How Hard Are College Pitchers Worked?

UCLA might want to think about easing up on its top pitchers. (via Neon Tommy)

UCLA might want to think about easing up on its top pitchers. (via Neon Tommy)

Clinging to a lead in the ninth inning of College World Series Game Three, Coastal Carolina’s Alex Cunningham faced Arizona’s Ryan Haug. There were two outs and runners on second and third, so a hit would have given Arizona the walk-off 5-4 victory and its second national championship in the past five years. Instead, Cunningham struck Haug out to give Coastal its first College World Series title. The whiff officially ended the NCAA Division I season, allowing all college pitchers to finally recover.

This game featured a bevy of heavily used pitchers. Coastal starter Andrew Beckwith had thrown 138 pitches in his previous start. Bobby Holmes, the first man out of Coastal’s bullpen, had thrown 47 pitches two days prior and 39 pitches five days before. On the Arizona side, starter Bobby Dalbec had worked deep playoff outings, all after hastily leaving bullpen work midway through the year. And reliever Cameron Ming worked constantly in tournament play; he made back-to-back appearances in the final two championship games to follow a 79-pitch outing just four days earlier.

If a major league manager ran his young pitchers this hard, he’d get hell from the fans and pundits who don’t want to see star prospects abused. Given that pitching through fatigue is a chief injury risk, it would be warranted.

Some might be inclined to give Arizona coach Jay Johnson and Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore a pass because this was tournament play. Maybe the seduction of a championship justifies an “all hands on deck” mentality. But these usage levels weren’t limited to the College World Series. Over the course of the NCAA regular season, regionals and super regionals this year, a bunch of ugly stories of heavy usage popped up.

Still, those individual incidents don’t quantify the extent to which overuse is a problem in college baseball. A broader perspective is needed, with all of NCAA’s D1 programs and their pitchers considered. How hard are colleges riding these developing arms?

College Baseball Data

NCAA data come with red flags. To start, there’s the issue of access—the data can’t be easily parsed through Chadwick or scraped with simple pitchRx code. Fortunately, I can rely upon the terrific scraping efforts of Beyond the Boxscore’s Bryan Cole. His Github page contains CSV files of pitching game logs, team rosters and team schedules for the 2012–2015 D1 college seasons.

Even with the hurdle of access overcome, there’s a separate issue of data reporting. Pitch counts are a preferred basis for analysis of pitcher use and abuse, but the NCAA didn’t report pitch counts for 33 percent of D1 outings. However, every game log contained each pitcher’s total batters faced. So to interpolate the missing pitch counts, I employed the following process: I found each pitchers’ yearly average of pitches per batter faced for the games in which pitch counts were reported. I took those ratios and multiplied them times the batters faced for the games in which pitch counts were missing.

Per-Start Volume

First things first: How many pitches do NCAA D1 starters throw in their outings? We’ll examine each of the four class levels, and throw in PITCHf/x data so major league pitchers can be considered as well. Appearances will be separated by season type (either regular season or tournament/postseason). Let’s use probability density functions—in which the area under each curve sums to one—to see how the five groups differ.

1pitches_per_start

Comparing the panels above and below, we can see that all four groups of collegiate pitchers work harder in the tournament. The typical freshman pitch count increases from ~85 in the regular season to ~90 in tournament play. Sophomores, juniors and seniors work harder, as they usually throw ~95 pitches in the regular season and ~105 in the playoffs. Notice also that the collegians’ distributions “lean” to the right during the tournament, showing that bigger pitch counts become more common.

Major league starters are used differently. Their distributions peak markedly higher, showing how consistently they sit at 100 pitches in both the regular season and postseason. In contrast, NCAA pitch counts are much more widely distributed across the charts. Collegians do throw more short starts of 70 pitches and fewer, but they also throw a lot more starts that roll into troublesome usage territory.

PERCENT OF STARTS SPANNING 115 OR MORE PITCHES, BY CLASS LEVEL
Level Regular Season Tournament
MLB  4.4%  6.1%
Freshmen  3.6%  8.7%
Sophomores  7.2% 13.7%
Juniors  9.9% 16.7%
Seniors 10.5% 21.2%

A 115-pitch start in the majors is rare; they pop up in 4.4 percent of starts in the regular season, and are just a bit more frequent in the postseason. Collegians’ portion of lengthy outings is greater in the regular season and substantially greater in the playoffs. If you’re a junior, you have to figure that one-sixth of your tournament outings will span 115+ pitches. These numbers include many starts that stretch deep into the hard-to-see rightmost tails of the distributions; we’re talking about outings that can span 140, 150, 160 and even 170 (!) pitches.

