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May 15, 2014

Pebble Hunting

Recent History's Most Cringe-Worthy Pitch Counts

by Sam Miller


On Tuesday, 23-year-old Zack Wheeler threw a career-high 118 pitches. That’s not all that many pitches, except that they were crowded into just 4 ⅓ innings; all but 33 of those 118 pitches were thrown with men on base, and all of the innings were extended:

  • 1st: 27 pitches, 20 with men on
  • 2nd: 30, 27
  • 3rd: 22, nine
  • 4th: 20, 15
  • 5th: 19, 14

“He’s got a win on the line,” Collins said, as quoted by the New York Times. (The presumed future ace was pitching with an 11-4 lead, after the Mets scored seven in the bottom of the fourth.) “A lot of people, you can say what you want, but wins are wins at the end of the year, when your name is next to some wins. So I thought, well, let’s see if he can go out there and do it.

In those two paragraphs are at least seven reasons that the outing caused a bit of a freakout over Wheeler’s labor: His age, his upside, the total number of pitches, the fact that he had never thrown that many before, the high-stress circumstances of those pitches, the pointlessness of those pitches, and the anachronistic, stat-chasing reason that he was left in. We still don’t know all the facts about pitcher stress points*, and we can’t say whether there’s some psychological benefit to a presumed future act getting a show of confidence or building up his glam stats. But it’s a suitable start for a freakout. It looked exhausting, and there didn’t seem to be a great reason for it.

Naturally, our standards for a freakout start have changed since 1998, when Rany Jazayerli introduced Pitcher Abuse Points. In 1996, for instance, Mets 23-year-old presumed future ace Paul Wilson threw 121 pitches in 4 ⅔ innings. So far as I can tell, Wilson’s pitch count was not mentioned in the New York Times game story the next day. (Greg Maddux, incidentally, threw 167 pitches in 1988, when he was 22. Gah.)

So, while we know that teams take pitch counts far more seriously now than they did in 1998, and while we know that we all freak out over pitch counts far more quickly now than we did in 1998, I wondered what the evolution of the most egregious outings looks like over the past decade and a half. And I wondered what Old Hoss Radbourn would say about these pitchers’ abuse, so I asked him. (Really, I did. These are really his responses.) Going backward:

2014: Wheeler
118 pitches, 4 ⅓ innings, 23 years old
Grrr: See above.
Justification: See above.
Followed by an injury or ineffectiveness? Unknown.

Old Hoss Says: I think the sorrier state of affairs is not that Wheeler was “abused” as much as a meager five innings is enough for a hurler to earn a victory. One does not earn one’s stripes by giving up in the thick of things. By this rationale, had McClellan squatted for a few more months along the Antietam Creek he could be named victor of our great civil war.

2013: Tim Lincecum
148 pitches, nine innings, 29 years old
Grrrrr: Third-most pitches thrown by a starter in past decade, by a pitcher whose declining performance might make you suspicious that he’s carrying around a weakened arm.
Justification: No-hitter. Lincecum has never been on the DL. Previous starts of 138, 133, and 132 pitches. Heading into All-Star break, so eight days of rest before his next outing.
Followed by an injury or ineffectiveness: Injury, no. ERA of 4.61 before, 4.54 after, though strikeout rate dropped.

Old Hoss: I say if this bonny lass wants to go for a no-hitter then by god let it happen.

2012: Johan Santana
134 pitches, nine innings, 33 years old.
Grrrrrrr: 11th start back from major shoulder surgery; elbow surgery on his resume; national treasure.
Justification: No-hitter; Mets no-hitter; old man, pending free agent, can do what he wants.
What: “At one point late in the game, Collins approached Santana asking how he felt. Collins’s ace said he felt good, and then Santana’s manager told him he was his hero.”
Followed by an injury or ineffectiveness: Both, though fastball velocity didn’t decline.

Hoss: I am trying to think of a scenario involving “King” Kelly naming me his hero that doesn’t involve him slipping a dirk ‘twixt my ribs while my guard was down. Here is how such a conversation would go in my day.

