The wrong side of 120by Jeff Sackmann
June 25, 2009
Much has been made of Austin Wood's 169-pitch relief outing for the Texas Longhorns in the regional tournament last month. To many, it was merely the last in a long line of excessive pitch counts in the college ranks. Now that Wood has been drafted by the Tigers, we'll find out how his arm holds up in the longer term.
But Wood, of course, wasn't the only college pitcher taken in the draft with a questionable workload behind him. Even Stephen Strasburg logged a couple of outings over 120 pitches this season. In an era when 20- and 21-year old professionals virtually never cross the 100-pitch mark, it is striking just how often college pitchers go considerably farther.
To get an idea of which highly-touted pitchers might have been pushed hard before turning pro, I looked at pitch counts for 2009 starts for all college pitchers taken in the first five rounds. The following table shows the 10 highest Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP3) totals among those 40 pitchers.
Some of the pitch counts had to be estimated; the number of appearances for which pitch counts were estimated in given in the "Est" column. The next five columns show the number of outings with 100-109 pitches, 110-119 pitches, and so on:
Name School Apps Est 100+ 110+ 120+ 130+ 140+ PAP3 Austin Wood Texas 39 4 0 0 0 0 1 328509 Jerry Sullivan Oral Roberts 14 5 1 4 1 3 2 319961 Eric Arnett Indiana 14 1 0 2 2 2 2 296316 A.J. Morris Kansas State 15 0 2 3 3 1 2 255109 Josh Spence Arizona State 18 9 0 2 4 2 1 236418 Mike Minor Vanderbilt 17 3 2 4 5 2 0 166824 Tyler Blandford Oklahoma State 13 9 2 3 2 0 1 134314 Mike Leake Arizona State 19 11 4 2 3 1 0 113618 Matt Way Washington State 16 4 6 3 2 0 1 106382 Rex Brothers Lipscomb 14 3 2 3 3 2 0 101367
Good news and bad news
By the accepted standards of college baseball, only the Austin Wood outing is particularly eye-catching. A glance at Boyd Nation's PAP reports for past college seasons (here's 2007) shows that totals in the 200,000 range aren't unusual, even for top prospects. The Braves might wish Mike Minor had been subject to a quicker hook, but only the top few names on this list are serious causes for concern.
What's a bit more distressing is how thoroughly the first round is represented on this list. Strasburg, Kyle Gibson, and Alex White all rank within the next four (though I had to estimate the majority of Strasburg's pitch counts). I don't doubt that most of these guys wanted the ball, and I'm sure their coaches generally have good intentions, but when Eric Arnett throws 145 pitches in a non-conference game in March, you have to wonder why.
As a first-round pick near the top of this list, Arnett is of particular interest. All of the 100-plus pitch outings are reported (not estimated) pitch counts. In one seven-start stretch from March 28 to May 8, he threw 119 or more pitches six times. I've published more details of Arnett's full season workload elsewhere.
Fortunately for these pitchers, if long outings have negative results, we haven't seen anything yet. By just about any statistical measure, Arnett and Jerry Sullivan threw just as well in May as in March. Minor's numbers suffered (a May ERA pushing 5.00, along with a SLG allowed over .500), but that may be more attributable to a series of tough matchups, including a particularly bad outing against South Carolina. I hope we don't have reason to recall this column in these pitchers' first pro seasons.
A gold star
Usually, discussions of college pitch counts (or Pitcher Abuse Points in any context) focus on the negative. But it isn't all bad.
The one first-round starting pitcher without a PAP3 total approaching 100,000 is Kennesaw State's Chad Jenkins. It appears that it's no accident; classmate Kyle Heckathorn, drafted in the supplemental first round, also came in near the bottom of the list. Some of the credit is due to Jenkins himself. He threw five complete games but never exceeded 123 pitches. Heckathorn only managed one complete game, but finished it with only 98 pitches.
If this is a result of a firm policy on the part of the Owls coaching staff, that's great news, especially since KSU is maturing into a quality program. Perhaps it is possible, even in NCAA Division I, to impress scouts, win games, and save arms, all at the same time.
References and Resources
Boyd Nation has been doing great work with pitch-count analysis on the college ranks for a long time. You can find much of his commentary in the column archive on his site. If you want to play around with estimated pitch counts, Boyd's published formulas are here. For what it's worth, I use my own play-by-play-based estimator, which I've found to be slightly more accurate.
Jeff Sackmann is the creator of MinorLeagueSplits.com. With Kent Bonham, he founded CollegeSplits.com. Jeff and Kent blog about college baseball and the draft, and you can follow them on Twitter for bite-sized snacks of minor league and college stats. Jeff also has an email address.