Back in Valentine’s Day: Bobby’s Take On Pitch Counts

For fans wondering how new Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine will run the team, his recent comments on pitch counts and pitcher health could make fans of the Red Sox and/or logic cringe and make Red Sox pitchers fear for the health of their pitching arm. In a recent interview, Valentine made it clear that he was neither a fan of pitch counts nor innings limits on his pitchers. On the topic of pitch counts, Valentine offered:

The one thing that doesn’t compute is less is better. It doesn’t match. More is better.

Valentine is partially correct that there is little evidence to demonstrate that strict adherence to a pitch count prevents injuries to adult pitchers, but at the same time I am not aware of any studies that demonstrate that having a higher pitch count actually reduces the risk of injury.

Though the use of the word “compute” in the quote above may signal someone who has analyzed a sizable amount of data on the topic, this does not appear to be true of Valentine. Instead he seems to be drawing his inferences based on a very small sample of cases. In his own words:

No one has ever been monitored more on the pitches he has thrown than Stephen Strasburg … They monitored every pitch, they limited what he did when he was out on the mound. You know what happened? His arm broke and he had Tommy John surgery. So is limiting the amount of pitches you throw the end-all for the health of the pitcher’s arm? The answer has got to be no.

As noted above, there is some truth in the last part of that statement, but the rest of the quote is cringe worthy. First of all, there have been no reports that Strasburg suffered a broken arm, and if even if he had I’m not aware of a case where Tommy John surgery was the prescribed remedy for an arm fracture. Factual errors aside, it is next to impossible to learn anything systematic about pitcher health –- or anything else for that matter — by focusing on one case.

Yes, by all accounts Strasburg’s workload was limited in college and by the Nationals and yet he still had a serious arm injury. But we know that throwing a baseball in the way that Strasburg does is in many ways an unnatural act. We’ve only begun to understand the forces placed on various body structures when a ball is thrown at great velocity, but at this point in our scientific understanding, we simply do not fully understand how to prevent all injuries to pitchers. However, Valentine seems –- as per usual — quite sure of himself:

Valentine also noted that none of his pitchers from Chiba Lotte Marines had arm injuries despite 200 pitch bullpen sessions.

Again we see a small sample size argument akin to saying that if you know one person who smoked a lot and never got lung cancer and another person who never smoked but was stricken with the disease you could ignore the scientific data connecting smoking and lung cancer. The fact that Strasburg was injured despite being carefully monitored, while “old-timers” like Nolan Ryan survived despite punishing workloads only proves that there are differences in how factors such as mechanics, genetics, and luck affect each individual pitcher.

The comparison that Valentine makes between pitching in Japan versus in MLB is interesting, but unfortunately we cannot infer from this example that “more is better.” It may well be true that longer bullpen sessions help build arm strength. In fact, former Altanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone was an advocate of what he called the “throw strong” program whereby his pitchers threw the ball a lot more than was the norm in MLB, but they threw at less than maximum effort with the hope of building more arm strength. However, by equating pitching in Japan to MLB, Valentine ignores other major differences between the two games that may affect pitcher health, including days of rest between starts, the quality of lineups faced, and size and texture of the ball itself. There may be important relationships between all these variables and pitcher health, but Valentine’s “analysis” does little to illuminate them.

Valentine is similarly dogmatic about innings limits, which will be worth following this season if the Red Sox move forward with their current plans to have both Alfredo Aceves and Daniel Bard move from the bullpen to the starting rotation. It has become customary for major league teams to show restraint in increasing the number of innings a pitcher throws from one season to the next. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci has presented data showing that pitchers who have a jump of more than 30 innings from one year to the next are more susceptible to injury and/or ineffectiveness in the following year. This could be tough to manage for the Red Sox in 2012 as Bard has never thrown more than 75 innings in a season and Aceves’ previous high is 114 innings. Valentine, however, seems totally unconcerned about the difficulties of two of his pitchers making this transition:

It’s not a tough physical transition. There’s a lot of talk about this tough physical transformation that relievers have to do to become a starter. Well, the majority of pitchers in history did it. So how tough could it be?

