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March 21, 2003

Under The Knife

The Pitch Count Debate, Continued

by Will Carroll

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It's not often that someone finds the answer to a question that we've been asking for years, but during today's BPR taping, Mat Olkin hit me with a thunderbolt. Through the always amazing Retrosheet and the work of David Smith, Mat was able to find something back in 2001--pitch counts for the late 1940s and 1950s. It's often an argument of the old school that most pitchers of that era threw more innings and completed more games. The argument goes that pitchers today are by extension being babied. Mat pointed out that pitchers were much more efficient--to the tune of completing games with 110 pitches. To quote Mat:

"Simply put, there were far fewer. The Dodgers and their opponents threw between 3.42 and 3.59 pitches to each batter in each of the 18 seasons, with yearly averages consistently close to 3.50. In contrast, the average number of pitches per batter in the majors in the last five years has hovered around 3.80.

"That's a seemingly small difference, but it has profound implications. It means, for example, that if noted workhorse Warren Spahn threw roughly 3.50 pitches to each batter, he probably never averaged as many as 120 pitches a start in any of his 21 seasons. Spahn probably averaged between 105 and 115 in most seasons.

"Compare that to Roger Clemens, who's averaged more than 120 pitches per start in four different seasons and has come close three other times. Or Randy Johnson, who approached or exceeded a 120-pitch average every year he was healthy from 1992 through 1999. Last year, he averaged 'only' 115 pitches per start, his lowest in nine years."--Sports Weekly

Simply amazing stuff, and each piece of data we find--and one of the problems is finding all the data--puts us a bit closer to understanding how to keep just a few more young pitchers off Frank Jobe's operating table. More healthy pitchers equal more good pitchers. I also think that pitch efficiency could be a major move forward for a lot of pitchers. Still, it's easier to say you want to pitch like Greg Maddux than to actually do it. Just a quick note on BPR this week--we're talking about pitcher workloads throughout the show, and it's really good.

  • I knew I shouldn't have said anything. Every time I do that, something happens, usually to one of the guys on my Scoresheet team. Sure enough, I say "no blisters" and pow, Byung Kim comes up with one. It's minor and not something that's plagued him in the past, but it's just enough to annoy me. Kim's still locked into the fifth slot of the D-Backs rotation. I'm not sure if there's anything to the idea that getting different looks off pitchers can throw off hitters day to day, but if I was scheduled to face Johnson, Curt Schilling, and Kim in a trip through Phoenix, I'm not sure if I wouldn't come up with a mysterious sore hammy.

  • Does your brain ever lock into something, even though you consciously know it's changed? I always thought of Cal Ripken as a shortstop years after he'd moved to third, and I actually had Tony Gwynn in right field in an early draft of the Padres' Team Health Report. That's what happened yesterday when I discussed the Cardinals' potential outfield--somehow, my brain still had Albert Pujols at third, which is clearly not correct. Any outfield on any team gets better with the addition of Pujols, and depending on his true age, he could fight with Vlad Guerrero and Alex Rodriguez for the title of best player in the game within a couple years.

  • One of the quirks of the List is the post-dating of moves, so as long as the rule exists, teams should take advantage of it. The Brewers are keeping Geoff Jenkins in minor league games rather than major league games so, if needed, they can post-date his DL stint and get him back a bit earlier. Jenkins is still dealing with wrist pain, but reports from the Brewers camp are all positive regarding his ankle.

  • The Mets have a couple of issues as they close in on decision time for their pitching staff. David Cone is doing well in his comeback, but his arm strength and stamina are in doubt. Would Cone do well in a relief role? I'm not sure. Grant Roberts is beginning to throw again, and he's had some success in a long relief role. Roberts will likely start the season on the List. The most important decision to be made is what to do with Pedro Astacio. Astacio is dealing with a shoulder injury--either tendonitis if you believe the Mets official position, or a torn labrum if you believe some baseball insiders--and has made little progress. He's able to play catch, but then again so is my mom. Astacio will need to get on a mound by the weekend to have any shot at the Opening Day rotation.

  • Dusty Baker understands how to blend in his bench players to keep guys fresh, sharp, and healthy. Much has been made of his move from San Francisco to Chicago and the parallels of Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. Perhaps more importantly, Baker goes from one great trainer in Stan Conte to another in Dave Tumbas. Maybe it's not just the magic toothpick. One player Baker needs to keep close watch on is Moises Alou. It's no secret how fragile Alou can be, and he's already dealing with some knee problems. I feel much better with Baker filling out the lineups and setting the bench than I did last year with...wait, I seem to have blocked out most of the Cubs' 2002 season.

  • Jay "Watermelon" Witasick is throwing again after missing nearly a full week after a run-in with a wastebasket. He still has a pretty good shot at being the setup man on Opening Day behind Brandon Villafuerte. Villafuerte has been lights out in his role replacing Trevor Hoffman and makes Witasick's injury less crucial. The Padres have an interesting, cheap bullpen with some upside. Interestingly, PECOTA has Witasick most comparable to Robb Nen, and Villafuerte most comparable to Felix Rodriguez, both in their 2000 seasons.

  • When you trade off someone that came up in a bunch of trade rumors during 2002, you'd hope to get something back that would help at the major league level or at least be able to do some of the fundamental things necessary to play his listed position. The Rockies traded for Chris Richard, and due to both a muscular problem in his leg and a shoulder that isn't near 100%, the Rocks are faced with a choice of putting their new acquisition in Colorado Springs or on the List for the start of the season. It takes a couple years to truly analyze how good a trade is, but sometimes we can see when a trade is bad pretty quick.

  • Jon Rauch's return from labrum surgery ran into a major roadblock. While all parties deny that his shoulder is hurting again or that his mechanics have broken down, it's clear that at least one if not both led to his terrible performance this spring and more heartbreak and bitterness for Derek Zumsteg. Rauch had some fine parting comments for Ken Williams and Jerry Manuel, shining a bit of light on what is looking more and more like a poisonous clubhouse.

  • There's a great article at ESPN.com regarding Jose Contreras. It shouldn't surprise me since it has Jayson Stark's name attached. It's worth checking out--if you haven't already--if only for the picture of Contreras' extreme delivery. I'm not sure how his arm remains attached, let alone how it's not plagued with tendonitis. Like El Duque, I'm not sure how good Contreras will be, but I have a feeling he'll be entertaining.

Have a great weekend and everyone...try to stay healthy. I'm watching hoops.

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