How the pitch count became baseball's most important (and debated) statistic
Sunday, July 1, 2007
By J.P. PELZMAN
The old-fashioned ones have the odometer-style readings, and are still readily available. But if you want to go upscale and spend a few more bucks, the newer ones are high-tech with digital readouts and an audible alarm that can be programmed to go off when a certain number has been reached.
Yes, technological advancements are transforming the pitch counter, but that same technology can't do much for the pitchers themselves. Today's starting pitchers are not nearly as durable as the older models, who routinely finished what they started before rigid pitch counts helped the complete game to become an endangered species.
But even though it is utilized, referenced and debated more than ever, keeping a pitch count isn't anything new. But let's just say it wasn't quite as important in baseball's past, as an anecdote from Hall of Famer Jim Palmer will demonstrate.
"The first time I ever kept a chart," the former Oriole great recalled recently, "[Mike] Cuellar gave up a leadoff hit with a 5-2 lead with [Rod] Carew, [Tony] Oliva and [Harmon] Killebrew coming up, and I said, 'Mr. Weaver, that's his 135th pitch.' "
And legendary manager Earl Weaver responded, "Get your rear end to the other end of the dugout. I'll let you know if he's tired."
Palmer said, "So I got the idea right then that pitch counts didn't mean much to Earl."
Some veteran baseball people believe those numbers mean too much today.
"I hate them," said Dallas Green, the former manager of the Mets and Yankees who is a consultant to the Phillies. "It's changed the entire game. It's created an era full of five- or six-inning pitchers."
Baltimore pitching coach Leo Mazzone said, "I think that if the pitch count is the reason why you leave a guy in or take him out, then you're missing the boat somewhere."
It wasn't that way when Tom Glavine, a former Mazzone student, came up with the Braves in 1987. Glavine is three wins shy of 300, which may become an unattainable goal for younger pitchers, who don't get as many decisions because of pitch limits.
"I don't remember there being that much talk about it," said Glavine. "You obviously had an idea and when guys started approaching 110, 120 [pitches] you'd start hearing some talk about it, [but] not nearly to the degree you do nowadays. I think there is some use for a pitch count in this game, but I think there's no question that it's gone way overboard in terms of dictating when pitchers are going to come out of the game."
The general consensus is that in the mid-1990s, pitch count became the biggest factor in whether or not a major league starter was removed.
"I understand from a business standpoint," Glavine said, "you're trying to protect an investment."
Green put it a bit more bluntly.
"It's kind of a protect-your-[rear] kind of deal," said Green, also a former big league pitcher. "I think we're really hurting the game of baseball by doing this."
"I think you do what you can to prevent injuries," Mazzone said, "but arm injuries occur from overexertion and overextension, not necessarily a pitch count."
Glavine said, "I guess the thing that I don't like is that somehow it's come down on us, the pitchers, that we're fragile. We're not tough ... and somehow we've instituted this pitch count that we can't pitch beyond that when that's not the way it works."
Glavine admitted that Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson "can give concerted numbers that this is a guy's range and if he gets a little outside of his range for one start, that's one thing. [And] if he does it for two starts or three starts how it impacts his starts down the road."
"What it is more than anything else," Peterson said, "is keeping guys in cycles of pitch counts. Let's say you're a runner and you average three or four miles a day and you're averaging 21 to 25 miles a week. You can't start logging 40 to 45 miles and stay fresh. You may not get injured, but there's no freshness."
"I understand that," said Glavine, who doesn't dispute Peterson's numbers, "but I also think sometimes there's some common sense. I'll be the first to tell you I can throw 70 pitches in a game and be worn out, if it was a laborsome game. Much more so than if it was a game where I threw 120 where it really wasn't much effort."
Peterson conceded that the "emotional and physical stress" of an outing, including the number of jams and whether a pitcher had to run the bases, will impact how quickly he becomes fatigued.
"Years ago, you never concerned yourself with pitch counts," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "Now, with statistics telling you that between this number and that number bad things happen to this particular pitcher, you have to pay attention to it. The bullpen has become a huge part of what happens now."
As has the specialization of the bullpen, according to Yankees pitching coach Ron Guidry, who averaged 7.82 innings per start during his 25-3 Cy Young Award season of 1978.
"We didn't have the long man, short man [and] setup guy," he said. "We had a closer, but that's all we had. So unless you got into the ninth inning where you were going to need a closer, you were in there.
"We were programmed to go 130 to 140 pitches in a game," said Guidry, who once threw 154 pitches in 10 innings against Cleveland. "If I'm out there pitching, the only guy that's probably better than me is the closer, so if you're not going to bring him in, you'd just as soon leave me out there ... and I'll see if I can get out of my own mess."
That's become a lost art today, at least in the late innings.
"You really learned a lot about yourself when you pitched late in a ballgame," said Palmer, a TV broadcaster for the Orioles. "You learned about your guts and your conditioning and your focus and your ability to pitch."
But Palmer doesn't necessarily think the game was better then.
"The game has evolved," he said, "whether it's good or bad."
Yankees starter Andy Pettitte, a 13-year veteran, said that young pitchers "are being trained to throw 90 to 100 pitches nowadays and that's kind of what they have in them. ... I just think that guys could throw 120 pitches, 130 pitches if they have the size to do that."
Yet it doesn't appear that the clock will be turned back anytime soon, although Mazzone hopes it will be.
"If they don't reverse it a little bit or use a little more common sense about it," Mazzone said, "then the quality of pitching will suffer overall."