It is too early to tell if Valentine’s comments are actually reflective of a change in the Red Sox philosophy on pitcher usage, or simply cheap talk, but it is noteworthy how drastic Valentine’s philosophy is from what the Red Sox have been doing. There is no evidence to suggest that the Red Sox have been employing a hard pitch count on their starters as most have been allowed to get into the 120s on occasion, but by most accounts they have been on the cutting edge of attempts to measure pitcher fatigue, which is often a precursor to injury. In past seasons the team has limited the innings of many of its starters by managing their rotation in a way that gives pitchers more than five days of rest between starts on occasion. They also reportedly regularly measure fatigue in the arm muscles of their pitchers and compare to baseline measurements. Yet, despite these measures, all five original members of the Red Sox 2011 starting rotation spent time on the disabled list last season. This does demonstrate that there is still a lot we do not know about how to keep pitchers healthy, but few would take this as evidence that we should ignore the things we do know. Valentine is known for being a bit of a loose cannon, so it may be that his comments do not reflect a change in organizational philosophy, but if they do it the next few seasons could be tough for Red Sox pitchers and fan alike.




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I am political science professor at the University of North Carolina. I grew up watching the Braves on TBS and acquired Red Sox fandom during the 1986 World Series. My other hobbies include cooking, good red wine, curing meats, and obsessing over Alabama football---Roll Tide! Follow me on Twitter @ProfJRoberts.


39 Responses to “Back in Valentine’s Day: Bobby’s Take On Pitch Counts”

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  1. Jon says:

    Are you being purposely dense? You take every word out of his mouth literally and anyone who has ever communicated with humans understands that this is not a useful way to listen.

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    • Preston says:

      I agree this article is trying to force a controversy out of very vague comments. “The one thing that doesn’t compute is less is better. It doesn’t match. More is better”. This really is a true statement. Less isn’t better because there is no evidence that it saves pitchers from injury. More is better because it means you get more out of your best pitchers, not because it’s proven that more saves them from injuries. I think that there are certain pitchers who can pitch 250+ innings without it being a problem and there are others who are just going to get hurt no matter what they do. Now obviously there is a gray area between Mark Prior and Nolan Ryan that we don’t know about. But right now all teams just err on the side of caution so there is no way to verify the true affects.

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    • luckygoon says:

      ESPN.com worthy. Not good

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      • LeftBrainSwag says:

        Not to pile on, but yeah, this article was not fangraphs worthy…this coming from a guy who has irrational hate towards Bobby V.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      What’s particularly telling is that the author admits “at this point in our scientific understanding, we simply do not fully understand how to prevent all injuries to pitchers.”

      Which kind of proves Valentine’s point. If we don’t really have any idea how to prevent pitcher injuries, there’s no reason to bother obsessing over prophylactic pitch/innings limits.

      And even if you buy the idea that Bobby Valentine speaks for the entire medical/conditioning staff of the team, it doesn’t necessarily signal any change in philosophy. The Sox have been obsessed with physical tests of arm/shoulder strength and fatigue, not pitch/innings counts. The author conflates the two things. It’s possible that, if a Daniel Bard shows no problems in the strength tests, they’ll let him throw 120 pitches and pitch 220 innings. But if the tests show his arm is weakening, they could give him extra rest and put him on a strict pitch count.

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  2. Peter R says:

    ….i don’t think he was talking about a fracture more just that his arm stopped working properly…..much as I say my car broke, not that it fractured just that it does not work.

    seems you don’t like Bobby V much, I am in the same boat but think you went a bit far here.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Yeah, this part was really cringe-worthy. I have no doubt that Valentine knows that Strasburg suffered a torn ligament. Personally, I am a fan of referring to a pitcher’s “arm falling off” or his “elbow exploding.”

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  3. DonChrysler says:

    I agree. Kind of reaching here for a conclusion from some pretty nothing quotes from Valentine.

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  4. the hottest stove says:

    Bobby V making sweeping generalizations on topics he knows very little about? I miss Baseball Tonight.