Kelly: “Radbourn. How’s the arm? I assume it is quite well. You have only thrown 276 pitches and are due for a win in but three more innings.”

Me: (stoic grunt of manly assent)

Kelly: “Good. Had you said anything else I’d cut you down and forfeit the game. I won’t stand shirkers on my club.”

The man may have been a Papist, but in his heart he was a cold, stoic, emotionless Protestant. That glorious bastard. (Not mine.)

2011: Jaime Garcia
107 pitches, 3 ⅓ innings, 24 years old
Grrrrrrrrrrr: 56-pitch first inning, at altitude. Tommy John on his resume.
Justification: Cardinals’ long man had pitched two innings the day before.
Followed by an injury or ineffectiveness? Not immediately, though of course Garcia ultimately had two serious shoulder injuries.

Hoss: Flags fly forever, S. Miller. Note: This actually isn’t true, and I remember profanely desecrating the champion’s flag of the 1886 St. Louis Browns. I only hazily remember the details—they involve a gunny sack, two pounds of pemmican, a tin of bile beans, and Julia Ward Howe—but I do know that flag never flew again.

2010: Edwin Jackson
149 pitches, nine innings, 26 years old.
Grr: 149 pitches, most by a non-Livan Hernandez pitcher since 2000.
Justification: No-hitter; most of the high-stress innings were early—68 pitches in the first three frames—and he cruised to the finish. “We talked every inning after about the sixth because I was checking on him,” Hinch said. “As the momentum built and the situation grew, it was pretty evident he had an extra gear.”
Followed by an injury or ineffectiveness? ERA and peripherals improved over the rest of the season; hasn’t been on the DL since.

Hoss: Having an extra gear late in the game means you’re a lazy vagabond who loafs about early on. Pull it together, son. All nine innings count.

2009: Gil Meche
121 pitches, six innings, 30 years old.
Grr: Was pitching with a dead arm.
Justification: Only 121 pitches—had thrown 132 and 120 earlier in the year—and pitchers pitch through dead-arm periods all the time. His average fastball that day was actually harder than it had been (or would be) in any start all year.
Followed by injury or ineffectiveness: Yes, both, almost immediately and ultimately forever. But, in fairness, the reason we remember this is specifically because it was followed by injury and ineffectiveness, and led to one of Rany Jazayerli’s most memorable posts.

Hoss: Out of respect to me and my fellow corpses it’s high time we put the objectionable phrase “dead arm” to rest.

2008: CC Sabathia
122 pitches, nine innings, 28 years old
Gr: Third consecutive start on three-days rest, final one coming on last day of a season in which he led the league in pitches thrown.
Justification: Sabathia. Pennant race, big body, hadn’t thrown that many pitches relatively to the rest of the league, had never been hurt, and was in the middle of the most dominant stretch of his career—even in the short-rest starts, in which he had a 0.83 ERA.
Followed by injury or ineffectiveness? No, no.

Hoss: Of course, rest was granted to him in the very next game, where he was abused into throwing but 98 pitches and in the process gave up five runs and helped earn himself a nice inning-free vacation a bit earlier than planned.

2007: Brad Penny
111 pitches, five innings, 29 years old
Grrrrrr: Pitching on short rest; high-stress outing, 91 degrees. Weird situation before the game where Grady Little claimed it was Penny’s idea to start on short rest and Penny seemed ambivalent.
Justification: Ehh. The sin seems small—only 111 pitches—but the justification (Penny had been good against Colorado, it was a pennant race) feels underdeveloped.
Followed by injury or ineffectiveness? Yes. 2.61 ERA before; 4.83 after. Shoulder injuries the next year and was never really healthy or effective again.

Hoss: I have lived my life by adhering to a certain code. I enjoy opium and women in equal measure. I do my best to finish a game I’ve started. I never borrow another man’s tobacco. And I pay no attention to Brad Penny.

