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June 18, 2003

Prospectus Today

Pitcher Workloads

by Joe Sheehan

The focus on pitcher workloads--largely through tracking pitch counts--is perhaps the most heated area of contention between old-school baseball people and outside performance analysts. Baseball Prospectus has been a big part of the debate, with Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner developing and refining tools that measure workload and investigating the effects, short- and long-term, of throwing a lot of pitches.

At the other end of the spectrum are coaches and ex-players, many of whom have been in the game since before Woolner and Jazayerli were born. These men believe that pitch counts are a secondary tool at best, and at the extreme, proffer the notion that the real problem is that pitchers today are babied, not like the men years ago who always went nine innings. Or 12. Or even 26.

Lost in that line of thought is the fact that pitching is harder now. No one counted pitches 90 years ago because, to a certain extent, there was no need to do so. Pitching a baseball game from start to finish required a level of effort well within the ability of the men assigned to do so. Now, pitching nine innings of baseball at the major-league level requires a much greater effort, one that may be too much for one human arm to handle.

We don't have pitch counts for most of baseball history, but we can look at the information we do have and draw conclusions. For instance, strikeouts and walks have grown as a percentage of outcomes since the 1920s, with an acceleration in this growth since World War II.


			     
Year      K/9      BB/9     (K+BB)/(AB+BB)
1923     2.86      3.09         .157
1928     2.92      3.14         .161
1933     3.06      3.02         .160
1938     3.47      3.59         .181
1943     3.44      3.36         .182
1948     3.71      3.96         .199
1953     4.17      3.55         .202
1958     4.99      3.32         .221
1963     5.81      2.97         .238
1968     5.89      2.82         .240
1973     5.25      3.38         .230
1978     4.82      3.26         .217
1983     5.18      3.22         .224
1988     5.58      3.10         .234
1993     5.85      3.36         .243
1998     6.61      3.41         .263
2003     6.30      3.34         .258

There are 65% more strikeouts and walks than there were in games 80 years ago, and 15% more than there were 20 years ago. From this data, we can infer that not only are more plate appearances using at least the three or four pitches required for a strikeout or walk, but that PAs ending in contact are also going deeper into counts. Therefore, it takes more pitches to get a comparable number of outs--say, 27--than it ever has before.

The valley that develops in the 1970s is interesting. That was a period, you'll recall, that included a spike in complete games and innings pitched by starters. Take this with a grain of salt, but one of the things I notice when watching game films from that period is that hitters went to the plate hacking much more than they do today. The "take and rake" philosophy, so prevalent now, was almost non-existent. Hitters swung early and often, looking to hit the ball rather than work the count. That's just anecdotal data, and based on a painfully small sample, but it's one of the things that spurred me into doing the research for this piece.

Related to the higher percentage of walks and strikeouts is that pitchers face more power, up and down the lineup, than they have at any time previously. A couple of a weeks back--I think it was during Roger Clemens' first try for his 300th win--I heard Rick Sutcliffe talk about how when he was pitching, no one worried about pitch counts, and how he once threw some very high number of pitches in a game.

Sutcliffe's useful career spanned the years 1979-1994, and for much of that period it was common for a team to play lousy hitters, especially at certain positions. Using Lee Sinins' Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia, I've tallied the slugging average (SLG) and isolated power (ISO) for the second basemen, shortstops and catchers over the years. Just for fun, here are those figures for the players in Sutcliffe's leagues, vs. those in Clemens' leagues:


RICK SUTCLIFFE

             2B SLG   2B ISO     SS SLG   SS ISO     C SLG   C ISO
1979 NL       .351     .097       .345     .085      .382    .132
1980 NL       .339     .087       .320     .068      .372    .118
1981 NL       .326     .084       .310     .065      .359    .100
1982 AL       .361     .098       .359     .110      .371    .122
1983 AL       .372     .100       .368     .107      .277    .123
1984 NL       .359     .097       .310     .071      .310    .071
1985 NL       .372     .104       .345     .093      .345    .093
1986 NL       .370     .099       .324     .080      .324    .080
1987 NL       .389     .118       .344     .099      .344    .099
1988 NL       .354     .101       .331     .084      .331    .084
1989 NL       .361     .103       .341     .093      .341    .093
1990 NL       .397     .125       .344     .096      .344    .096
1991 NL       .359     .106       .357     .103      .357    .103
1992 AL       .361     .096       .339     .086      .367    .124
1993 AL       .378     .105       .360     .098      .395    .140
1994 NL       .400     .122       .376     .115      .376    .115