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  5. Tasintango says:

    We’ll have to see how he manages his staff during the season which might not be the way these quotes say he will. Bobby V being Bobby V, I think. I never cared for him but I think you’re reaching here.

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  6. Mr Punch says:

    As the Sox don’t have any young (or even youngish) pitchers who aren’t already injured, I can’t see as it matters.

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  7. wolf9309 says:

    doesn’t it seem like you’re taking an article where any quotes from him are mostly out of context and then removing any semblance of context from them?

    This is kind of all silly semantics which clearly were not what he was intending to say, and putting a lot of words in his mouth.

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  8. Aaron says:

    I thought the “Verducci Effect” was pretty much discredited. Here’s one study that looks at it,

    http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/the-year-after-effect/

    And not to pile on but, yeah, Valentine was pretty clearly speaking metaphorically when he said that Strasburg’s arm broke.

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    • iluv2partynaked says:

      I was about to try a study like this one, so thank you!

      Also, the Verducci article linked above has a big concession statement in it:

      “Bear in mind this is not a highly scientific study. It is a rule of thumb used to gauge what by now has become a kind of industry standard of trying to keep young arms healthy.”

      One might call that more than a concession statement.

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    • Baltar says:

      Great link! Thanks.

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  9. CircleChange11 says:

    The one thing that doesn’t compute is less is better. It doesn’t match. More is better.

    My deal with pitch counts has little to do with injury-prevention but the correlation with “times through the lineup”. 100 pitches generally correlates with 3 times through the lineup. So, if you want to use 100 pitch limits or 3 times through the lineup, I’m fine with that provided that your TIRING starting pitcher doesn’t face the lineup the FOURTH time. Get him out, with a few exceptions.

    IMO, Bobby really is saying more throwing is better than less throwing. I agree/disagree by what intensity level we’re talking about.

    His arm broke

    Ballplayers speak in a combination of exaggeration, sarcasm, and cussing. It’s one of the aspects I miss the most.

    Strasburg’s arm broke. They sewed it back on. He should be fine. See?

    threw the ball a lot more than was the norm in MLB, but they threw at less than maximum effort with the hope of building more arm strength.

    Wouldn’t that build endurance rather than strength? Or perhaps he’s using “strength” to mean endurance or more durable. Generally arm strength refers to velocity and/or distance.

    A lot of “max distance” long toss programs are in use to build arm strength (Felix Hernandez as a popular example), but that’s using progressive distances culminating in max distance throwing at max intensity.

    200 Pitch bullpen sessions shouldn’t be a problem provided they are thrown with “free throw shooting intensity”. Pro baseball players making 30 starts use bullpen sessions differently than most. Their bullpen sessions are “feel sessions” where they work on touch and command, mechanics, etc. They aren’t throwing anything close to “simulated games” in the bullpens (like far too many college and HS pitchers do).

    That’s my issue with this stuff, guys like this say “200 pitch sessions” and people can interpret that many different ways. Somewhere some HS coach is reading that and is feeling justified that he has his 16yo pitchers throw their balls off for 130 pitches in the bullpen and the only reason they got hurt is because they’re pussies and babies.

    Volume – Frequency – Intensity … they exist in inverse relationships.

    As for quoting Valentine, just wait … he’ll say everything at least once. The one thing I am certain of is that he’ll be out to show MLB that he really is smarter than everyone else … so look for him to be unconventional, and I don;t think he’ll “align with the nerds” (saber-friendly), but show the nerds who really knows some stuff.

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  10. GotHeem says:

    Poorly written and lazy article. I’m amazed this was even published.

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  11. Joebrady says:

    “It’s not a tough physical transition. There’s a lot of talk about this tough physical transformation that relievers have to do to become a starter. Well, the majority of pitchers in history did it. So how tough could it be?”

    The majority of pitchers were not RPs in the minor leagues. What Hollywood Bobby is referring to is when pitchers would throw out of the BP for a short while to get used to the big show. It’s like he thinks AAA is filled with nothing but RPs, who get converted to SPs in the pros.

