Pat Hentgen of the Blue Jays announced his retirement recently, at the age of 35. We had some discussion about Hentgen and his career over at Baseball Think Factory, and one poster, referring to Hentgen’s struggles over the past several years, said something to the effect of, “Hentgen’s career is a great lesson in what 260-inning seasons will do to a pitcher.”
The assumption that 260 innings in a season is an unbearable workload for nearly every modern starting pitcher is very commonly held these days. The developers and promoters of the Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP) theory and method, Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner of Baseball Prospectus, would very likely agree with it.
There’s been some very interesting writing recently regarding the issue of pitch counts and “safe” workloads for pitchers. In The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, published this spring, Bill James presents an article called “Abuse and Durability” (pp. 449-463) that reviews several studies he has performed, and essentially asserts that the nearly universal adoption of strict pitch count limits in professional baseball over the past 15 or so years has been a bad idea. The book then presents Jazayerli and Woolner’s rebuttal, “A Response in Defense of PAP” (pp. 464-466), in which they conclude, “A revolution in the management of starting pitchers is underway, and the early signs suggest that the revolution may well lead to fewer injuries.”
Don Malcolm then published a commentary on Baseball Think Factory in which — in typical bombastic Malcolm style — he wholeheartedly agrees with James’ view, claiming that Jazayerli and Woolner’s “research is so flawed that it is virtually useless.” While I wouldn’t wish to present the case with quite the ferocity that Malcolm employs, I do firmly agree with him on this issue, and with James.
Indeed the modern pitch count obsession is something I’ve been perplexed about for years, and I’m very glad to see such prominent voices as James and Malcolm saying what ought to be said. The extreme focus on counting pitches in the modern era has not only meaningfully reduced the proportion of pitching that is performed by every team’s best pitchers — thus increasing the proportion pitched by the worst — it has done so while producing no noticeable reduction in pitching injuries. Indeed it may very well be the case, as James speculates, that backing off on pitchers’ workloads may have increased their susceptibility to injury.
The extremely talented baseball analyst, Tangotiger, developed some formulae to estimate pitch counts when actual pitch count information isn’t available. He tested his Pitch Count Estimator against actual historical pitch count data collected by the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1950s and 1960s, and has demonstrated that the Estimator — even in its simplest “Basic” version — is remarkably accurate at providing a good idea of how many pitches were actually thrown by pitchers of yore.
Tango has been very gracious in sharing his database with me, and I’d like to take this opportunity to explore it, and illustrate why I believe James and Malcolm have it right: the unprecedented pitch count limits employed in baseball over the past 15 years or so have been counterproductive.
Why don’t we start with Hentgen. Employing the Basic Pitch Count Estimator equation (3.3*PA + 1.5*SO + 2.2*BB, where PA = 3*IP + H + BB), here are Hentgen’s estimated total number of pitches thrown per year from 1993 through 2000, with his innings pitched as well:
Year Est.Pitches IP 2000 3257 194 1999 3247 199 1998 2966 178 1997 4079 264 1996 4198 266 1995 3463 201 1994 2796 175 1993 3441 216
Now let’s put Hentgen’s workload into the context of the workloads of other top starters of his era. Here are the MLB leaders in estimated total pitches for 1990 through 2003 (leaving out the strike-shortened seasons of 1994 and 1995):
Year Pitcher Est. Pitches IP 2003 Roy Halladay 3950 266 2002 Randy Johnson 4116 260 2001 Randy Johnson 4018 250 2000 Randy Johnson 4067 249 1999 Randy Johnson 4304 272 1998 Curt Schilling 4224 269 1997 Roger Clemens 4099 264 1996 Pat Hentgen 4198 266 1993 Randy Johnson 4145 255 1992 Kevin Brown 4172 266 1991 Roger Clemens 4128 271 1990 Dave Stewart 4095 267
We see that Hentgen’s workload wasn’t particularly heavy compared to those of the other top aces of the day. It’s quite apparent that somewhere around 4100-4200 pitches (and 250-270 innings) is the upper limit for the best workhorses of the modern era.
