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July 28, 2009

Pitching Workloads

Is 120 the New 100?

by Christina Kahrl

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When Baseball Prospectus was first getting started more than a decade ago, we ended up helping add a certain pointedness to the question over what sort of workloads starting pitchers could handle by creating a statistic, Pitcher Abuse Points. Controversial at the time because of the inference that it was a predictive tool, what PAP was in fact was a counting stat, sort of like a warning light on the dashboard of your car-it gave you cause for concern, but it wasn't telling you that a complete breakdown was incipient. However, when PAP was first published, the baseball industry was perhaps better typified as relatively indifferent on the subject. Previous warnings about workloads had been aired-perhaps most famously in Craig Wright's and Tom House's The Diamond Appraised in the '80s-but generally speaking, pitcher workloads weren't as carefully monitored as they are now.

Fast-forward a decade, and that has changed almost industry-wide. Organizations monitor their pitchers from the highest level to the lowest, count pitches in games, on their throw days, warming up in the bullpen, even throws to the bases, if it involves a pitcher and a baseball in flight, it's being charted. In A-ball leagues, several teams use adaptive workloads with an eye towards keeping younger pitchers from being overworked-instead of a normal starter/reliever split in assignments, you'll find groups of pitchers pitching in tandem, paired off to handle the first six or seven innings together, and throwing 60 to 90 pitches, and trading off the honor of starting or following in that ballgame. As much as possible, teams are not sacrificing any of their pitching prospects for the greater glory of pennant race in Binghamton.

The extent to which there has been an overcorrection in terms of pitcher usage patterns is perhaps best reflected in the recent adaptations made by several teams in the last couple of seasons. Nolan Ryan's announced determination to make the Rangers' pitchers more durable hasn't led to 140-pitch starts or relievers on a pace to appear in 90 games. More teams are moving are realizing that the five-man rotation isn't so much an inflexible quintet as much as a five-day rotation in which you keep your four best rotation men working on their regular rest, and if the odd offday affords a team the opportunity to skip the fifth starter, then he gets skipped, or shipped to Triple-A to take a turn there until he's needed back on the big-league club. This isn't revolutionary or even evolutionary as usage patterns go-this is where we were 25 years ago. Similarly, the obsession with the nice roundedness of "100" has become less a line of death as much as a suggestion-as Rany Jazayerli noted in 2004, it's better to think of 120 pitches as the count at which people should really be concerned.

How much have matters changed? In 1999, the pitcher who averaged the highest pitch count per start on the season was Randy Johnson, with 120 pitches per game; he topped 130 pitches in a game eight times. Today, the per-game leader is Justin Verlander, with 109, which would have ranked 14th in 2000; he's thrown over 120 pitches all of four times on the year.

Consider this list of the highest single-game pitch counts of the last five years:

Pitcher, Team               Date     Pitches
Livan Hernandez, Nationals  6/03/05   150
Livan Hernandez, Nationals  7/31/05   145
Livan Hernandez, Nationals  6/15/06   138
Tim Lincecum, Giants        9/13/08   138
Carlos Zambrano, Cubs       5/05/08   136
Livan Hernandez, Nationals  7/15/05   136
Aaron Harang, Reds          7/08/06   135
Carl Pavano, Yankees        5/17/05   133
Roy Halladay, Blue Jays     6/02/09   133
Curt Schilling, Red Sox     4/25/06   133

Livan Hernandez is and was a physical freak; the heaviest workloads in the industry didn't break him, but he'd also demonstrated the capacity to handle it. Roy Halladay is still with us. Tim Lincecum scared teams off in the draft because of his build, but he had demonstrated a remarkable ability to throw without getting sore in college, and his arm has not fallen off. On the other hand, Carlos Zambrano's had issues with his durability in recent years after establishing a brief reputation as a workhorse; he has also managed to avoid a complete breakdown. After his big ballgame, Carl Pavano subsequently became a watchword for fragility, breaking down later that season, and missing most of the next three.