In the distribution charts as well as the table, the NCAA workload gets heavier with age. Why might this be? A few possible reasons come to mind:

  • Juniors and seniors are worked hard because they’re going to leave the program soon—whether it comes via the draft or graduation—and their long-term health isn’t a priority.
  • Coaches trust their older, developed pitchers to do a better job, and so they allocate more innings to them.
  • Coaches are protecting teenage players, who are less polished and less physically mature.

These pitch totals are troubling, so we need to dig deeper, beyond this single dimension of pitcher usage. Rest needs to be added to the equation. This is particularly important because the majors and the NCAA differ in this area: While big league starters in a five-day rotation typically have four full days of rest between starts, college starters, by custom, adhere to weekly schedules. This cycle gave rise to a designation for a team’s ace—its “Friday night starter”—so that the No. 1 pitches on the famous day we all love. But this term is colloquial, and to get a more precise picture of the rest afforded to NCAA starters, we need to examine the empirical data.

Days of Rest

We’ll first consider days of rest between any appearance and starts. As there’s no disabled list in college baseball, I omitted rest stints that spanned longer than two weeks, thinking that pitchers were likely hurt in these periods. I’ll again partition the data by class year/season type, and also separate starts by whether 115+ pitches were thrown. That last subset will show whether coaches provided pitchers more rest before pushing them through marathon outings.

Card Corner Plus: Gene Michael and High Intelligence on 1972 Topps
Three smart players devoted their lives to baseball.
2days_before

NCAA pitchers make more starts on six-plus days of rest than their major league counterparts. However, big league pitchers maintain their customary level (four or five days) more often than NCAA pitchers stay at their supposed weekly rotation cycle. Plenty of NCAA starts come on standard major league rest; the proportion rises from a sizable 22-24 percent of regular season outings to an average of 37 percent come tournament time. Plus, we can see a rising, staircase-like trend in the playoffs bars, showing that the older a college pitcher gets, the less rest he gets. Not only are upperclassmen working harder in starts—they’re resting less for them.

More alarming trends emerge when we focus on the lightly colored short rest category. When it comes to “<115” starts, college pitchers of nearly every class level are coming off zero to three days rest 10–13 percent of the time. Regular season freshmen are an exception. They throw a ridiculous 20 percent of their starts on short rest—although these are surely some of the shorter-stint starts we saw in the first chart.

When we strip out all the shorter starts and focus only on the heavy-usage starts exceeding 115 pitches, we still see ugly proportions. Six to nine percent of the time, NCAA pitchers’ 115-pitch outings come on short rest, a range that stands in both the regular season and tournament. Want to know how high that is? Major league pitchers starting on zero to three days rest never pass the 115-pitch mark. No big league team will use its pitchers this strenuously; college teams do it in one out of every 15 games.

Typically, we think about rest in this “days before” specification. Also very important is the reverse perspective—recovery time after starts. Just as we wonder about the rest leading up to starts of 115+ pitches, we should study pitchers’ recuperation time.

3days_after

In the regular season, the “after” rest patterns are very similar to the “before” rest patterns. But there are some big changes in tournament play. The age-related trend we saw in the top-right “before” panel is exacerbated in the “after” version, meaning that with every successive class year, pitchers are getting less rest after their starts. More specifically: when it comes to starts under 115 pitches, the rate of short recovery stints rises by about 6.7 percentage points with each class year, swelling to a whopping 30 percent for seniors. Thirty percent! In the bottom-right panel, we see that light-purple percentages following the 115-plus-pitch starts are less consistently age-driven, but are big and unsightly in every instance.

Pitch Smart Guidelines

We’ve explored starters’ per-game workloads and allotted rest. Let’s now put both components together, expand the sample to include all relief outings, and check how well college coaches are following a scientifically-backed standard: the guidelines set out by Pitch Smart, an initiative spearheaded by MLB and USA Baseball to promote safe pitcher usage. Pitch Smart advocates that players aged 19–22 avoid pitching in multiple games on the same day, and stick to the following rest/usage schedule.

MLB PITCH SMART GUIDELINES FOR PITCHERS AGED 19–22
Pitches Full Days Off For Recovery
1–30 0
31–45 1
46–60 2
61–75 3
76–105 4
105–120 5

These criteria alone don’t provide a full picture of how collegians should be working, as there isn’t an upper limit on a total workload. The guidelines note that the “safe yearly limit varies from pitcher to pitcher,” but it’s impossible for us to pin down a limit without intimate knowledge of each individual hurler. So even though Nathan Bannister’s NCAA-leading 142.1 innings pitched were likely too much, we won’t be able to objectively criticize the University of Arizona for it.

