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Pitch Count:from BaseballAmerica.com

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Pitchers go down for the count

By Alan Schwarz
May 2, 2003

NEW YORK?"I?ve got a problem."

Marlins pitching coach Brad Arnsberg was sitting on the dugout bench hours before a day game last August when A.J. Burnett, the best pitcher on his staff, came over and asked for a minute. "Oh, no," Arnsberg joked to his rather tattooed and pierced righthander. "Don?t tell me you got arrested." But this was worse. Much worse.

"I can?t bend my elbow."

Arnsberg?s stomach turned. He kept talking with Burnett, offering all the proper rest and reassurance, but his mind was elsewhere, scampering back in time. Just 12 hours before in Pro Player Stadium, Arnsberg had left Burnett out on the mound to complete a shutout against the Giants, throwing 117 pitches. Big deal, he figured?he was ready to pull him if he overthrew or labored in any way. But Arnsberg also had thrown Burnett, a 25-year-old heavy-effort heaver, for two other complete games and three other starts of at least 123 pitches?one as high as 132?in the previous four outings. He didn?t hurt the kid, did he?

No, Arnsberg thought. I did the right thing. Then again, that?s what Lou probably thought, too.

"Lou" is Lou Piniella, who years ago wrung out Arnsberg?s promising arm like a sopping towel. In 1987 Arnsberg was a 23-year-old pitching phenom for the Yankees, with Piniella his manager. Arnsberg threw 120-130 pitches in a horrible start in Kansas City, was demoted to the bullpen, warmed up three different times 48 hours later without coming in, then pitched 4 2/3 innings two days after that?before his elbow exploded. Arnsberg knew he hadn?t done that to Burnett. But how don?t you wonder?

Burnett, to that point enjoying a breakout season, wound up going on the disabled list with a bone bruise in his elbow, an injury Florida claims was not related to his workload. He came back to make two relief appearances and two starts before the offseason shut him down. This spring, the same elbow flared up again and tossed Burnett back in pitching purgatory for another 3 1/2 weeks. Strike two.

"He won?t have that number of pitches again this year," Marlins manager Jeff Torborg declared. "I?m going to be careful with him."

And so the cult of Pitch Counts welcomed another member, another convert who will manage, monitor and heed the number of pitches that pitchers throw in a game. Is there a magic number? Is it different for rookies and veterans? Can rolling counts build suitable arm strength and confidence the minor leagues? Or do they hurt a pitcher?s development? And what if the kid looks you in the eye in the seventh inning and insists, "I?m fine, skip?"

The strict use of pitch counts, the practice of removing an otherwise strong pitcher to ward off possible (some say inevitable) arm trouble, has become one of the most impassioned and divisive issues in baseball today. Some organizations, like the Athletics, say they listen to their minor league games on the Internet and would call the dugout before any manager broke rank and went over the limit.

Others, like the Angels, are considerably more lenient and?heretics!?encourage complete games. Even within organizations arguments flare; they certainly do between managers and the media who scrutinize them, citing box scores that now carry pitch count data as standard fare. It seems as if everyone has a peace plan between a pitcher and the arm that carries him. (Pitch counts for every organization.)

Burnett, returned from the disabled list to throw 23 innings before experiencing more pain. The Marlins announced Monday that Burnett had a torn ligment in his elbow, requiring him to have Tommy John surgery and miss 12 to 18 months. Torborg, a member of the older generation who once flouted the concept, can?t help but think that maybe this pitch count thing has something to it. After all, that day when Arnsberg was warming up in Kansas City, tearing apart his elbow? The bullpen coach who called Piniella, telling him to sit the poor kid down? Jeff Torborg.

In a Baseball America poll of executives last offseason, few topics got such mixed response as the one regarding pitch counts. Asked, "Your top pitching prospect just threw 126 pitches in Double-A?how do you feel?", 22 percent said they?d have no objections, 38 percent said they?d all but have an aneurysm, and 40 percent said they fell somewhere in the middle.

"It depends on the circumstances and how tough the 126 were," Twins general manager Terry Ryan says. "I don?t think 126 is a lot. It depends on how many days rest, injury history, body type, delivery, whether he had a no-hitter intact. You can?t blanket it."

As a whole, though, the baseball industry has gotten so protective of its young arms that clubs are monitoring pitch counts more strictly than ever before. Older front-office members who remember the days of 160-pitch complete games in four-man rotations are giving way to younger executives who want to minimize the risk on assets any way they can. The result is a game increasingly governed by the pitch count, with pitchers leaving games earlier and earlier, escaping jams by, well, escaping. Some watch the pitch counts carefully with an increasing sense of dread as they inch higher and higher, like a guillotine.

