    How about not all Pitch Counts are equal :

    If you want a more reliable predictor of “Abuse”, then pitch counts should incorporate pitches in leveraged situations.

    -How many pitches were thrown from the stretch?
    -How many sliders/splitters were thrown?

    If you want to get in deep, account for body type, arm angle/mechanics, and average velocity since those are likely to factor heavily in the cumulative abuse generated from pitching in the bigs.

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    • Jimbo says:

      Even pitches with a large lead vs close game vs deficit. With a 5 run lead (or deficit) I’d imagine a pitcher is less stressed on a per-pitch basis–even from the stretch–than in a tie game or 1-run affair. This is where saber is either ‘almost there’ or (perhaps) dabbling where it shouldn’t. Sort of like trying to prove God with science.

      Going to be interesting to watch the Rangers handling of pitchers with Ryan involved. If you develop prospects based on individual ability, maybe pitchcounts become individualized.

      Egos aside, would Prior or Wood have had better luck with a 90-pitch limit every outing? Or 80?? We talk about those to may be able to exceed current benchmarks, but how about the other end of the spectrum?

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        To me, pitch counts, based on data have been more important in showing that high pitch count games leads to a couple of poor starts after the high pitch game.

        They haven’t shown anything in terms of injury prediction or prevention. But, they have shown some “residual effect” evidence following a high pitch game.

        To me, it doesn;t matter what an individial SP’s pitch count tolerance is in regards to injury. Why? Because a SP in order to be valuable at the MLB level (and not just at the advanced stat level) has to be able to get to the 6th inning quite a bit. If he cannot do that while staying within his pitch count limit, then he’s not a ML starter.

        But the data presented in Baseball By The Numbers rgarding PAP and sequential performance was very interesting, and conclusive.

        Our data for pitcher injuries is not.

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    • DownwiththeDH says:

      Livan would be a good guy to study in relation to your post. I’m not sure anyone has been more effective in the last 20 years at mixing in junk pitches with the real stuff. A SP who knows the art of pitching can have a bit of a higher pitch count and wear down less than an fireballing young stud on a smaller pitch count (parallel to this formative vs aged years topic). Too bad the only guys who really know how much a pitcher is really wearing down is himself and the catcher.

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  6. tonysoprano says:

    The human body cannot be given a “sabermetric” value. Everyone is different. What makes pitcher “A” different than pitcher “B” is anyone’s guess. You can’t put a stat on that…it’s just genetics.

    You can make decisions (as an organization) to protect your pitchers. And that is fine. But if a pitcher is going to break down he is going to break down. There is nothing you can really do about that. Unless you are Roger Clemons and take steroids.

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  7. Dana says:

    As a Nats fan, I swear I heard ominous background music when I read this from the 1999 article on PAP.
    “And, of course, I can’t write this article without mentioning Kerry Wood. At 21, he’s the youngest name on this list, and he’s in the middle of the pack as far as abuse goes. He hasn’t thrown more than 128 pitches in a game this year, but he has a number of outings in the 120+ range. I don’t think he’s in grave danger of injury – he’s a big guy with good mechanics, relies on his fastball, and doesn’t throw a splitter. But I do think that Jim Riggleman should take a little more care of the most prized arm of the decade.”

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      So, is the cause of the injury the intensity they throw with, their bad mechanics, or their usage?

      My idea would be not to use someone with bad mechanics for our model on how to handle pitchers to increase their durability.

      We blame the innings primarily, probably because it requires the least amount of knowledge to decipher. In other words, who really knows? The common fan can just point to IP and sound like a guru. They don;t have any idea what the shelf life is of a pitcher that does [insert mechanical flaw].

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Sorry, I meant to add this …

      My big concern withStrasburg is [1] The kid was travelling all over the country at age 11 playing in showcase tournaments. If his mechanics were poor in NCAA, they were probably poor at that age. [2] What are the odds the coach used him cautiously, and didn;t just ride his talent to victories?

      How much abuse did SS’s arm endure even before varsity high school baseball? SS has pretty much been babied as a pro, and yet his arm still was injured. We have no idea whether is was due to something instantaneous or accumulated damage, etc.

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      • AA says:

        Strasburg was a late developing talent; he was nowhere near the quality of pitcher that he became in college prior to getting there. It is likely that his level of use was similar to most other competitive youth pitchers, although the coach is a major factor.

        UCL tears are a very common injury, and throwing extremely hard puts more strain on the arm regardless of the quality of mechanics. It may not be a very analytical assessment, but sometimes it just happens (without an obvious mistreatment or mechanical flaw to point to).

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        When you’re an 11yo pitching in a national tournament championship, safe to say “you’re talented”.

