The wrong side of 120

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.

Quantifying workloads

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 & 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.

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Comments

  1. Collin said...

    Personally, I think that it is a actually a good thing that college pitchers are throwing more pitches throughout their seasons. Although I don’t agree they should be throwing so much in non-conference games, the fact of the matter is that throwing in high volumes will increase the pitchers mental aspect of crossing the dreaded “100 pitch” plateau, as well as help them work through rough stretches. Nolan Ryan came into the Rangers organization and let the pitch countes fly out the window for every level of play and it has had a positive impact so far. Pitchers now adays need to be able to throw longer in order to help the game.

  2. Marc Schneider said...

    The game has changed.  Pitching, at least at the professional level, is much more difficult and draining than when Nolan Ryan came into baseball.  We don’t really know what the long-term impact of Ryan eliminating pitch counts will be. Moreover, do you really think these college coaches are having the pitchers throw so many pitches to help prepare them for pro ball? They just want to win at whatever the cost.  (Obviously, it’s no different in other college sports.) It’s unconscionable to use these guys this way, knowing that they are professional prospects.  The coaches are teachers and they should be looking out for the players, not abusing them.

  3. JM Blakely said...

    Pitching in the Majors is more difficult now than when Nolan Ryan came into baseball?  Really? How so?  The baseball has not gotten larger, has not gotten smaller, has gained nor lost weight—-no, if anything, the pitchers of Nolan Ryan’s era and earlier worked HARDER than today’s pitchers!  Using Ryan as an example is difficult since he was certainly not the NORM but the exception!  Ryan played for 27 seasons and during that time, “The Express” pitched 200 plus innings 14 times (and rang up totals of 198 [‘75] and 196 [‘83]); Juan Marichal played 16 seasons and threw well 200 innings eleven times; 13 out of his 17 seasons did Jim Bunning past the 200+ inning mark; even Bill Singer, who pitched 200+ innings in seven of his 14 seasons and hit 300+ twice, both 20 win seasons.  And with fewer teams in Ryan’s early years, the number of over all pitchers was less than what we have today.  What, with 30-plus teams, the quality of pitching is much worse and the number of innings being throw is seldom above 200 innings, much less 250, 260 or even 300 plus innings.  It is fair to say that we will never see another 300 inning pitcher in the Major Leagues.  No only do today’s pitcher have it easier, but he also has a better chance of playing in the show than in the past due to the increased number of teams.

  4. Gilbert Chan said...

    If there is some difference in strain between throwing different pitches it should be factored in (e.g. FB=1, SL=1.5, SCR=2).  So if a college pitcher throws 120 but it is 90% FB and he only really bears down against the 4 players that can hit the ball out of the park, that might be less stress than a MLB pitcher with his 100 full-throttle pitches, since half the college lineup might be guys that either single or make an out and you can throw your FB at 80 instead of 90 and pace yourself.  That is probably what Walter Johnson and Cy Young would do.

  5. JM Blakely said...

    I understand what you are saying.  The pitching culture changed because expectations changed.  Expectations changed because of the money involved and the “risk-reward” changed for MLB management.  I don’t believe today’s pitchers are maxing out but simply working within the limits of what is now expected and given—pitch counts, BB/K, and situations in a game.  Take Greg Maddux as my example; I can recall Maddux saying to reports that he’d gone 6 or 7 innings and he had nothing left; well, he wasn’t exactly throwing gas out there.  It may be the batters were catching up to him.  Maybe Or maybe Greg Maddux did not want to go longer in the game that day.  Maddux could probably pitch another inning or two, but he did what was expected and that is it for the day.  Kevin Millwood said earlier this season that Nolan Ryan’s influence has helped him pitch longer and be more responsible for the entire game.  Millwood is not working harder…just longer…and he is a big boy.  With the Braves, Millwood would be removed many times in the seventh when he could have gone longer.

    ON the other hand, I see your point of view.  If a pitcher is setting his mind to max out at 6 and 7 innings, then that is what will happen.  I can see additional stress for making perfect pitches and I can understand the frustration of losing a “game won” when the bullpen let one get away.  Where I do not agree is in the max effort vs. higher pitch count.  It takes more effort and increased concentration to take on the mindset of pitching a complete game and throwing 100-140 pitches as opposed to maxing out at 6 or 7 innings.

  6. JM Blakely said...

    HBTs, I have thank you for this forum, and I owe a big thanks to the others for responding.  Retirement is a blast as long as I have baseball sites like this to read.  Thanks to all.

  7. B said...

    JM Blakely…. I believe today’s approach to pitching is what is broken, and that is why it is harder now. The guys you are talking about pitched in a different culture. Guys paced themselves so they might finish the game. It wasn’t about K totals and lighting up the radar gun. Kids don’t learn savvy now, it’s max-effort for 5-7 innings then turn it over to the bullpen. Five 20 pitch innings is very hard on a pitcher, I don’t think that was commonplace back then.

  8. B said...

    In short, pitchers in Ryan’s day didn’t work harder, they worked smarter. Pitching is a marathon not a sprint. Running full speed for 10 miles and having to quit isn’t less work, it’s just not very effective.

  9. sheets said...

    This is good information to have. Is there any chance of the same information on high school pitchers, or is the accounting just not available at that level?

  10. JM Blakely said...

    As a former high school head coach, the best way is to hold your coaches accountable for pitch counts.  Now as a parent, another thing you can do is have your player have regular xrays on the growth plates around the throwing elbow and in the shoulders.  Dr. Mike Marshall has exact information at this site.  Until the growth plates have completed the proper growth, your players should not attempt to throw breaking balls (sliders, curves, screwballs, etc).

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