And when it comes to the bullpen, a reliever could throw fewer than 30 pitches every single day of his college career without setting off any Pitch Smart alarm bells. As I analyze Pitch Smart “violations” below, keep in mind that we’re assessing only how many pairs of consecutive appearances can be deemed irresponsible.

We’ll look at the percentage of appearances that would constitute Pitch Smart violations. First, we’ll examine differences at each class level and apply the guidelines to major league pitchers for comparison.

PITCH SMART VIOLATION PERCENTAGE, BY CLASS LEVEL
Class Level Regular Season Tournament
MLB 3.4% 3.4%
Freshmen 2.9% 3.7%
Sophomores 4.0% 7.1%
Juniors 4.8% 9.4%
Seniors 5.4% 11.0%

Big leaguers are among the best at sticking to Pitch Smart, picking up violations at a consistent 3.4 percent clip. Lightly used college freshmen are right in line with them, but moving downward, we again see that age trend. With each academic level, NCAA teams do a worse and worse job at following the guidelines tailored for their pitchers. The violation rates blow up in tournament play, when juniors and seniors are committing Pitch Smart infractions in an excessive ~10 percent of games.

Let’s also look at how programs differ in their Pitch Smart violation percentage, separating out probability density curves for NCAA and major league team-seasons.

4pitch_smart_violations

The most common violation percentage for major league and NCAA clubs is ~3.2. But the average NCAA team is at 4.78 percent, while the average major league team is at 3.36 percent, hinting at the skewing that’s visible in the chart. Reckless usage runs through some teams’ seasons, as NCAA teams violate the Pitch Smart guidelines at upwards of 10 percent, 15 percent, and even 20 and 25 percent. Major league teams hardly eclipse the 6.5 percent mark.

Full Staff Workloads

We also should touch on overall pitching staff management. Do coaches hand off the vast majority of match-ups to a select few starters and relievers, or spread innings out across their staffs?

In answering this question, my tool of measurement will be entropy. I’ve used entropy previously to figure out whether mixing one’s pitches plays a role in predicting ground balls. Here, it’ll measure usage concentration. If a coach were to concentrate his match-ups in the most extreme way possible—giving them all to a single pitcher—that team-season would register an entropy of zero. If workloads are more equally-split and spread across more staff members, the higher the entropy. Larger entropies indicate balanced usage and a well-managed staff.

First, let’s consider the probability density curves of pitching staff entropy for major league and NCAA team-seasons.

5entropy

We see a clear dichotomy between the distributions: Major league entropies are predominantly better than NCAA entropies. One caveat here is that college teams don’t operate with the same resources at their disposal. They can’t fill spots with trade acquisitions, top prospects or freely available replacement-level players. NCAA teams must work with the pitchers already on their staffs. But can NCAA programs do better to spread out innings? I think so, as the overlap between the probability density functions shows that it’s feasible for an NCAA team to allot batters faced like a major league team.

Which college programs are already doing that? And which manage their pitching staffs with minimal balance? Let’s get an idea of both ends of the entropy spectrum with the table below.

HIGHEST AND LOWEST NCAA PROGRAM ENTROPY
Highest Program Entropy Lowest Program Entropy
School Entropy School Entropy
Omaha 3.723 UCLA 3.021
Hofstra 3.721 St. Bonaventure 3.040
Lehigh 3.688 Jackson St. 3.069
Boston College 3.649 Bakersfield 3.074
Furman 3.626 Air Force 3.077
NYIT 3.613 Pepperdine 3.098
Florida 3.607 Mississippi Val. 3.106
Marshall 3.606 NJIT 3.109
UNC Asheville 3.606 Norfolk St. 3.113
Georgia 3.604 Arizona 3.127

Florida and UCLA are two esteemed programs that each had three strong years and one below-.500 year in the 2012–2015 period. When it comes to staff management, Florida ranks among the most balanced, while UCLA is the most concentrated. (Both results are unsurprising.) The two schools do well to demonstrate what these entropy figures mean.

UCLA coach John Savage entrusted just a few hurlers with the lion’s share of innings. On average, 54.1 percent of UCLA match-ups went to the three hardest-working Bruins pitchers; in Florida, the three hardest-working Gators threw to 39.3 percent of the club’s opposing batters. If we compare the top five workhorses from both teams, UCLA’s groups pitched to 77.9 percent of all batters, while the Florida squads threw to 57 percent. Florida was even better than the median major league team, whose three- and five-player percentages were 41.3 percent and 58.2 percent, respectively.

