Jeff Samardzija on Pitch Counts and Injuries

Jeff Samardzija has some old-school in him when it comes to pitch counts. Ditto work loads for late-inning relievers. The 29-year-old righthander feels starters should be given more of an opportunity to work deeper into games. As for closers, whatever happened to the multiple-inning save?

On Sunday, Samardzija went seven innings and threw 108 pitches in his first outing since being traded from the Cubs to Oakland. His high for the year is 126, which came on May 5 when he went nine innings and earned a no-decision. The game two months ago is more in line with his way of thinking.

“Back in the day, the game was left in the starter’s hands,” Samardzija told me three days before he was dealt. “If the starter pitched well, he was given his 120 pitches. The game was decided by the starting pitchers. It’s different now and I think that’s unfortunate. When you get into tough situations, regardless of your pitch count, a lot of times a reliever is brought in. I understand why – it’s to preserve the game — but you have to keep your relievers’ arms fresh too. I like the idea of the starters deciding what happens in the game.”

Given the spate of pitchers undergoing Tommy John surgery, injury fears have an ever-increasing influence on workloads. The old-school righty doesn’t see a direct correlation.

“I don’t believe they go hand in hand,” said Samardzija. “I think pitch counts are maybe one aspect of injuries, but I don’t think by any means that’s the most important aspect. A lot of factors get overlooked. It’s just that pitch counts are such an easy, concrete number to look at and associate with injuries. Other aspects are more arbitrary. You don’t see how much a guy works in between starts. You don’t see how much weight room work he does. You can’t tell how his body and arm are made up.”

That response prompted me to ask for his thoughts on the physiology of arm injuries. I began by sharing my own – formed from recent conversations with coaches – and Samardzija largely echoed my supposition.

“I think when steroids were prevalent that was probably more the case,” he opined. “The muscles were so big and the ligaments and tendons weren’t growing the same. In turn, that caused more injuries. Nowadays, the game has become such that the throwing you do is more intense. I think there are a lot more sliders being thrown, and on top of that, you need to keep your velo up or else you get asked if something is wrong.”

I asked if he noted any irony in being queried about his velocity. Pitching coaches routinely stress that location is more important. Knowledgeable fans understand that as well.

“Right, but let your velo drop and see what happens,” answered Samardzija, whose fastball has averaged 94.6 mph over his career “We’ve seen it with Verlander. Any time he’s had struggles, the first thing everyone goes to is his velo, because that’s the easiest and most obvious thing the everyday fan can understand. It’s not always the case. There are a number of things that go into success on the mound. It’s similar to pitch counts and injuries in that it’s one of many aspects, but for many people it’s the easy out.”

When he broke into the big leagues, Samardzija got his outs as a reliever. Of his first 133 appearances, 128 came out of the bullpen. In 2011, he threw 88 innings over 75 relief outings. I asked the power-pitching righty if he’d have liked to be a multi-inning closer – similar to Goose Gossage – had he not become a starter. After all, is a quality pitcher not more valuable throwing 100-120 innings than he is throwing 75-80?

“I wanted to go in a different direction – I want to start – but if I were closer, I’d love to do that,” said Samardzija. “It’s something I certainly feel I could have done. The human mind is an interesting thing, and I think a lot of it is mentality. I had Lou Piniella [as a manager] when I came up, and if you were the hot arm in the bullpen you pitched and that was it. If you couldn’t come in when they needed you – especially if you were a young guy – they were going to get somebody who could. That was the mentality, which used to be a lot more common.

“When the topic is constantly injuries, it’s not surprising you see more guys not pitching. Back in the day, injuries weren’t even a topic. You couldn’t even talk about them in the locker room. The training room was off limits. Everything was off limits. I think that’s taken a 180 turn. Back in the day, guys were probably hurt just as much as they are today, but they kept going out and pitching, because that was the culture.”

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

7 Responses to “Jeff Samardzija on Pitch Counts and Injuries”

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  1. TKDC says:

    Guys talk about the old days all the time, but even though most hitters are built like linebackers these days, offense is way down. Maybe there is something to the new way of pitcher management?

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    • AC of DC says:

      Back in the old days, we didn’t take any guff from punks who questioned our vague, truistic wisdom! Uphill both ways!

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  2. Bigmouth says:

    It’s so funny this post appeared now. I was just thinking Samardzija’s mechanics make him a potential injury risk. Guys who invert their elbows like that put a lot of strain on their arms.

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  3. asdf says:

    I sometimes hear pitchers say pitch count in a certain game doesn’t matter when it comes to relationship to injuries in elbow or shoulder (e.g. Justin Verlander maybe?)

    So, I want to know if quite a lot of pitchers do think this way. I think I haven’t heard any pitcher say publicly or privately “My elbow is so fragile that throwing more than 100 pitches is such a deadly thing.”

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  4. Ryan Sullivan Kelley says:

    Samardzija was given the gift of ideal athleticism, the kind of 1/100 million body that scouts jabber about when they discuss top prospects. On top of that he’s highly intelligent, and he’s worked very hard to perfect his body and his performance. He’s exceptionally gifted in a pool of exceptionally gifted men.

    So, it’s no surprise that he takes the “pitch counts are blown out of proportion” stance and that he feels that everyone is too obsessed with velocity readings. That’s easy to say when you throw 95 mph with minimal effort and you can paint the corner with incredible movement.

    Velocity does matter when you’re given a more average body, with more average balance, that makes it much more difficult to spot your pitches from inch to inch. Life isn’t so easy when you don’t have the gifts to be an elite NFL and MLB player.

    I’m also amazed that the strike zone isn’t brought up more often when we discuss the prevalence of pitching injuries. Yes, pitchers are throwing more sliders than ever! We fucking know! And they’re maxing out more than ever. We fucking know!

    But why!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!? Because they start throwing curveballs in Little League? That’s a reason?

    For fun?

    No, it’s because the strike zone has shrunk and shrunk over the past 30 years, and it’s now about 50% the size it was in 1984.

    As hitters have gotten stronger, as steroids and HGH and better strength training and diets have come become more prevalent, batters are able to drive tougher and tougher pitches. Pair that with a much smaller strike zone, and pitchers are forced to rely on power and movement more and more, rather than simply spotting pitches where the opposing hitter can’t reach. Opposing hitters can reach every part of the strikezone now, and many of them can hit a homer in every part of the strike zone. Even Mickey Mantle couldn’t hit an opposite-field homerun, off of a 94 mph-running two-seamer like Stanton, or Abreu, or Cruz, or A-Rod, or Cabrera, or Fielder, or Martinez, or Cespedes, or Braun, or Kemp, or Encarnacion, or Bautista, or Dunn, or Pujols, or David Ortiz.

    Don’t kid yourself, don’t play naive, no less than 50% of the MLB is juicing/cycling with unwavering dedication. And 99% are relying on PED’s of some type–whether HGH to rehab or extend their youth, or greenies to sharpen their reaction speed, or juice to improve their strength/power/arm/spin. What human in their right mind would leave tens or hundreds of millions on the table without doing everything they could to get it? There isn’t one.

    And yes, every pitching coach loves to point to Greg Maddux’s command. And yes, command is still very important. But so is the ability to miss bats, and power and movement gives you that ability. Greg Maddux was also a freak of nature. He had other-worldly command. So often, these pitching coaches also overlook the other-worldy movement he had on his two-seam fastball and slider, allowing him to neutralize both righties and lefties with extraordinary stuff.

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