The unhelpful suggestion is that not all pitchers are created equal. Pitchers like Kerry Wood-heavily overworked in high school-and Mark Prior might be the signature warnings of pushing any one pitcher too far since their breakdowns since 2003. Not pushing pitchers too hard before they've matured physically is generally well understood. The Dodgers won't push Clayton Kershaw too far down the stretch, just as the Rays have been careful with David Price, because they want to bank on the futures they'll get from those pitchers towards the tail end of their initial six years of service time. Clubs are actively protecting their investments in their talent. The general rule of thumb has been for pitchers to avoid getting worked too heavily before their age-24 season, but as Wood's experience reflects, there's only so much control teams have over younger pitchers. Because of service time considerations (not to mention overspecialization in bullpen roles), clubs are also reluctant to follow the old Earl Weaver rule of breaking in future starting pitchers in middle relief, instead targeting the age range in which they'll get those first six seasons before free agency with any premium prospect.

Similarly, there's a better understanding that not all pitch counts are created equal. Throwing 100 pitches in three innings is a lot more taxing than 100 pitches over seven-it's pretty obvious that kind of tally in that short a period of time means the guy's struggling, allowing baserunners, and dealing with the added stress of throwing from the stretch. That said, there's not necessarily a predictive element involved. Take the highest individual pitch counts in a single inning thrown this season: the 57 thrown by Francisco Liriano in the third on May 30, and the 56 thrown by Chris Young in the third on April 27; both pitchers made early exits, both made quality starts their next time out. Liriano's trying to salvage a season that started badly; Young's on the Disabled List.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

Related Content:  Livan Hernandez,  Workloads

27 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Regarding your comment: "The unhelpful suggestion is that not all pitchers are created equal." Certainly, all pitchers are not created equal and what sets them apart is the manner in which they apply force to the baseball. Mark Prior and Kerry Wood had significant flaws in their force application and when combined with extensive use, a breakdown occurs. It's analogous to tires on a car-if they are misaligned AND driven hard, they will wear out much faster than otherwise. And, with regard to your comment: "Not pushing pitchers too hard before they've matured physically is generally well understood," I disagree - I think it is still very misunderstood. Most pitchers reach skeletal and muscular maturity by age 19 or 20 - it's not necessarily their age that matters as much as it is about the way they apply force. Among pitchers who saw extensive action before age 22, there is a proportionate number of Gary Nolan's (flame-outs) to Bert Blyleven's (guy's with long careers). This is certainly a field that requires much more research.

Jul 28, 2009 11:44 AM
rating: 0

Most people hit their physical peak in their early 20's, yet a baseball player's prime is not until the late 20's. This has often been said to due to the immense amount of good knowledge, practice, and skill development does for a player.

Similarly, a pitcher's mechanics at age 21 will usually not be as refined, regular, and disciplined as it will be at age 25. It's as much about the experience as the age of the body.

Jul 28, 2009 12:03 PM
rating: 1

The article doesn't refer to peak - it refers to maturity: "Not pushing pitchers too hard before they've matured physically...".

Jul 28, 2009 12:58 PM
rating: 1

Yea, sorry perhaps I was too circumspect. What I meant to say is that physical maturity is not meant literally to mean just the formation of skeletal structure and musculature, but also the ability to exert force in a more reliable, less damaging way.

Jul 28, 2009 14:27 PM
rating: 0

Yes, better mechanics (i.e., the ability to exert force in a more reliable, less damaging way) = less inclination to get injured, irrespective of age beyond 19 or 20. As a side note, I ran a query on baseball-Reference for pitchers under 22 who pitched more than 162 innings in a season and #1 in terms of innings pitched was Christy Mathewson. He only threw 336 innings and had 36 Complete Games AS A 20-YEAR-OLD! It really slowed him down however as he was limited to only 4,300 innings pitched for the balance of his career.

Jul 28, 2009 15:11 PM
rating: 0

How many sliders did Christy Matthewson throw? Did his fastball average 90 mph or better?

Today's hitters would light up Christy Matthewson like a Christmas tree.

Jul 28, 2009 16:11 PM
rating: 0

Irrespective of age, but correlated to age.

And the bit about Christy Mathewson is just ridiculous.

Jul 28, 2009 16:37 PM
rating: 0

“clinical” baseball people often talk about physical/visual signs of pitchers reaching the limit while disparaging a purely numerical pitch limit. the question may be better served to will, but are there clear physiological signs linked with the pitcher crossing into risky territory. the follow-up question for an integrated approach might be, whether the physical/visible signs are clear indicators, or whether there is a certain numerical line that is not represented in visible or felt physical duress but still statistically indicates risk.