    I’m a fan of having SPs break in thru the BP, but that is not even in the same conversation as converting an RP to an SP. That’s kind of idiotic.

    But the rest of the article was a reach, particularly the broken arm. And the 30-inning rule, while important, might depend on age. As a RS fan, I’d be careful, but not 100% strict with Bard and Aceves.

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  12. Judy says:

    Since when does anyone mention the Verducci Effect in relation to a pitcher as old as Alfredo Aceves?

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  13. Douglas says:

    If the Red Sox continue to play an inordinate number of 3 1/2 hour contests there’s no way the starting pitchers will be able to stay in the games as long as Bobby wishes. It’s not just the pitch counts that factors into fatigue, it’s the duration of the games.

    Something he can hopefully convey to Josh Beckett.

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  14. Baltar says:

    Most of you are hard on Roberts. He basically shows that Valentine is full of it and apparently anti-sabermetric, which is news to me, but perhaps not to you.
    For me, this is a good article.

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  15. ODawg says:

    To Valentine’s quote that “more is better”, you respond: “I am not aware of any studies that demonstrate that having a higher pitch count actually reduces the risk of injury.”

    I don’t think Valentine was saying that pitching more would reduce the risk of injury – you should’ve shared more context from the discussion and proved it if you thought that’s what he was saying, because that doesn’t make much sense. It would make much more sense to suggest the following: Pulling a quality pitcher (say Clay Buchholz, a +5 win pitcher during a 2010 season when he had his pitches and innings watched closely) from a game for Manny Delcarmen (a 0.1 WAR pitcher who appeared in 48 games for the Sox in 2010) due simply to the number of pitches he’s thrown does not compute, at least not on the surface.

    Surely teams have access to data on each pitchers’ effectiveness before/after certain pitch thresholds. I wonder if Bobby has seen those numbers and considered them in this discussion, and if they back up his argument.

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    • Joebrady says:

      I would also take into consideration where you are in his contract. I wouldn’t intentionally hurt someone, but if you have 5 controllable years left of a prospect, or if $80M left on an SP’s contract, they need a little more care. If you have one or two years left with a guy, particularly if you think he is definitely leaving, I’d tend to worry more about wins and less about the arm.

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  16. Andrew says:

    This post is a joke. First you make a big deal out of the “broken arm” thing which was a euphemism, not literal, and then you reference the Verducci Effect as if it has any credibility.

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  17. Andrew says:

    OMG SOME OTHER GUY JUST SAID THAT SOME PITCHER’S ARM “BLEW UP” IS HE LIKE SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUSTING OR WAT?!

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  18. ML says:

    If gauging my eyes out wasnt the better alternative I’d grab chunks of this crappy article and spin them in an overly literal manner the way you have taken Valentines comments.

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  19. Shane Heathers says:

    Injury aside, we do have studies such as the one done in Baseball Prospectus’s Between the Numbers that suggest Picher performance suffers in subsequent starts when pitchers go beyond the 100 pitch threshold. Inline with this thinking the Red Sox have in recent years tried to keep their starting pitchers to 330 pitches or less over the course of three starts. What is most surprising about the Basebal Prospectus study is that pitchers fared no better on 4 days rest than they did on three days rest. The Sox will never do it but I think it would be interesting to see them go with a rotation of Beckett, Lester, Bucholz, Bard/Oswalt. Keep that foursome to a pitch count of 310 per 3 individual starts. I think this could work, especially given the fact that they have the rubber armed Aceves to back them up in mid, late innings. Why not give it a shot. It would maximize the number of bullets you are getting from your best guns. It might also keep the frat house behavior to a minimum in between starts. They obviously have too much time on their hands as things stand now. Throwing pitches when tired is what get’s a pitcher injured. The four man rotation allows pitchers plenty of time to recover given they do not overthrow on the days they do start. Funny fact: Bobby Valentine was once a high end prospect with the 1970′s LA Dodgers who popularized the five man rotation around 1974.