How does this compare with earlier eras? Let’s look at the MLB leader in estimated total pitches from 1970 through 1989 (excluding the strike-shortened season of 1981):
Year Pitcher Est. Pitches IP 1989 Roger Clemens 4074 253 1988 Dave Stewart 4414 276 1987 Charlie Hough 4627 285 1986 Mike Moore 4290 266 1985 Fernando Valenzuela 4260 272 1984 Charlie Hough 4254 266 1983 Steve Carlton 4597 284 1982 Steve Carlton 4664 296 1980 Steve Carlton 4736 304 1979 Phil Niekro 5346 342 1978 Phil Niekro 5216 334 1977 Phil Niekro 5605 330 1976 Nolan Ryan 4949 284 1975 Andy Messersmith 4837 322 1974 Nolan Ryan 5684 333 1973 Wilbur Wood 5614 359 1972 Wilbur Wood 5498 377 1971 Mickey Lolich 5799 376 1970 Gaylord Perry 5000 329
Hentgen’s peak workload of 4,198 pitches would have led the majors only once (1989) in the 1980s, and in the 1970s, 4,198 pitches would rarely have sniffed the top 10. Workload limits were obviously significantly reduced in the early 1980s, and ratcheted down again in the late 80s/early 90s.
Why? Was there a rash of arm injuries plaguing the top workhorses of 1970-85?
No. There simply wasn’t. Among the pitchers showing up on this list, only Fernando Valenzuela and Andy Messersmith suffered significant arm problems in their careers. And leaving the knuckleballers (Hough, Niekro, and Wood) out of it, several of these most prodigious workhorses — Carlton, Ryan, Lolich, Perry — were famously free from injury, year after year.
Let’s compare the 70s/80s with the era preceding it, 1946-1969:
Year Pitcher Est. Pitches IP 1969 Gaylord Perry 5028 325 1968 Denny McLain 4888 336 1967 Jim Bunning 4569 302 1966 Sandy Koufax 4892 323 1965 Sandy Koufax 4999 336 1964 Don Drysdale 4709 321 1963 Don Drysdale 4759 315 1962 Don Drysdale 4786 314 1961 Whitey Ford 4420 283 1960 Larry Jackson 4347 282 1959 Warren Spahn 4421 292 1958 Warren Spahn 4362 290 1957 Early Wynn 4343 263 1956 Bob Friend 4851 314 1955 Robin Roberts 4515 305 1954 Robin Roberts 4872 337 1953 Robin Roberts 5134 347 1952 Robin Roberts 4700 330 1951 Warren Spahn 4838 311 1950 Vern Bickford 4912 312 1949 Mel Parnell 4695 295 1948 Johnny Sain 4757 315 1947 Bob Feller 4712 299 1946 Bob Feller 5954 371
Looking at this it becomes clear that the 1970s were a very atypical period. The highest pitch counts of 1980-88 — 4,254 to 4,736 — wouldn’t be all that far out of place among the leaders most seasons of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. And of the top workhorses appearing on the 1946-1969 list, only three — Vern Bickford, Sandy Koufax, and Denny McLain — saw their careers prematurely derailed by arm trouble. (Mel Parnell suffered a broken arm, not a pitching-workload related injury.)
Several conclusions can be drawn from this data:
– The workloads handled by top pitchers in the 1970s (well over 5,000 pitches) were not typical of the second half of the 20th century. Nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to have been a particularly high rate of arm trouble suffered by the very hardest-worked pitchers even of the 1970s.
– The workloads handed by top pitchers since 1989 (practically never exceeding 4,200 pitches) is also not typical. Nor does there seem to be a particularly low rate of arm trouble among modern aces.
– The norm for the entire 1950-2000 era is somewhere around 4,300-4,700 pitches, or about 10% above the limit that modern aces are held to.
The argument defending modern pitch count limits almost always emphasizes the notion that the very high-scoring style of offense in the current era places particular stress on pitchers. With a fairly high rate of walks in the game today, and with both home runs and strikeouts at unprecedented levels, it’s often presumed that pitchers simply have to throw more pitches to get through a typical game than ever before.
But is this true? Let’s test it.
Let’s apply the Pitch Count Estimator to entire leagues rather than individual pitchers. Are there significantly more pitches being thrown overall in modern games?
Estimated Pitches per MLB Team/Game:
2003 146 2000 149 1995 148 1990 144 1985 144 1980 143 1975 144 1970 145 1965 142 1960 144 1955 144 1950 146
The Pitch Count Estimator provides no basis to believe that modern pitching staffs are required to throw more than a handful more pitches per game than pitching staffs used to.
Okay, so there’s another argument that one hears in support of pitch counts. Yes, starters throw fewer pitchers than their predecessors, this argument goes, but that’s because the pitches they throw are far more stressful; modern pitchers have very few periods in games when they can “coast” for a few hitters.
No doubt there’s some truth to this argument. But it isn’t clear at all that the difference between the stress pitchers face in the current era and previous ones is nearly as great as assumed. The late 1940s and early-mid-1950s was a high-scoring era also, and top aces were routinely throwing at least 500 more pitches a year than their modern counterparts. In the 1970s, with fewer than one run per game being scored than today, aces routinely threw well over 1,000 more pitches a year than today.