*Sutcliffe spent part of 1984 with the Indians in the AL


ROGER CLEMENS

             2B SLG   2B ISO     SS SLG   SS ISO     C SLG   C ISO
1984 AL       .357     .093       .346     .090      .376    .137
1985 AL       .359     .103       .351     .093      .384    .138
1986 AL       .359     .103       .371     .108      .375    .136
1987 AL       .358     .101       .388     .116      .384    .141
1988 AL       .340     .083       .357     .102      .369    .121
1989 AL       .355     .086       .340     .091      .363    .113
1990 AL       .348     .093       .342     .090      .372    .117
1991 AL       .364     .096       .338     .089      .368    .120
1992 AL       .361     .096       .339     .086      .367    .124
1993 AL       .378     .105       .360     .098      .395    .140
1994 AL       .399     .123       .375     .106      .409    .156
1995 AL       .378     .110       .383     .128      .390    .138
1996 AL       .406     .123       .407     .139      .402    .146
1997 AL       .393     .118       .387     .123      .395    .133
1998 AL       .397     .124       .403     .130      .392    .138
1999 AL       .417     .137       .414     .135      .406    .143
2000 AL       .383     .113       .428     .150      .425    .160
2001 AL       .407     .138       .405     .136      .389    .138
2002 AL       .380     .118       .421     .150      .374    .124

I don't mean to disparage Sutcliffe, who was a very good pitcher, but he was playing a much different game. He didn't pitch in the current era of take-and-rake, so he needed fewer pitches to get through his game. He retired before the offensive explosion, and sometimes faced three or four hitters a game who weren't a threat to hit a double, much less a home run. Clemens hasn't had that luxury for the last 2,000 innings of his career. The differences between the portions of Sutcliffe's and Clemens' careers that do not overlap, in terms of difficulty for pitchers, are extreme, and they illustrate quite nicely the point: baseball has changed.

That's the thing that baseball people over the age of 45 do not get. Their experience is not transferable to today's game, because while it looks the same, it is completely different for pitchers. They have to work much harder to get comparable results; not because the old guys were better, but because circumstances have changed. What Bob Feller, or Warren Spahn, or Juan Marichal, or Steve Carlton did is completely irrelevant to what the expectations should be for Mark Prior.

The trend over just 20 years of baseball history is clear. What about over the game's entire history? Again using the Sabermetric Encyclopedia:


             2B SLG   2B ISO     SS SLG   SS ISO     C SLG   C ISO
1903          .340     .084       .335     .081      .313    .074
1908          .310     .063       .316     .070      .275    .054
1913          .354     .079       .318     .072      .317    .073
1918          .306     .063       .309     .059      .281    .053
1923          .393     .105       .351     .079      .361    .092
1928          .388     .105       .350     .087      .361    .097
1933          .368     .097       .356     .093      .355    .090
1938          .380     .107       .356     .091      .392    .116
1943          .339     .082       .323     .071      .323    .074
1948          .365     .103       .363     .101      .353    .107
1953          .377     .109       .366     .105      .386    .129
1958          .361     .102       .352     .105      .393    .141
1963          .349     .096       .335     .090      .374    .127
1968          .322     .075       .290     .066      .326    .094
1973          .355     .092       .299     .063      .365    .118
1978          .340     .085       .332     .074      .366    .119
1983          .367     .100       .349     .108      .377    .125
1988          .347     .092       .345     .093      .360    .116
1993          .379     .110       .362     .096      .396    .141
1998          .396     .124       .378     .116      .396    .140
2003          .407     .133       .401     .136      .413    .152

The growth in offense in today's game hasn't been distributed evenly. While all players hit for more power than they used to, players at positions which previously didn't hit for power hit for a LOT more power. Dan Levitt, who co-authored the excellent Paths to Glory with Mark Armour, researched the issue and found that a 1996 first baseman was 55% more likely to homer than his 1976 counterpart (home run rate of .042 vs. .027), whereas a 1996 middle infielder was 175% more likely to homer than a 1976 middle infielder (.0184 vs. .0067).

Armour addressed one possible explanation for this in an e-mail:

"Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Carl Yastrzemski...all played middle infield in the minor leagues. Were they to come up today, I believe that some or all of them would have continued to play the infield. Conversely, were Alex Rodriguez (who is larger than all of the above players) to have come up in the 1950s, wouldn't he have been made an outfielder?

"The other theory I have on middle infielders, by the way, is that the pool of people who can play decent middle infield is significantly larger than it used to be, which allows for a larger pool from which to select the best hitter. There are two reasons for this: (a) playing the middle infield is easier, mainly because of better and larger gloves and better playing surfaces, and (b) there are more good baseball players than there used to be."

Changes to equipment and environment--smaller ballparks and better bats--have had an impact as well. The effect is that it's harder for pitchers to throw as many innings as they did in the past; not because they're wimps, but because the job is harder. They can't coast through entire innings the way their predecessors could, because the penalty for a so-so fastball is a run on the board. The Christy Mathewson approach of saving your best stuff for the most dangerous hitters, which made sense when 40% of the lineup slugged .300 or worse, would be suicide for any pitcher today.

