What Pitch Counts Hath Wrought

Pat Hentgen of the Blue Jays announced his retirement recently, at the age of 35. We had some discussion about Hentgen and his career over at Baseball Think Factory, and one poster, referring to Hentgen’s struggles over the past several years, said something to the effect of, “Hentgen’s career is a great lesson in what 260-inning seasons will do to a pitcher.”

The assumption that 260 innings in a season is an unbearable workload for nearly every modern starting pitcher is very commonly held these days. The developers and promoters of the Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP) theory and method, Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner of Baseball Prospectus, would very likely agree with it.

There’s been some very interesting writing recently regarding the issue of pitch counts and “safe” workloads for pitchers. In The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, published this spring, Bill James presents an article called “Abuse and Durability” (pp. 449-463) that reviews several studies he has performed, and essentially asserts that the nearly universal adoption of strict pitch count limits in professional baseball over the past 15 or so years has been a bad idea. The book then presents Jazayerli and Woolner’s rebuttal, “A Response in Defense of PAP” (pp. 464-466), in which they conclude, “A revolution in the management of starting pitchers is underway, and the early signs suggest that the revolution may well lead to fewer injuries.”

Don Malcolm then published a commentary on Baseball Think Factory in which — in typical bombastic Malcolm style — he wholeheartedly agrees with James’ view, claiming that Jazayerli and Woolner’s “research is so flawed that it is virtually useless.” While I wouldn’t wish to present the case with quite the ferocity that Malcolm employs, I do firmly agree with him on this issue, and with James.

Indeed the modern pitch count obsession is something I’ve been perplexed about for years, and I’m very glad to see such prominent voices as James and Malcolm saying what ought to be said. The extreme focus on counting pitches in the modern era has not only meaningfully reduced the proportion of pitching that is performed by every team’s best pitchers — thus increasing the proportion pitched by the worst — it has done so while producing no noticeable reduction in pitching injuries. Indeed it may very well be the case, as James speculates, that backing off on pitchers’ workloads may have increased their susceptibility to injury.

The extremely talented baseball analyst, Tangotiger, developed some formulae to estimate pitch counts when actual pitch count information isn’t available. He tested his Pitch Count Estimator against actual historical pitch count data collected by the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1950s and 1960s, and has demonstrated that the Estimator — even in its simplest “Basic” version — is remarkably accurate at providing a good idea of how many pitches were actually thrown by pitchers of yore.

Tango has been very gracious in sharing his database with me, and I’d like to take this opportunity to explore it, and illustrate why I believe James and Malcolm have it right: the unprecedented pitch count limits employed in baseball over the past 15 years or so have been counterproductive.

Why don’t we start with Hentgen. Employing the Basic Pitch Count Estimator equation (3.3*PA + 1.5*SO + 2.2*BB, where PA = 3*IP + H + BB), here are Hentgen’s estimated total number of pitches thrown per year from 1993 through 2000, with his innings pitched as well:

Year    Est.Pitches   IP
2000       3257      194
1999       3247      199
1998       2966      178
1997       4079      264
1996       4198      266
1995       3463      201
1994       2796      175
1993       3441      216

Now let’s put Hentgen’s workload into the context of the workloads of other top starters of his era. Here are the MLB leaders in estimated total pitches for 1990 through 2003 (leaving out the strike-shortened seasons of 1994 and 1995):

Year    Pitcher              Est. Pitches   IP
2003    Roy Halladay            3950       266
2002    Randy Johnson           4116       260
2001    Randy Johnson           4018       250
2000    Randy Johnson           4067       249
1999    Randy Johnson           4304       272
1998    Curt Schilling          4224       269
1997    Roger Clemens           4099       264
1996    Pat Hentgen             4198       266
1993    Randy Johnson           4145       255
1992    Kevin Brown             4172       266
1991    Roger Clemens           4128       271
1990    Dave Stewart            4095       267

We see that Hentgen’s workload wasn’t particularly heavy compared to those of the other top aces of the day. It’s quite apparent that somewhere around 4100-4200 pitches (and 250-270 innings) is the upper limit for the best workhorses of the modern era.