        Maybe he wasn’t the “greatest #1 pick in history” at that time, but he was no slouch. *grin*

        For kids that play in the LLWS, I would like to see how many IP/NPC that rack up playing baseball from April/May through September … in intense games, no less. Since many of these teams practice year round (no absolute recovery period), I wonder just how many pitches they throw in a given year.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Here’s an example of a pitcher that I coached, and followed in college. He has always been a high pitch kid, because he K’s a lot of folks and walks more than he should. His ball has a ton of movement, and at 86-90 mph, he’s hard for many batters to handle (0HR 107K 49 BB/HBP in 86.1 IP.

        I told him that I thought he’d be even better (somethng like 30-4 in HS) in college because guys would make more contact, and he’d have a better defnse in college. I was wrong. *grin*

        Anyway, here’s my point … he was D2 AA, and his last 2 games feautred him throwing 137 and 150 pitches, both CG victories, including a 3-0 shutout win against a team that has 6 players go pro (5 drafted in the top 20 rounds).

        I’m not condemning that b/c that’s how it goes in college, HS, and even younger leagues. The team rides it’s stallion as far and as long as it can. I’m just using it as an illustration of how pitchers can rack up PAP at younger ages. They probably get more caution in the pros than they’ve ever had before.

        So, when we’re measuring PAP, we’re just measuring it at the MiLB and ML levels. We should assume more abuse before that.

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  8. Dr. Oz says:

    Any way we can get a SMEAR variant in the PAP stat?

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  9. CircleChange11 says:

    Okay. So, the least abused guys are control freaks. The abused guys are high K, sorta high BB guys. That’s just data.

    The series is about handling young pitchers. So far, we’ve just seen data … but not applied it to the topic.

    We need to graph IP (or NPC) before age X and the rest of the career and see how it plays out. The assumption is that heavy use at a young age means death of a career, But it very well could be as random as the career path of pitchers who are “babied” at a young age. Let’s see the data.

    Young pitchers are not usually masters of control. In other words, they’re usually K and BB guys. Using PAP and a cautious approach, they won’t get out of the 5th inning very often (HEy look, Max Scherzer). So, in other words, despite all their talent they kill the bullpen and leave the game earlier than most. Teams are not looking for their phenom to throw 5 IP a game. It doesn’t help them very often, and *could* be a poor way a managing their assetts.

    Hopefully there’s more good stuff to come in this series. Heck, I’d be interested just to see all the “paths” young pitchers take to get to the ML level, as well as, their accumulated NPC/IP, IP/year, type of stuff. There may be some good correlations, and there may be none at all.

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  10. Z says:

    Circle change, your probably right about the mechanics vs ip, but it is impossible to tell definitivly what are bad mechanics. Lincecums mechanics work wonderfully for him, but strausburg might not have the same body type that works well for those type of mechanics. Also, I don’t know a pitiching coach alive who would teach timmys mechanics. Far more people were alarmed by timmys mechanics than strausburgs. I saw a specail on strausburg on espn where his college coach who I think was Tony Gwynn, said strausburg had great mechanics. There are thousands of cases like this be it mark prior or rich harden or really anybody who’s had a pitiching injury.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Lincecum’s mechanics are at the far extreme of “effectiveness”. Simply put his 120% stride length (stride length vs. height) is quite a bit larger than even the top side of “normal range” (100%). Not everyone could do that.

      His incredible late hip/shoulder rotation (his belt buckle faces home, the front of his shoulder is still facing 3B) is also on the top end of normal range.

      He is the freak. My only concerns with Lincecum is that he seeming doesn;t value conditioning and that will catch up to him as he loses flexibility … and I worry if/when he ever suffers a major groin/oblique injury … that could be continually re-aggrevated (like when a batter injures his back).

      The problem with mechanics is that folks that should know better but don’t equate “smoothness of delivery” to “good mechanics”. Mark Prior and Rich Harden are as smooth as they come. MOF, I’d put Harden in the top 10% of athleticism. But, they do some things that are highly correlated with injuries.

      People didn;t know what to look for and since the highly ‘educated’ (psychology, not physiology) Tom House (again, he has a phD in PSYCHOLOGY, not the field he is working in), labelled flawed mechanics as “perfect”. Anothony Reyes has/had the same “perfect” mechanics and suffered the same career fate, despite being “babied” in IP.

      Strasburg’s mechanics at the end of his college career were better than at the beginning. The problem is that, by then, the damage was probably already done in terms of accumulation from years past.

      You don’t get to smoke for 20 years, quit smoking for a year, and be free of risks for heart disease.