2006: Matt Cain
131 pitches, eight innings, 21 years old.
Grrrrrr: Basically the last 21-year-old who was ever/will ever be allowed to throw so many pitches. The most by a 21-year-old since: Madison Bumgarner’s 124; Felix Hernandez’s 120; Jordan Lyles’ 118. The most by 21-year-olds immediately before Cain: Wood, Prior, and Bud Smith.
Justification: Pretty standard pitch count for Cain, who also threw 124, 120, 120, 119, and 118 pitches in starts that year. That might make this outing worse, or better, depending on how much you think the Giants knew what they were doing/any of us knows what we’re doing.
Followed by injury or ineffectiveness: No, no.

Hoss: Matt Cain has gone 78-78 since the beginning of the 2007 season. If this isn’t a sign he was grievously injured then I’m not sure what is.

2005: Carlos Zambrano
136 pitches, nine innings, 23 years old.
Grr: Everything we said about Cain, except for a 23-year-old.
Justification: Everything we said about Cain, except for a 23-year-old. This was really the moment when 27 or 28 teams were totally behind the pitch count thing, so starts like this began to stand out. But also when starters like Zambrano, who didn’t seem bothered by pitch counts, start to stand out, too.
Followed by injury or ineffectiveness? No, no.

Hoss: It is worth noting that Carlos Zambrano is a crazy man and were I his manager I would remove him from the mound only when accompanied by an armed pack of Gurkhas.

2004: Victor Zambrano
133 pitches, 4 ⅔ innings, 28 years old.
Grrr: More stressful even than Wheeler’s outing, including a 45-pitch fourth inning; his previous start, a 1 ⅓-inning start, had also been stressful, with a 42-pitch inning and a 30-pitch partial inning. The Rays, with a 10-28 record, were playing for nothing.
Justification: The horse of a staff that only had one other pitcher top 125 innings.
Followed by injury or ineffectiveness: Not really. Brief elbow inflammation three months later, Tommy John two years later.

Hoss: “His previous start, a 1 ⅓-inning start, had also been stressful.” Tee-hee. America’s decline in one easy phrase. I suppose he blamed this stressful start on his parents' divorce.

2003: Mark Prior
133 pitches, 6 ⅔ innings, 23 years old
Grrrrrrrrr: Capped a September in which he threw 131, 129, 109, 124, 131 and 133 pitches in starts. Then 133 in his first October start. Adds Doug Thorburn: “This after coming back (within a month) from a shoulder injury courtesy of a collision with Marcus Giles on the bases—it turned out (during exploratory surgery five years later) that Prior likely suffered a torn anterior capsule in his throwing shoulder during the collision, but it was undetected at the time. He finished that age-22 season ranked no. 3 in all of baseball in PAP (despite the missed time), with an innings jump of 65 frames over the previous season (including playoffs).”
Justification: Pennant race; was more effective than ever during this stretch; pretty to look at.
Followed by injury or ineffectiveness: A little bit.

Hoss: Even I am not bitter and vile enough to say anything other than this one is awful. Perhaps Prior was a delicate flower who could just not handle “Dusty” Baker’s vampiric fangs in his shoulder anymore, but by god it was fun to watch him fire the sphere.

2002: Nate Cornejo
122 pitches, 5 ⅔ innings, 22 years old
Grrrrrrrr: First start of the year. Entered season as one of game’s top pitching prospects. Tigers would win 55 games that year.
Justification: Pitchers threw a lot more in their season-opening starts back then.
Followed by injury or ineffectiveness: He was never really effective, but that’s no shock for a young pitching prospect. He did start 29 games that year, and 32 the year after, before labrum surgery in 2004 more or less ended his career.

Hoss: I have been dead for far too long to worry about the “abuse” of players like “Nate Cornejo.” I am enough of a man of letters, however, to realize that you have wholesale invented the word “labrum” and wonder what secret you are trying to cover up. Had this man merely been leeched of his excess black bile I am sure he would have been right as rain.