Jul 28, 2009 11:49 AM
rating: 0

This is an odd article. It kind of just ended without really tying up the analysis in a tight way. Is the implication at the end that perhaps we should shift our focus to particularly intense innings? On a per inning basis, how much is too much? 30 pitches? 40? If so, what are the ramifications of such an approach?

I think this is an interesting idea, but this article was too short to be an article and too long for a blog post. I think it needs further analysis.

Jul 28, 2009 12:04 PM
rating: 6
Drew Miller

I (and the Red Sox) would love to know if Daisuke Matsuzaka is one of those physical freaks like Livan. He seems to think he is--but the Red Sox potentially disagree.

Jul 28, 2009 12:37 PM
rating: 0

It seems to me that this season has shown that he is not.

Jul 28, 2009 17:48 PM
rating: 2

He threw hard enough and deceptive enough to throw 36 complete games. As a 20 year-old. With no pitch count. And then he threw 4,300 more innings and won 373 games. Not sure how hard or how many sliders but the point was relative to age and usage.

Jul 28, 2009 23:13 PM
rating: -3
Ben Solow

And you're completing ignoring the change in context between when Christy Mathewson pitched and today. I could go out on a baseball mound and throw 300 pitches every day if I was only throwing 50 mph. That's not to say that Christy Mathewson was only throwing 50 mph, but considering that he probably exerted significantly less effort and applied significantly less force than today's pitchers, he's not really an apt comparison. Nolan Ryan himself might be a better example if you really want to make this argument.

Jul 29, 2009 08:45 AM
rating: 0

Ben, I understand what you're trying to say, but I wouldn't necessarily tie throwing "hard" (as in physical exertion) and throwing "fast" (as in pitch velocity). We simply can't know how hard the great or not-so-great pitchers of yesteryear were exerting themselves.

It's unlikely Mathewson threw fast in the context of today's pitchers. But Mathewson also didn't lift weights; undergo extreme conditioning programs; take dietary and other supplements; have access to legions of physiologists, kinesiologists and other motion experts; etc., that would strengthen his muscles and allow him in theory to throw faster even without necessarily applying more effort (and thus bodily stress) in each pitch.

Jul 29, 2009 09:36 AM
rating: 0
Ben Solow

Anecdotally, though, I think it's reasonable to say that you don't see nearly the same number of "max-effort" deliveries among older pitchers that you do among today's pitchers.

Jul 29, 2009 10:50 AM
rating: 0

Regarding Christy Mathewson:

He discussed something in his autobiography, about how he (and many of the other pitchers of his era), only really bore down in key situations. In the dead ball era, you could do this - most hits were going to be singles, so you could give up two hits before worrying about giving up a run on the next pitch. It's generally believed that Livan Hernandez did something like this as well in the modern game. This is a big part of why comparing dead ball records to modern records isn't particularly meaningful.

Jul 29, 2009 05:00 AM
rating: 1

OK, then maybe we could turn our attention to Bob Feller, who threw 1100 innings before he turned 22! Not in the dead ball era. And enjoyed a long and prosperous career. Bottom line, I have yet to see any compelling evidence that pitch counts are effective in reducing injuries or any evidence that there is a relationship between age, workloads and injury predisposition. Pitch counts exist because they are easy to quantify (every ballpark now displays them), they reduce liability of coaches (he was at 100 pitches so I had to take him out), and they give people a false sense of "protecting" young arms and their investments. Sound mechanics and thorough off-season training to withstand the rigors of a full regular season are the only effective means of reducing injuries for adult pitchers.

Jul 29, 2009 11:01 AM
rating: 0

There are always outliers, coachadams. Feller was likely one. Nolan Ryan was another. I'm not sure I'd make broad generalizations based on a Hall of Famer, which by definition is an outlier.

Jul 29, 2009 11:24 AM
rating: 0

All of the names on the PAP list in the article are still pitching (save Schilling) - am I to believe they are ALL ouliers (comment about Livan Hernandez being a "freak" notwithstanding?) Show me some evidence that pitch counts save arms and I'll acquiesce.

Jul 29, 2009 11:38 AM
rating: -1

I think you're asking the wrong question. I think the question is, Do pitchers' arms wear down from (over)use?

