July 25, 2008
It’s been a couple of days, but I can’t get Tuesday night’s events at Shea Stadium out of my head.
In case you missed it, the Mets held a 5-2 lead over the Phillies through eight innings on a night when their closer, Billy Wagner, was unavailable due to some shoulder soreness. Mets ace Johan Santana had thrown 105 pitches through the eighth and had gotten through the eighth on 14 tosses. With Wagner out, it seemed like a good idea to leave Santana in. Interim manager Jerry Manuel decided instead to lift Santana, batting for him with no one on and one out in the bottom of the inning, and bringing in Duaner Sanchez. Six runs later, the Mets were down 8-5 on their way to an 8-6 loss.
Here’s what bugged me—we’d just seen this movie. On July 4 against these same Phillies, Santana had made it through eight innings of two-run ball on 95 pitches, getting through the eighth on just 11 and retiring the last seven men he faced. He was cruising with a low pitch count, yet Manuel pulled him in a tied game, double-switching Sanchez in. Four batters later, the Mets had lost, 3-2.
The former game made an impression because about six hours after it ended, I was in a car headed upstate with my uncle to play some golf, and we ended up talking about it for much of the trip. As I’ve mentioned, my family likes sports the way most people do, where they watch the games on TV and read about them in the paper. They’re not the kind of people who read BP or get into analysis. They know I write about baseball and think it’s neat that I get to go places, be on TV, write for books and for Sports Illustrated, and at the same time, they don’t completely get what we do here. I’ve probably had more success discussing the economics of the industry and moving people off of the "greedy players" meme than in changing anyone’s mind about, say, Derek Jeter’s defense.
So it was interesting to spend an hour kind of working through an argument with my uncle. He actually didn’t have the reactionary stance you might expect, and was patient as I did a filibuster on the history of pitching that took us well past the Tappan Zee Bridge. What I kept coming back to, though, was that I couldn’t defend Manuel’s decision. This wasn’t removing a gassed 23-year-old coming off of a 30-pitch inning that pushed his needle into the red. This was the best pitcher in baseball, making about $700,000 a start, throwing well with a pitch count in double digits. This was, I hoped (as we reached Route 17) the nadir of a trend that, while probably a net positive for the industry and for hundreds of individuals, has gone too far in the handling of veteran pitchers.
This may seem strange coming from a BP guy, but the truth is pitchers are babied these days, and that babying has gotten out of hand. When we were advocating paying greater attention to pitch counts in the 1990s, when Rany Jazayerli was developing the Pitcher Abuse Points system, and then when Rany and Keith Woolner were improving upon it, the push behind it was largely about two things: young pitchers, and the extreme edge of high pitch counts. This was a time when Kerry Wood would go from striking out 20 hitters to missing 20 months, when David Cone would throw 300 pitches over two starts, when going past 130, even 140 pitches, wasn’t unusual.
Rany and Keith applied a data framework to the discussion, and we wrote about and talked about it, and the industry was working to answer the questions itself, and over a period of 10 years, the problem pretty much solved itself. Young pitchers are now handled with great care, and virtually no one with influence suggests treating them like Salem treated witches. Starts of greater than 130 pitches have disappeared from the landscape, and with so much misplaced emphasis—for which we have to take some blame—on "100 pitches," even starts of 120 or more throws are becoming rare.
That was never, ever the intent. The argument that a 21-year-old Kerry Wood shouldn’t throw 120 or more pitches five times in six weeks, or that pitchers of any age should max out around 130 or so pitches in modern baseball, has absolutely nothing to do with whether Johan Santana can come out for the ninth having thrown fewer than 110 pitches. If we’ve reached a point, as an industry, where the default setting isn’t to have the best pitcher in the game taking the mound in that spot, something has gone terribly wrong.
There’s been a loss of information along the way, and that loss has contributed to some poor practices within the game. I don’t think I’m bastardizing the work of Jazayerli and Woolner to make the following statement: starting pitchers who are past the injury nexus and in reasonable health can pitch into the 110- or 120-pitch range regularly without fear of injury due to overwork. That’s a general, broad statement, and it will mean different things to Ted Lilly and Livan Hernandez, different things in July and September, different things when a pitcher is throwing well and poorly.
What it will always mean is that the guy making $20 million a year, pitching well and with 95 pitches under his belt will take the mound in the ninth inning of a tied game against a division rival. It will always mean that the highest-paid pitcher in baseball, having thrown 105 pitches, will close out the game when the closer is unavailable. Jerry Manuel’s hyper-conservative use of Santana, justified weakly in both cases, has no defense.
It is, however, a very clear sign that we’ve gone too far. A good idea—protecting pitchers from injury due to overuse—has been warped, with ill effects for the industry. The marginal innings that veteran starters aren’t throwing—and we’re talking about maybe 10-20 a season for some large number of pitchers—are not just going to inferior pitchers, but they’re driving roster decisions that have changed the way the game is played. As much as La Russa-influenced tactics have helped redesign reliever usage, the lack of those extra pitches and extra innings has forced teams to carry 11, 12, and sometimes 13 pitchers as a workaround. That change has reduced the amount of platooning and shortened benches to the point that many teams have non-functioning reserve corps. All for the gain of low-leverage innings from low-impact pitchers.
The solution here is fairly simple: forget that anyone ever mentioned the number "100." That number isn’t meaningful in any sense. If you really want to use numbers to guide you, here are two: 25 and 120. Once a pitcher is 25 years old, you can generally consider him physically mature enough to handle a full workload. A full workload for a mature, healthy pitcher should include starts of up to 120 pitches without inviting injury risk. Usage beyond that mark—actually, 121 pitches in the PAP^3 framework—do raise the risk, but that risk can be measured against the context of the situation. Flags fly forever, and the pursuit of one does sometimes outweigh the risks involved.
There are no bright-line tests here. "Pitcher abuse" will always mean different things in different contexts, but the concept has all but been eliminated in today’s game. It’s time for the pendulum to swing back a bit, and let starting pitchers take a greater share of the workload.