2001: Chad Durbin
137 pitches, nine innings, 23 years old.
Grrr: Since 1998, three of the top 30 pitch counts for starters under the age of 24 are by Chad Durbin, who you forgot was a starter, or existed.
Justification: Durbin wasn’t much of a prospect, and I’m not sure there was much to save him for. On the other hand, it’s not like the Royals were playing for much in the summer of 2001.
Followed by injury or ineffectiveness: Who could tell? The first six years of his major-league career were so uneventful that his Wikipedia page starts with “Durbin signed with the Tigers as a minor league free agent prior to the 2006 baseball season.”

Hoss: 137 pitches in 9 innings . . . is pretty economical by my own modest standards. “Wasn’t much of a prospect?” Chad Griffin Durbin has a World’s Series ring. Do you have a World’s Series ring, Sam Miller? Then again, I don’t have a ring, either. I was given but two rashers of bacon and a crippled yearling for my role in winning the 1884 Series.

2000: Ron Villone
150 pitches, nine innings, 30 years old.
Grrrrrrrrrrr: The only non-Livan-Hernandez pitcher since 2000 to throw 150 pitches in a start is Villone, a swingman who had thrown an inning of relief two days earlier.
Justification: He struck out 16 batters in this game; the most he had K'd in any other outing that year (including 22 starts) was five. He also matched a season-high with five walks in the game. Everything about this doesn’t make sense, so I’m going to assume that at the time it somehow did make sense, like Pete Gray.
Followed by injury or ineffectiveness: Had basically the same year in 2001, minus the 16-K complete game.

Hoss: This makes my heart swell with pride.

1999: Russ Ortiz
84 pitches, two innings, 25 years old.
Grrrrrrrr: In the second inning, Ortiz threw 63 pitches, the most by a starter in any inning since 1998.
Justification: At least they pulled him after that. The Giants actually won this game.
Followed by injury or ineffectiveness: Ortiz went six more years before he ever had an injury, but he wasn’t the same after this inning. Following that start: .281/.386/.439, 4.74 ERA; before: .221/.323/.353, 3.35 ERA.

Hoss says: I assume he was playing in a “retro” game that featured eight balls to a walk. Otherwise, this is a bloated waste of everyone’s time. If you’re going to throw 63 pitches in an inning there’d better be at least five opponents who will never be able to father children again due to errant inshoots that found their true target.

1998: Livan Hernandez
152 pitches, eight innings, 23 years old.
Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr: Two starts earlier, he had thrown 153 pitches; in between, 126. He also threw 146 in a start that month, and 135. All in the same month! Five starts, 142 pitches per, and, to boot, he wasn’t even that great during those five starts: a 3.43 ERA, 29 Ks and 15 walks in 42 innings. The Marlins were awful.
Justification: But it was Livo. Livo, even at 23, was unbreakable (so long as you didn’t leave him out to dry). But while it’s tempting to give the Marlins credit for knowing this, there’s also the matter of Jesus Sanchez, another 23-year-old Marlin, who was allowed to throw 147 pitches in his fourth major-league start. It’s entirely possible that the Marlins hadn’t studied Hernandez’s body type, biomechanics or particular gift for conservation at all, and that they were just more or less asleep in the dugout.
Followed by injury or ineffectiveness: No, no.

Hoss: I like the cut of this man’s jib.

Many thanks to Old Hoss Radbourn for classing this joint up.

*While it’s generally assumed that stressful innings, like those Wheeler threw, are more likely to lead to injuries, they fall into the “we just don’t know” abyss. Dodgers head athletic trainer Stan Conte at the 2014 SABR Analytics conference talked about the inconclusive studies the Dodgers had done: “We have to define stressful innings. Pitcher themselves when you ask them they talk about stressful innings as first and third and no outs. Bases load and no outs. Whether or not that puts more stress on their anatomy, not just their head but their anatomy, the pitchers would say yes it does. ... We looked at stressful innings as a pitch count of say over 23 pitchers and we saw no correlation with that. When we looked at stressful innings we didn’t see that.”

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

Related Content:  PAP,  Zack Wheeler,  Pitcher Abuse Points,  Pitch Count

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