AS for the list above, Zambrano went on the DL the next month with a right shoulder strain; Schilling pitched crappy in his next two starts, then completely broke down and was out for a month-and-a-half; Pavano went on the DL the next month with an injured right shoulder ... Is there a correlation? You tell me.

Jul 29, 2009 12:25 PM
rating: 1

My point is that a lot of guys on strict pitch count limits break down as well. There is no direct correlation, or at least I've never seen one compelling enough to make me a believer. For every Zambrano there's Rich Harden. For every Pavano there's Chien Ming Wang. Some guys who throw a lot break down, some guys don't. Some guys who are on strict pitch counts break down, some don't. It's seemingly random so rather than doing what's easy (pitch counts), I suggest someone, somewhere do the heavy lifting and focus on mechanics and training.

Jul 29, 2009 12:47 PM
rating: 0

Right, but would they have broken down sooner on higher pitch counts?

Jul 29, 2009 13:06 PM
rating: 1
Ben Solow

You're right that a lot of guys on strict pitch counts also break down, but that's not the question. This is a question of causality, not of correlation, and the more appropriate question would be "Would Rich Harden pitch as many/more equally effective innings if he was throwing 120 pitches per start as he does now?" My guess would be no. Similarly, there are some people whose bodies (for whatever reason, be it genetics or training methods) are more durable and for whom pitch counts may not be appropriate.

Given that it takes time to understand what kind of pitcher you have, doesn't it make sense to limit their pitches until you're absolutely sure, that is, to give young pitchers strict pitch counts in case they're not Livan Hernandez? Alternatively, you could think of different people having constant, but different, risks for injury on every pitch of the night. Rich Harden might have a 1% chance of getting injured, and Livan Hernandez a .001% chance, for example. After getting through 85 pitches with Harden without him being injured, would you really want to continue to take your chances, or would you then opt to go to the bullpen with fewer innings to cover? Either way, pitch counts are justifiable from a number of perspectives, whether it be information gathering, possible reduction in likelihood of injuries, or even simply diminishing performance by pitchers as they throw more making it no longer worth the constant chance of injury.

By the way, making blanket dismissals of workload based on a couple hall of fame anecdotes and attributing the entire causation to something unobservable and relatively undefinable like "good mechanics" and "good training" is counterproductive to actually illuminating the problem.

Jul 29, 2009 13:13 PM
rating: 1
Ben Solow

Sorry, that second sentence should read "...120 pitches per start THAN as he does now?"

Jul 29, 2009 13:15 PM
rating: 0

Look, we've done the pitch counting thing and where has it gotten us? To quote Tim Kurkjian's article in ESPN yesterday, "More pitchers are on the disabled list today than ever before. It's a paradox: The less they throw, the more often they get hurt." Pitch Counts are not protecting anyone. We've gathered all the information necessary to prove that they don't keep pitchers from getting injured. Move on to another data point, be it biomechanics, kinesiology or whatever. There is no causation between the number of pitchers a guy throws and his propensity for injury. If there is and I've missed it, please point me in its direction because I'd love to see it.

Jul 29, 2009 14:25 PM
rating: -3
Ben Solow

Medical technology is also advancing over time which allows more and better injury diagnosis. Teams are also using the DL for things other than physical injuries including mental illness, Rule 5-itis, and "you suck and are out of options but we don't want to release you yet syndrome".

The increased performance of hitters today means that you can't run a guy out there who is pitching while injured, whereas in the pitching dominated past, it didn't matter so much. Look at how Jim Bouton and other pitchers were treated in Ball Four, for example.

The point is that we don't know a whole lot about injuries right now, but it makes a lot of sense that overusing your arm can increase risk. We have a lot of anecdotal evidence of overwork preceding poor performances (Carlos Zambrano, Aaron Harang) and breakdowns (Kerry Wood). It's absurd at this point to just throw away data because some guy in the 1920's threw a lot of pitches at a young age and became a hall of famer. It's not the same baseball, it's not the same speed, it's not the same demands on the body...it's not the same game.

Jul 30, 2009 07:59 AM
rating: 0

Anecdotal evidence means "I think it's true but can't prove it." I need proof. Some guys throw a lot of pitches and are not adversely affected - there has to be another more correlated variable - we need to find that variable.

Aug 03, 2009 07:46 AM
rating: 0
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