The need to treat every hitter as a dangerous one may manifest itself in more maximum-effort tosses, which may cause a pitcher to tire sooner. It may also lead to greater use of arm-damaging breaking balls. Pitchers have to throw more pitches from the stretch in an era of higher on-base percentages, which may have an effect on stamina. All of these things contribute to having fewer complete games, and none of them have to do with pitchers' intestinal fortitude.

We've looked at two primary metrics in this article. Let's combine them to show the difference between the 1960s--which shaped the worldview of many people in the game and even more who currently make their living covering it--and the last six seasons:


			   (K+BB)/
Year       K/9    BB/9     (AB+BB)     2B SLG    SS SLG    C SLG

1963      5.81    2.97        .238       .349      .335     .374
1964      5.94    2.97        .240       .336      .364     .368
1965      5.95    3.10        .245       .348      .335     .350
1966      5.83    2.89        .237       .341      .350     .369
1967      5.99    2.98        .245       .338      .300     .331
1968      5.89    2.82        .240       .322      .290     .326

1997      6.66    3.49        .267       .396      .379     .408
1998      6.61    3.41        .263       .417      .378     .396
1999      6.50    3.73        .265       .402      .394     .411
2000      6.53    3.80        .267       .405      .401     .422
2001      6.74    3.29        .265       .386      .394     .393
2002      6.53    3.38        .262       .363      .396     .381

Can you honestly say that the pitchers of the 1960s were pitching in the same conditions that the pitchers of the early 21st century are doing? If not, how can the two be held to the same standard of endurance?

I think that the generation of baseball people weaned in the 1960s are the ones most guilty of not recognizing these factors. They're fond of pointing to workhorses like Marichal and Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson and wondering why the guys today can't do what they did. Well, pitching in the 1960s was about as easy as it has been in the history of the game. Virtually no one hit for power, and the big strike zone drove walk rates into the basement. I would speculate that an average game in 1966 included 30-40 fewer pitches than one today. That's the difference between going seven and going nine. It's not the pitcher, it's the game.

There's another change at work, one that's smaller than the first two but also worth mentioning. Because runs today are less scarce, one-run strategies aren't used as much, so pitchers get fewer easy outs. Caught stealings are down from a 20-year peak (1974-1993) and sacrifice bunts have been in decline since the early 1980s, falling off a cliff in the last few years. For every out not recorded in those ways, the pitcher has to get it elsewhere. Double plays--the negative possibility introduced by not moving up the runner--do little to cancel out this effect.


         CS/G         SH/G        GDP/G
1961     .209         .456         .780
1962     .216         .420         .767
1963     .236         .447         .697
1964     .222         .452         .741
1965     .242         .458         .729
1966     .287         .450         .729
1967     .290         .457         .693
1968     .286         .464         .682
1969     .287         .429         .745
1970     .277         .419         .777
1971     .268         .465         .798
1972     .297         .473         .752
1973     .312         .399         .805
1974     .356         .446         .793
1975     .354         .484         .779
1976     .398         .462         .750
1977     .423         .419         .746
1978     .385         .472         .732
1979     .381         .452         .793
1980     .382         .447         .799
1981     .395         .449         .792
1982     .384         .413         .747
1983     .384         .370         .781
1984     .359         .341         .758
1985     .340         .368         .783
1986     .385         .360         .742
1987     .363         .346         .742
1988     .338         .388         .735
1989     .342         .386         .727
1990     .359         .370         .731
1991     .372         .386         .718
1992     .380         .395         .738
1993     .366         .399         .756
1994     .323         .377         .763
1995     .312         .369         .780
1996     .296         .341         .796
1997     .345         .348         .759
1998     .309         .351         .762
1999     .313         .331         .790
2000     .272         .335         .797
2001     .290         .331         .752
2002     .264         .337         .792

(Note: these numbers have not been normalized for the difference in league size. The post-1998 dropoff in sacrifice bunts is probably larger than it appears here, because there are more NL games than AL games, and in those, the pitchers bunt frequently.)

The debate over pitch counts usually comes down to observational evidence versus data, which isn't an argument either side is going to win. However, if baseball people can learn to accept that baseball has evolved to a point where complete games shouldn't carry any weight in the evaluation of pitchers, perhaps progress can be made in keeping pitchers healthy. Whereas the task of pitching the entire game may have been a reasonable expectation for the first 30, 40, maybe 80 years of organized baseball, now it requires too many pitches thrown with too much effort.

There's no reason to make this about heart, or guts, or training, or the fact that kids today blah blah blah or any other of the many reasons we hear and read why pitchers don't complete games in modern baseball. It's merely evolutionary. A paradigm shift that lets go of the old notion of a pitcher's job--to complete the game--and embraces a new one--to pitch effectively as long as possible without risking injury--would go a long way towards keping pitchers healthy, which makes for a better brand of baseball. Complete games would still happen, but they would happen naturally, when a pitcher was performing well and doing so with a minimum of effort. More importantly, the complete game would cease to be a mark of manhood, and merely become another statistic.

Even if that thought makes Bob Feller cringe.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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