How does this compare with earlier eras? Let’s look at the MLB leader in estimated total pitches from 1970 through 1989 (excluding the strike-shortened season of 1981):

Year    Pitcher              Est. Pitches   IP
1989    Roger Clemens           4074       253
1988    Dave Stewart            4414       276
1987    Charlie Hough           4627       285
1986    Mike Moore              4290       266
1985    Fernando Valenzuela     4260       272
1984    Charlie Hough           4254       266
1983    Steve Carlton           4597       284
1982    Steve Carlton           4664       296
1980    Steve Carlton           4736       304
1979    Phil Niekro             5346       342
1978    Phil Niekro             5216       334
1977    Phil Niekro             5605       330
1976    Nolan Ryan              4949       284
1975    Andy Messersmith        4837       322
1974    Nolan Ryan              5684       333
1973    Wilbur Wood             5614       359
1972    Wilbur Wood             5498       377
1971    Mickey Lolich           5799       376
1970    Gaylord Perry           5000       329

Hentgen’s peak workload of 4,198 pitches would have led the majors only once (1989) in the 1980s, and in the 1970s, 4,198 pitches would rarely have sniffed the top 10. Workload limits were obviously significantly reduced in the early 1980s, and ratcheted down again in the late 80s/early 90s.

Why? Was there a rash of arm injuries plaguing the top workhorses of 1970-85?

No. There simply wasn’t. Among the pitchers showing up on this list, only Fernando Valenzuela and Andy Messersmith suffered significant arm problems in their careers. And leaving the knuckleballers (Hough, Niekro, and Wood) out of it, several of these most prodigious workhorses — Carlton, Ryan, Lolich, Perry — were famously free from injury, year after year.

Let’s compare the 70s/80s with the era preceding it, 1946-1969:

Year     Pitcher             Est. Pitches   IP 
1969     Gaylord Perry          5028       325
1968     Denny McLain           4888       336
1967     Jim Bunning            4569       302
1966     Sandy Koufax           4892       323
1965     Sandy Koufax           4999       336
1964     Don Drysdale           4709       321
1963     Don Drysdale           4759       315
1962     Don Drysdale           4786       314
1961     Whitey Ford            4420       283
1960     Larry Jackson          4347       282
1959     Warren Spahn           4421       292
1958     Warren Spahn           4362       290
1957     Early Wynn             4343       263
1956     Bob Friend             4851       314
1955     Robin Roberts          4515       305
1954     Robin Roberts          4872       337
1953     Robin Roberts          5134       347
1952     Robin Roberts          4700       330
1951     Warren Spahn           4838       311
1950     Vern Bickford          4912       312
1949     Mel Parnell            4695       295
1948     Johnny Sain            4757       315
1947     Bob Feller             4712       299
1946     Bob Feller             5954       371

Looking at this it becomes clear that the 1970s were a very atypical period. The highest pitch counts of 1980-88 — 4,254 to 4,736 — wouldn’t be all that far out of place among the leaders most seasons of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. And of the top workhorses appearing on the 1946-1969 list, only three — Vern Bickford, Sandy Koufax, and Denny McLain — saw their careers prematurely derailed by arm trouble. (Mel Parnell suffered a broken arm, not a pitching-workload related injury.)

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Several conclusions can be drawn from this data:

– The workloads handled by top pitchers in the 1970s (well over 5,000 pitches) were not typical of the second half of the 20th century. Nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to have been a particularly high rate of arm trouble suffered by the very hardest-worked pitchers even of the 1970s.

– The workloads handed by top pitchers since 1989 (practically never exceeding 4,200 pitches) is also not typical. Nor does there seem to be a particularly low rate of arm trouble among modern aces.

– The norm for the entire 1950-2000 era is somewhere around 4,300-4,700 pitches, or about 10% above the limit that modern aces are held to.

The argument defending modern pitch count limits almost always emphasizes the notion that the very high-scoring style of offense in the current era places particular stress on pitchers. With a fairly high rate of walks in the game today, and with both home runs and strikeouts at unprecedented levels, it’s often presumed that pitchers simply have to throw more pitches to get through a typical game than ever before.

But is this true? Let’s test it.

Let’s apply the Pitch Count Estimator to entire leagues rather than individual pitchers. Are there significantly more pitches being thrown overall in modern games?

Estimated Pitches per MLB Team/Game:

2003   146
2000   149
1995   148
1990   144
1985   144
1980   143
1975   144
1970   145
1965   142
1960   144
1955   144
1950   146

The Pitch Count Estimator provides no basis to believe that modern pitching staffs are required to throw more than a handful more pitches per game than pitching staffs used to.

Okay, so there’s another argument that one hears in support of pitch counts. Yes, starters throw fewer pitchers than their predecessors, this argument goes, but that’s because the pitches they throw are far more stressful; modern pitchers have very few periods in games when they can “coast” for a few hitters.