      It’s not impossible to tell good/bad mechanics. It is, at this point, impossible to tell the spefici and accuate effects of mechanics on durability.

      In other words we cannot say, “If pitcher X would have done Y for the previous 6 years, he would have pitched ZZZ more innings.”

      Let’s face it there are people making mechanics comments based solely on whether it “looks smooth” or not. That’s the error.

      Drinking bleach doesn’t look dangerous.

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  11. Dwight S. says:

    As a Tigers fan I sure hope that the abuse doesn’t catch up to Verlander. It looks to me like he has the ideal frame and mechanics so maybe he’ll be alright but then again I’m no pitching coach or scout so who knows.

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  12. CircleChange11 says:

    Verlander is a “heel lander” with some minor timing issues. But, overall I think his mechanics are pretty darn good.

    I have the opionon that taller guys without tree trunks for legs cannot “toe land” as easily as the Clemens and Schillings of the world, for the same reasons why squats are more difficult for the “giraffes”.

    If you were to “design” a power pitcher in a lab, you would make Clemens. However if you were to design a tall, lankier power pitcher, Verlander would be the mold.

    Some have predicted injury for Verlander, and eventually they’ll be right and throw themselves a parade. But JV has been pretty damn durable and dominant so far. For guys that average mid 90s heat, he’s been very durable.

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  13. Eric B. says:

    Does your research translate to overuse of pitchers in terms of innings or appearances? Say a pitcher pitched around an inning every game of the season, is there the same risk of injury through frequent use than that pitcher pitching high innings and high pitch counts?

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  14. rick p says:

    Why do they call that thing with the arms an “inverted W”? Isnt that pretty much an “M”?

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  15. razor says:

    The link above will show that Strasburg didn’t really emerge until he got in shape after he arrived at San Diego State. I’m sure he was a pretty good HS pitcher, but he was nowhere near a premium talent until he started to emerge after his freshman season in college. He showed up throwing around 90 mph. He left as one of the more sought after arms in the history of the draft.

    I’ve also read where Tony Gwynn wasn’t even entirely on board with offering Strasburg a scholarship when he finished HS…and I know I’m not on board with age 11 having much to do with age 18 and beyond. Way too many variables in an infinite number of areas. I actually believe kids do not throw enough believe it or not, especially long toss.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      I believe in kids throwing a lot as well. IMHO, throwing daily, such as a bullpen session is the most important thing a young pitcher can do. A large amount of “game pitches” every day is not the same as “pitching every day”.

      Unstrucutured bullpen sessions (i.e., kids throwing their balls off for 20 minutes) or pitching in multiple league simultaneously, etc is not what I mean by “pitching daily” or “pitching frequently”.

      We have our guys throw daily, and out focus is on 40-60 pithces at 65-70% where we keep track of “spots hit”, and our command goals are different for each pitcher depending on their ability, experience, and what they are working on.

      I have a copy of the Texas Rangers throwing program … and I like what they are doing. I use some of their stuff, but scale it down to a HS level. There still are significant differences between a 23yo body and a 17yo one.

      You can compare a team’s number of games to their number of practices and get a decent idea on what the purpose of the team is. In our area, the range for 12U travel teams is between 45 and 65 games … those are played in basically 2.5 to 3 monthes.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      I know there are throwing programs that think long toss is the shiznit. I haven’t seen overwhelming evidence that supports that. I can do with or without it. It was always something I was good at, and at 37 can still (and sometimes do) cut a few loose from foul pole to foul pole, y’know just because.

      Throwing for distance is dumb for a pitcher. Playing serious catch from 90-120 feet where the emphasis is on throwing “lasers” that end up at the “thighs” of your partner, I can see value in that. Throwing the ball 200-300 feet is just dumb, in terms of development. But, sure enough you see pitchers out there throwing 250-foot rainbows, as if it has any correlation to pitching effectively or increasing velocity.

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  16. Z says:

    Woo. Long toss. It in no way helps with velocity or injury protection, but, hey it’s better than, I don’t know, sliders with an 11yearold.

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  17. baty says:

    “Wright, however, argues that certain pitchers might be able to withstand higher workloads. Wright argues that pitchers who are able to withstand acceptable workload increases in their formative years, without succumbing to injuries or fatigue, could be pushed harder than most pitchers.”

    1. workload?
    2. formative years… If 18-24 is defined as formative, then what do you call the ages of 11-17?
    3. fatigue?

    There’s nothing definitive about any of this stuff yet (not to generalize by only referencing 2 sentences)… But no matter where you look, there are still way too many factors left undefined to consider any of these studies more than educated guesses.

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  18. Jack Weiland says:

    I miss puffy.

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