One has to put a very great weight on the belief that modern pitchers face dramatically more stressful environments in order to conclude that greater workloads couldn’t be sustained. Personally I don’t find that belief very compelling; it sounds a lot more like rationalization than fact to me.
I suspect the truth has much more to do with this: in every era, pitchers handle the workload for which they have been conditioned. Modern pitchers haven’t been trained and developed to throw as many pitches as earlier pitchers did, and so they don’t. Human physiology didn’t suddenly change in the late 1980s, nor has the challenge of pitching suddenly become that much more demanding than ever before.
Whatever the case, it’s certain that what pitch count limits (and their first cousin, the five-man rotation) have created is a situation in which the very best pitchers of the current day ply their trade quite a bit less frequently than did their predecessors. Through 2003, here is how many estimated career pitches the greatest starters of the modern era have thrown:
Roger Clemens 68,229 Greg Maddux 60,012 Tom Glavine 55,915 Chuck Finley 53,019 Randy Johnson 51,669 Kevin Brown 47,631 David Cone 47,219 David Wells 43,845 Jamie Moyer 43,072 Kevin Appier 41,733 John Smoltz 41,307 Mike Mussina 41,136 Curt Schilling 40,275 Pedro Martinez 32,393
Let’s compare these totals to those of some past greats:
Nolan Ryan 90,211 Steve Carlton 83,355 Gaylord Perry 82,147 Don Sutton 80,526 Warren Spahn 79,613 Bert Blyleven 77,310 Tom Seaver 73,560 Tommy John 72,708 Early Wynn 72,607 Robin Roberts 70,037 Jim Kaat 69,743 Red Ruffing 68,599 Ferguson Jenkins 68,494 Frank Tanana 65,931 Ted Lyons 63,783 Bobo Newsom 62,303 Bob Feller 62,255 Dennis Martinez 62,091 Lefty Grove 61,642 Bob Gibson 61,301 Jack Morris 60,991 Jim Palmer 60,666 Jerry Koosman 60,425 Jim Bunning 58,338 Mickey Lolich 57,420
Special knuckleballer category:
Phil Niekro 85,110 Charlie Hough 61,166
Just for the hell of it, some deadballers:
Cy Young 107,114 Walter Johnson 87,528 Pete Alexander 75,973 Christy Mathewson 69,644
Whether or not one agrees with my assertion that the limitations on the workloads of the current era’s best pitchers are unnecessary, here is something that’s indisputably true: one result of the fact that modern aces work less than those of all preceding eras is that inferior pitchers are working proportionally more innings. This in itself may be part of the explanation for the offensive boom of the 1990s. It’s also beyond dispute that the pitch count limit orthodoxy of the modern era has resulted in no meaningful reduction in rates of injury — if anything, injuries to pitchers have increased.
It is, in short, a policy that has delivered an extremely poor cost-benefit. Pitchers get hurt a lot; they always have, and 15 years into the era of significantly reduced workloads, they still do. If I were a major league GM, I would work on instituting a conditioning and pitcher-use program throughout my organization that would strive to develop starting pitchers capable of throwing at least 10% more pitches per season than the modern norm. I’m confident that in the long run such a program would provide a significant competitive advantage, without producing greater injury rates than are occurring now.
Please understand that I’m not saying that there is no place for pitch counting in monitoring and handling pitchers, nor am I saying that pitch count limits aren’t appropriate for young pitchers (and of course for amateur pitchers). I’m saying, as are James and Malcolm, that there’s a reasonable deployment of the tool, and there’s an unreasonable, counterproductive fixation upon it, and over the past decade and a half we’ve left the former behind and driven ourselves right into the latter. As James and Malcolm put it, being overly concerned with pitch counts has steered modern baseball into a blind alley.
Next time we’ll examine the impact of the pitch count limit paradigm on modern bullpens.
References & Resources
The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers is a marvelous, very original book, a great source of information for any student of the lore of pitching.
Don Malcolm is one of the most entertaining baseball writers on the web. One may not always agree with his opinions, but one will have no difficulty discovering them.
Tangotiger is an amazing resource. Check out his website and lose yourself, and emerge a very much better-informed baseball fan.
I must acknowledge fellow Baseball Think Factory poster, trevise, who has graciously provided me with a marvelous database of innings pitched by pitchers, that I didn’t directly reference in this article (hey, it was long enough already!), but that remains a rich source of great research material.