It’s worth noting that Florida had the luxury of more talented pitching staffs, allowing coach Kevin O’Sullivan to spread out innings and worry less about blowing potential victories. From 2012–2016, 25 pitchers were drafted out of Florida, versus 15 for UCLA. Even more indicative of quality, just two Bruins hurlers were taken in the first 150 picks of the past five drafts, compared to nine for the Gators—a tally that includes A.J. Puk, ranked by Baseball America as the No. 1 talent in the 2016 draft. Coach Savage did what was necessary to win with fewer horses in his stable. But he and the other low-entropy programs did pitchers no favors in the process.

Tommy John Surgeries

Following all these results about usage is the question of whether collegians are incurring more injuries. To that end, we’ll consult Jon Roegele’s list of Tommy John surgeries, and combine it with the Chadwick Register and Steamer’s archived projections. Altogether, this allowed me to figure out the Tommy John rates for pro pitchers who either attended college or signed as teenage amateurs (domestic or international). In alignment with the utilized college data, I targeted pitchers who were born in 1991 and later.

The results don’t come out in the NCAA’s favor. Among collegians who went pro, 7.9 percent had the UCL reconstruction surgery. Meanwhile, the surgery has been needed for 6.8 percent of teenage amateur signees. Now, this result does come with a caveat: it’s not a significant difference. Our confidence level that this +1.1 percentage point differential is real is just 5.5 percent. More data and testing are needed to know whether college pitchers actually do get hurt more frequently.

Final Remarks

College pitchers shouldn’t throw such lengthy outings, they shouldn’t so often violate Pitch Smart guidelines, and their total workloads should be lightened. Since college coaches’ prime duty is to win, they have little incentive to change on their own. I believe that limits should be imposed across the college game. Making the Pitch Smart guidelines mandatory would be a start. Such restrictions may rankle coaches, but the limits would be fair for all of the country’s D1 programs.

Who can rein college coaches in? One wonders if MLB and the MLBPA could aim to get involved, given their support for the new high school pitching restrictions. Extreme amateur usage should be a bipartisan issue for the league and union, since injuries spoil teams’ investments and may lead to smaller major league player contracts. Perhaps MLB and the MLBPA could tie the issue together with additional scholarship funding.

But before MLB and the union even consider intervening, the NCAA should be pushed to live up to its own credo. College sports’ powerful overseer says it is dedicated to “safeguarding the well-being of student-athletes.” If that’s really the case, the NCAA should protect its pitchers by imposing common-sense usage restrictions.

References & Resources


Print This Post
Gerald Schifman is the lead researcher at Crain's New York Business and a writer at The Hardball Times. He previously worked in the New York Mets' baseball operations department and in Major League Baseball's publishing department. Follow him on Twitter @gschifman.
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Liam
Guest
Liam
I’m going to have a different take on this. In no other sport do you see such blind encouragement to reduce the amount of time a player is on the field. In my mind, the prevalence of pitch counts and inning counts is more than halfway responsible for injuries to pitchers–they are simply not conditioned enough to throw. When you’re on a pitch count since 8 years old, you never give your body a chance to develop to pitch, even as it grows bigger and stronger. Just look at the impact it’s had on the game. The more regulation of… Read more »
Drew7
Guest
Drew7
I commend you for the well thought out argument. There certainly “seems” to be a correlation there. Here are my counterpoints: 1) Is it not possible that those heavy workloads are what caused the injury, rather than the reduced workload they received after they came over? Say I fail to change the oil in my car for 5 years, then decide to finally change it. If it breaks down after 2 weeks, am I to blame the oil change? 2) There have been numerous studies showing the correlation between overworked youth pitchers and arm injuries later in their life. This… Read more »
Asrat Solomon
Guest
Asrat Solomon

“In no other sport do you see such blind encouragement to reduce the amount of time a player is on the field” this article literally proved the opposite, at least at the collegiate level.

Kyle
Guest
Kyle

“In my mind, the prevalence of pitch counts and inning counts is more than halfway responsible for injuries to pitchers–they are simply not conditioned enough to throw.”

We’re also seeing a record number of pitchers whose average velocity is in the high 90’s and triple digits. Guys like Noah Syndergaard, Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Chris Sale, Yordano Ventura, Kelvin Herrera, and Carlos Martinez are throwing harder than ever before. But I’m sure that’s all completely unrelated…

Kyle
Guest
Kyle

I realize I worded this strangely. What I mean is that I find it ironic that critics are quick to point out all these pitchers having TJ surgery and getting injured as evidence that pitch counts don’t work, but will turn right around and marvel at guys like Syndergaard and Chapman, argue that we’re in a dominate pitching era, and don’t see any reason to correlate that with how pitchers are managed these days. Blows my mind.

