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August 15, 2014

Raising Aces

Have Pitch Counts Gone Too Far?

by Doug Thorburn

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Pitcher workloads have been decreasing on a linear path for the past thirty years, yet injuries are at an all-time high. What gives?

The situation has become particularly glaring in the past few seasons, a period in which workloads are at an all-time low yet arm injuries are skyrocketing. Consider:

Prior to the turn of the millennium, the 120-pitch start was a relatively common occurrence, taking place approximately 10 percent of the time. This rate actually marked a downturn from previous decades, but the trend line of high-volume outings has fallen off a cliff in the past 15 years, with the percentage of 120-pitch starts cutting in half between 2000 and 2001 and continuing to slide ever since, culminating in this season's paltry 1.4 percent frequency.

Interestingly, the average pitch counts per game throughout the league have held relatively stable over the past 25 to 30 years: In 1988, starters averaged 96 pitches per game, which is the same mean value as we have seen thus far in 2014. The average count of innings pitched per start has also held: 1987 starters averaged 6.2 frames per start, while today's pitchers are at 6.0.

The stark differences lie on the extremes, as teams have streamlined starting pitcher workloads to avoid the heavy-use outings that received such derision around the turn of the century. The variance in innings-per-start has been muted, particularly on the high end, as teams have essentially standardized their collective approach to pitcher workloads and eliminated the outliers. Starting pitchers have been aggressively capped in their per-game pitch counts, such that the 120-pitch game has nearly become extinct, and the 130-pitch game has become so rare as to invite automatic scrutiny whenever a hurler surpasses the threshold. Meanwhile, relief pitchers have been relegated to shorter stints as teams have expanded their bullpens and ushered in the era of specialty relievers.

Long relief stints were common 30 years ago, and in 1980 the average outing for a reliever comprised more than five outs. That number is down to 3.1 outs per appearance in 2014, as the game has moved toward LOOGYs, ROOGYs, and one-inning specialists. The frequency of relief outings that went above one inning was greater than 50 percent until 1988, and through 2004 it was more common for a reliever go more than three outs than less than three, but the sub-three-out appearances took over in 2005 and haven't looked back. The mound game has morphed from a long-distance run to a series of short sprints, and today's approach fits a paradigm of a six-inning starter who gives way to a trio of single-frame relievers.

What does this all mean, and how could it relate to injuries? After all, the sheer magnitude of pitches thrown is down for all types of pitchers, and the league-wide focus on protecting the game's fragile arms has never taken so much of the limelight. My contention is that today's pitchers are not being prepared to handle a heavier workload, and that the sprinter mentality (especially as it relates to the emphasis on strikeouts) has altered the physical reality for today's pitchers. Compounding the issue is that the current approach of putting all pitchers in fewer categories of workload ignores the fact that these are humans with very different profiles for stamina, mechanics, conditioning, and repertoire.

Pitchers are babied through the minor leagues, with strict innings caps and tandem-starter techniques creating a situation where some players face heavier workloads as amateurs than when they hit the pros. Pitch limits have also been instituted at the amateur levels to help protect younger arms, and though these restrictions have largely been a positive by preventing coaches from extreme cases of abuse, there is also merit to Nolan Ryan's stance regarding the downside of such limitations:

“I haven’t been pleased with the direction baseball’s taken pitching over the last 15 or 20 years, and I felt like we needed to regain some of what we had lost. I felt like we had a lot of pitchers that have been on pitch limits ever since Little League, and we don’t know what their genetic potential is as far as the number of pitches and workload they can handle.”

And from Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux (in the same 2009 article): “Guys that train for a mile ain’t running more than a mile.”

The Ryan Express was certainly an outlier in this area, but he also understands what it takes to have the stamina to pitch for a long time with heavy workloads at the highest level. Today's pitchers are not being trained to withstand heavier workloads, and in fact their timid build-up in the minors puts these players on a path of increasing difficulty that continues once they hit the majors. We could interpret this as teams becoming complacent or just following the status quo, but Ryan outlined a major flaw in the current paradigm of pitcher development, and the crux of that flaw is a lack of recognition of the individual nature of pitching.

Consider the case of Jenrry Mejia, who was determined by the Mets not to be able to cut it in the rotation and who was thus transitioned to the closer role. I agree with the move out of the rotation, as there were several indicators that Mejia was ill-suited for the 100-pitch challenge. His delivery is low on stability and high on power, a dangerous combination that should be shielded both for the sake of injury and for performance. He also struggled to maintain velocity throughout the game, as evidenced by the following velocity chart from his final start of the season (back on May 9th):

However, turning Mejia into a 15- to 20-pitch reliever was a drastic adjustment from the 100-pitch expectations that he had in the rotation. Perhaps Mejia would be optimally utilized for 40 to 50 pitches at a time, allowing him to make the most of his repertoire and stuff without exposing him to added risk, but the accepted structure of the modern pitching staff leaves little opportunity to take advantage of such a pitcher.

There do exist pitchers who can withstand the rigors of 120 or more pitches, but the structure of modern-day pitching leaves no room to identify those players. The lessons of Pitcher Abuse Points have been well ingrained, but what is missing is the reality that PAP thresholds are different for every player. I wrote about this five years ago in “Arm Action,” using the examples of Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. Somewhat famously, Martinez was not the same pitcher once he got past the century mark, and my contention was that his PAP should start counting around the 90-pitch threshold in order to account for his profile. In contrast, Johnson would often throw 130-plus pitches with no ill effects, an ability that required a different baseline for PAP in order to understand the actual risk for his particular case.

Johnson and Martinez represented another case of extremes, but they illustrate the idea that individual pitcher profiles for stamina and injury risk can be very different. There is still some variation among starters in today's game, but the workload distribution has been greatly narrowed, and with it have disappeared the options for teams to optimally utilize their individual pitchers. Pitch count limits can be a positive, but the way they are utilized today has acted to retard the development of some pitchers while tasking others with more than they can handle. As Ryan mentioned, we lack the means to identify those pitchers whose genetic potential is greater than the current system will allow, while others are being forced into roles as 100- or 20-pitch hurlers rather than having their individual profiles dictate optimal usage patterns.

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

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