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  20. Ian says:

    Valentine is a loudmouth, and often sounds like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but he’s a pretty smart guy. He was one of the first people to actually use statistical analysis when he was with the Rangers and he has said he likes the work of Bill James. The Red Sox ownership wouldn’t hire a neanderthal.

    There’s a lot of groupthink surrounding Valentine among people who already dislike him and aren’t actually listening to what he has to say. Write this article after he lets Bard throw 140 pitches (if he ever does), not after he speaks freely on his thoughts (which don’t necessarily mean what’s going to be implemented).

    Here’s some quotes / articles where he seems like he is ready to embrace sabermetrics:

    http://www.nesn.com/2011/12/bobby-valentine-plans-blending-sabermetrics-with-baseball-experience-to-make-decisions-with-red-sox.html

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/sports/baseball/red-sox-put-bobby-valentines-strategy-to-the-test.html

    There were the first results for “bobby valentine sabermetrics” in Google, by the way.

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    • Franco says:

      As a Mets fan, Bobby V talks crazy and seems pretend that he’s dumber than he actually is. He never abused any pitcher during his Mets tenure and I don’t remember the Rangers having problems under him either. I think this all just Bobby talk for leave a pitcher out there until he’s tired, whether that means 80 pitches or 140.

      That being said, this FG article is pretty bad at taking BobbyV out of context seemingly on purpose.

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      • Judy says:

        Does he pull pitchers when they’re not getting the hitters out? Because that’ll probably be enough to avoid overworking any Red Sox starters.

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      • Franco says:

        He only really ever let Leiter who was his ace pitch an inning too long. He had a really short leash after 5 innings for pretty much everyone else except Hampton the one year we had him. The Mets didn’t have any top pitching prospect types during Bobby V’s reign so I don’t know how he’d handle them.

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  21. Chris says:

    “The fact that Strasburg was injured despite being carefully monitored, while “old-timers” like Nolan Ryan survived despite punishing workloads only proves that there are differences in how factors such as mechanics, genetics, and luck affect each individual pitcher.”

    Isn’t this the exact proof required to discredit the fallacy in the wide use of the blanket 100 pitch count / 6 inning abritrary limit?

    Trying to mold all these unique pitchers into a fixed system will perpetually fail by either overworking pitchers that just can’t deliver the set workload on a consistent basis year to year and waste use of pitchers that have quite a bit left in the tank. It seems logical that more individualized regimens would be needed that totally disregard our current conception of “pitch counts”.

    There are other factors that discredit pitch counts as an aberation :
    100 sliders have a different effect then 100 fastballs or 100 knukleballs
    100 pitches in the stretch are different then 100 pitches in the windup
    100 pitches don’t mean the same thing if 50 of the pitches were in the first inning or if 50 pitches were thrown in the 6th.

    The sad part is that everyone in baseball knows about this yet for some reason pressure is still put on managers as soon as their starters go over 100 pitches and they get cruxified if ever one of said pitchers would later get injured.

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  22. John says:

    This writer was the worst, the Toby Flenderson of Fangraphs. I liked how he took Bobby’s “broke arm” comment out of context, but in actuality his assertion that broke = fractured is just as wrong semantically. The link to the Verducci effect is funny, too. I like how Verducci uses Gallardo only pitching 20some innings in ’08 because of a knee injury on a fielding play as validation of his theory. The guy that wrote this junk should not be allowed to procreate.

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  23. BChae says:

    You know…I get it that you may be starved for material to churn into content…but this article is really just a study in nitpicking one person’s commentary in cherry-picked segments while trying to divine a manager’s and an organization’s philosophies with respect to pitcher health and workload. A simple “it remains to be seen how Red Sox pitchers fare under Bobby Valentine” would have sufficed.

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  24. Don’t think Bobby V is a big fan of pitch counts. He once pitched Bobby Witt 8 or 9 consecutive complete games. He will definitely let his pitchers pitch. He also is coming from Japan where they throw and throw. Bobby V is not your average major league manager.

    With that said, I am sure he will pretty adhere to general pitch count advice but his starters will probably be among the highest in terms of pitch counts.

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