Paul S
Guest
Paul S

This is something that I’ve been curious about for a while. Thank you for putting in the time to analyze and present the data!

Marc Schneider
Guest
Marc Schneider
“The more regulation of pitchers there are, the more injuries you are seeing.” Is there any actual evidence, other than anecdotal, for this statement? People act as if pitchers never got hurt in the old days. But I’m sure a lot of pitchers threw out their arms and you never heard from them again. In any event, I doubt these college coaches are running up their pitchers’ pitch counts and innings because they think it will build up their arms in the future. They are doing it because they want to win and don’t really care what they do to… Read more »
Josh B
Guest
Josh B

Interesting that Arizona and Coastal Carolina were the lead-off part of the article, but no mention was made of how badly Arizona’s Nathan Bannister was overused throughout the entire post season including 2 long starts in the same regional…Until his arm burned out and he had to be removed from the College World Series.

michael bode
Guest
This is such great stuff and well-done on all accounts that it couldn’t help but bring up more questions. (1) You mention MLB Pitch F/X as the comparison point for the college staffs in your charts and graphs, but use the teenage signees (domestic & amateur) as your TJS comparison point, which leads me to a couple queries. 1.A Was there any significant difference in TJS for the international signees (some who have strict youth pitching guidelines and some that don’t) compared to the domestic signees? 1.B For the charts & graphs, is there comparable MiLB data to see how… Read more »
Gerald Schifman
Guest
Very good questions raised here. To address each of them: 1A. Unfortunately, my dataset doesn’t facilitate the partitioning of international signees from the domestic (high school) signees. But given the lack of sample size (TJS patients), it’s unlikely that there are statistically significant results to be found. 1B. MiLB Gameday does tracks events at the pitch level. However, I have never seen it used in public analysis or appear in a downloading tutorial. Even this tutorial (http://bit.ly/2aVzEIW) is geared towards scraping MiLB play-by-play data, rather than pitch-level data. You make a fair point—collegians and minor leaguers are in the same… Read more »
Gerald Schifman
Guest

Minor correction to 1A: the sample size being the total player populations, rather than the proportions that went down with Tommy John surgery.

Pau Grogo
Guest
Pau Grogo
Very good analysis. Being a parent of a past D1 pitcher and pitching coach I can tell you I witnessed how college coaches abuse young arms. Look at how many teams only utilize 8 pitchers when their staff typically has up to 15 – 17 pitchers on their team. Analyze the innings pitched by the staff and this will confirm how many kids are being utilized. And the IP is not the whole story. Coaches will have only those bullpen members they count on to get warm in the pen and may not get an IP for it. That’s not… Read more »
Gerald Schifman
Guest

Thanks for the note. It’s interesting to hear the perspective of a parent.

Bullpen warm-ups are a missing piece in any analysis of a pitching staff’s workload. Perhaps teams keep track of this on their own (as they should), but it only would be for their pitchers. Ideally, coaches or a PITCHf/x system would collect comprehensive warm-up info and send it to a centralized hub for analysis.

John Kolasinski
Guest
John Kolasinski
Gerald Our Athletic Directors and Faculty Athletic Representatives of our conference the WHAC a NAIA conference have decided for us to play 9 conference games (3 weekends of 3 games) this fall starting consecutive weekends on September 24. We as coaches in the conference have tried to figure out how to handle our pitchers as these games will count in our conference standings. So i ask do you think these games will cause more injuries to pitchers? Do we let our pitchers pitch for summer teams? Do we split games up with pitchers or let a guy go like in… Read more »
Gerald Schifman
Guest
My first piece of advice would be to follow the college-age Pitch Smart guidelines (shown above), so that your pitchers aren’t working too much within each of the three-game series. Those guidelines are backed by James Andrews and other esteemed sports medicine doctors. Whether or not you let your pitchers throw in summer ball I think has to depend on how they’re feeling and how big their workloads have already been. The key is figuring out when pitchers are fatigued, and cutting back on their workloads once those points are hit. If your pitchers take over a month off before… Read more »
North Carolina vs Oregon
Guest

Greate post. Keep writing such kind of information on your
page. Im really impressed by your site.
Hey there, You’ve done an excellent job. I’ll certainly digg it and in my opinion recommend to
my friends. I am confident they’ll be benefited from this web
site.

wpDiscuz