No doubt there’s some truth to this argument. But it isn’t clear at all that the difference between the stress pitchers face in the current era and previous ones is nearly as great as assumed. The late 1940s and early-mid-1950s was a high-scoring era also, and top aces were routinely throwing at least 500 more pitches a year than their modern counterparts. In the 1970s, with fewer than one run per game being scored than today, aces routinely threw well over 1,000 more pitches a year than today.

One has to put a very great weight on the belief that modern pitchers face dramatically more stressful environments in order to conclude that greater workloads couldn’t be sustained. Personally I don’t find that belief very compelling; it sounds a lot more like rationalization than fact to me.

I suspect the truth has much more to do with this: in every era, pitchers handle the workload for which they have been conditioned. Modern pitchers haven’t been trained and developed to throw as many pitches as earlier pitchers did, and so they don’t. Human physiology didn’t suddenly change in the late 1980s, nor has the challenge of pitching suddenly become that much more demanding than ever before.

Whatever the case, it’s certain that what pitch count limits (and their first cousin, the five-man rotation) have created is a situation in which the very best pitchers of the current day ply their trade quite a bit less frequently than did their predecessors. Through 2003, here is how many estimated career pitches the greatest starters of the modern era have thrown:

Roger Clemens      68,229
Greg Maddux        60,012
Tom Glavine        55,915
Chuck Finley       53,019
Randy Johnson      51,669
Kevin Brown        47,631
David Cone         47,219
David Wells        43,845
Jamie Moyer        43,072
Kevin Appier       41,733
John Smoltz        41,307
Mike Mussina       41,136
Curt Schilling     40,275
Pedro Martinez     32,393

Let’s compare these totals to those of some past greats:

Nolan Ryan         90,211
Steve Carlton      83,355
Gaylord Perry      82,147
Don Sutton         80,526
Warren Spahn       79,613
Bert Blyleven      77,310
Tom Seaver         73,560
Tommy John         72,708
Early Wynn         72,607
Robin Roberts      70,037
Jim Kaat           69,743
Red Ruffing        68,599
Ferguson Jenkins   68,494
Frank Tanana       65,931
Ted Lyons          63,783
Bobo Newsom        62,303
Bob Feller         62,255
Dennis Martinez    62,091
Lefty Grove        61,642
Bob Gibson         61,301
Jack Morris        60,991
Jim Palmer         60,666
Jerry Koosman      60,425
Jim Bunning        58,338
Mickey Lolich      57,420

Special knuckleballer category:

Phil Niekro        85,110
Charlie Hough      61,166

Just for the hell of it, some deadballers:

Cy Young          107,114
Walter Johnson     87,528
Pete Alexander     75,973
Christy Mathewson  69,644

Whether or not one agrees with my assertion that the limitations on the workloads of the current era’s best pitchers are unnecessary, here is something that’s indisputably true: one result of the fact that modern aces work less than those of all preceding eras is that inferior pitchers are working proportionally more innings. This in itself may be part of the explanation for the offensive boom of the 1990s. It’s also beyond dispute that the pitch count limit orthodoxy of the modern era has resulted in no meaningful reduction in rates of injury — if anything, injuries to pitchers have increased.

It is, in short, a policy that has delivered an extremely poor cost-benefit. Pitchers get hurt a lot; they always have, and 15 years into the era of significantly reduced workloads, they still do. If I were a major league GM, I would work on instituting a conditioning and pitcher-use program throughout my organization that would strive to develop starting pitchers capable of throwing at least 10% more pitches per season than the modern norm. I’m confident that in the long run such a program would provide a significant competitive advantage, without producing greater injury rates than are occurring now.

Please understand that I’m not saying that there is no place for pitch counting in monitoring and handling pitchers, nor am I saying that pitch count limits aren’t appropriate for young pitchers (and of course for amateur pitchers). I’m saying, as are James and Malcolm, that there’s a reasonable deployment of the tool, and there’s an unreasonable, counterproductive fixation upon it, and over the past decade and a half we’ve left the former behind and driven ourselves right into the latter. As James and Malcolm put it, being overly concerned with pitch counts has steered modern baseball into a blind alley.

Next time we’ll examine the impact of the pitch count limit paradigm on modern bullpens.

References & Resources
The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers is a marvelous, very original book, a great source of information for any student of the lore of pitching.

Don Malcolm is one of the most entertaining baseball writers on the web. One may not always agree with his opinions, but one will have no difficulty discovering them.

Tangotiger is an amazing resource. Check out his website and lose yourself, and emerge a very much better-informed baseball fan.

I must acknowledge fellow Baseball Think Factory poster, trevise, who has graciously provided me with a marvelous database of innings pitched by pitchers, that I didn’t directly reference in this article (hey, it was long enough already!), but that remains a rich source of great research material.

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