In his time in Boston Terry Francona was known to be quite a stickler for pitch counts. In 2011 his pitchers averaged 97.1 pitches per game started, which was only slightly lower than his average in Boston of 98.5. While Bobby Valentine has had to count on his starters to avoid using his bullpen right now, he’s had no fear in topping 100 pitches for his starters.
In April the Red Sox starters have averaged 102.4 pitches per start. Only Clay Buchholz is below 100 pitches.
Pitcher Pitches/GS Jon Lester 107 Josh Beckett 102.4 Clay Buchholz 98 Felix Doubront 101.5 Daniel Bard 101
It’s especially interesting to see that the two starters who spent all or much of 2011 as relievers have also been allowed to go to more than 100 pitches consistently.
It wasn’t like Valentine didn’t warn us this spring. In an Nolan Ryan and Charlie Hough. It looked like he was throwing pitchers quite a bit, but in New York with more pressure to control pitch counts and no longer the horses he had in Texas, his pitch counts seemed more in line with league averages.
Valentine then spent some time in Japan—with a completely different environment regarding pitch counts—and he seems to have brought that experience back to his position in Boston. Japanese pitchers have much different approaches, including throwing 200-pitch sessions between starts and plenty of pitches even before the season starts. It’s difficult to say who’s system is “right,” but Valentine seems ready to lay his money on the eastern system.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the manager with a short, two-year contract and at the age of 61 is best able to challenge the system, but should the Red Sox front office be concerned? There really hasn’t been much conclusive data that proves or denies any of the pitch count rules. Year after year we see Tom Verducci write that young pitchers with big jumps in innings break down, and teams stick to their pitch rules, but year after year we see young pitchers fall to elbow and shoulder troubles. As Valentine points out, the Nationals counted and watched every pitch by Stephen Strasburg very closely, but he still fell victim to Tommy John surgery.
The issue I see is trying to set general rules based on averaged data to deal with health and injury. No two pitchers are perfectly the same and then you add in mechanics that may be good or bad. None of that is accounted for when you set a pitch limit of a general value like 100. Whether you limit pitchers to 100 or you don’t, there will still be injuries and someone will claim the other system is better.
We need more intensive research with general physical stature and pitch counts. Once this is all tied to injury data you might be able to set some general rules, but even then you’re dealing with something that might be too unpredictable.