The number of major league starters throwing more than 120 pitches has been more than halved, from 414 three years ago to just 193 last season. To go 140 pitches is almost unheard of now: While 32 outings reached that level in 1998-99 combined, just three did the last two years, two of them belonging to age-defying Diamondbacks workhorse Randy Johnson. Every pitching coach either keeps counts on a hand-held clicker or is constantly updated by someone charting the game on the bench.

"Hell, it?s up on the scoreboards where everyone can see it," Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone says. "You can?t cheat."

"I think that you don?t have a set, fast rule, but you play close attention when that pitcher gets up around 100 pitches," Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan says. "What do you want to accomplish? You want the guy to be as effective as he can be each time he makes a start for you, so you do all of the things that you can to give him the best chance to be at his best during the course of the season. Part of that is to not run him into the ground at any particular point in time."

Like most pitch-count subscribers, though, Duncan is quick to point out that a number of factors will always be considered when deciding on any limit. The general consensus in baseball is that while counting pitches is easy, assessing the cost of them is hard. The pitcher?s body type, mechanics and age all play a role in not just the setting of a limit but how strictly it is followed. Almost every pitching coach will tell you?sometimes not very nicely?that fans and media who scrutinize pitch counts lump together vastly different human beings without considering other specific and relevant factors.

Controversies flare most with pitchers under 25, who might be just a year or two removed from the minor leagues and perhaps only recently have reached final physical maturity. Duncan, who used a loose 120-pitch limit with young pitchers Richard Dotson and Britt Burns while with the early-1980s White Sox, has ratcheted that number down to about 105-110 for such youngsters today. But occasionally he?ll go over that.

"There?s games where a guy has to throw more pitches than you want him to throw. It happens," he says. "What you can?t let happen is you can?t let it happen this start, the next start, the next start, and pretty soon, the acceptable level becomes beyond what the guy is capable of handling."

What is that limit for a young pitcher? Mazzone chafes at setting any standard. "The amount of effort put forth on the particular pitch and the abuse that he puts on himself when he?s throwing a baseball determines more than any pitch count number," he says impatiently. "Arm injuries are avoided by throwing without maxing out." Most pitchers agree.

Cubs righthander Kerry Wood, who burst upon the National League with his 20-strikeout game five years ago at age 20 before having Tommy John elbow surgery the following spring, blames that injury on poor mechanics?throwing violently across his body?rather than any overuse. (Wood often ran up counts well into the 120s because he struck out and walked so many batters.) He says that far more scrutiny should be used for pitchers like him rather than current teammate Mark Prior, baseball?s phenom du jour, who at 21 last year was allowed to throw 136 pitches in a complete game against the Rockies.

"I think all guys are different?it depends on how you get to that number," Wood says. "You see a guy like Mark Prior out there throwing, he?s so smooth and so easy that I think when he gets to 115 or so and he?s cruising, he?s not putting a lot of strain. He?s not out there huffing and puffing and grunting. His number would be higher than someone like, say, me a couple of years ago when I was out there grunting."

Future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, as a 22-year-old Cub in 1988, threw 167 pitches in an 11-inning loss to the Cardinals. But he soon learned to dispatch hitters so quickly that he never had to run up such high counts again. The example he set throughout the 1990s is now being followed even by young strikeout pitchers, who are responding to baseball?s current offensive emphasis on taking pitches by learning to be as efficient as possible, strikeouts be damned.

"I?m big on early-count strikes," Marlins righthander Josh Beckett says. "Just get outs early. That?s the only way to go deeper into games."

Beckett will learn to do that in the major leagues, because he sure wasn?t allowed to in the minors. Like almost every minor league pitcher today, the Marlins kept him on a strict limit?he recalls it being 100?to protect his arm as it rounded into shape. Organizations have learned from their mistakes and know it. One of those is the Mets, who watched their heralded mid-1990s threesome of Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen all blow up as young major leaguers.

"In the early ?90s we didn?t have pitch counts at all. Our pitch counts are an offshoot of injuries here in the organization," Mets assistant GM Jim Duquette says. "We had a meeting of the minds during the offseason of ?97. All I know is our numbers have gotten a lot better since that meeting."

Like most clubs (see chart), Duquette?s Mets now have prescribed pitch limits for each level of the organization, low at first and gradually increasing as the pitcher reaches graduation to the major leagues. But no organization takes the same approach. Some make distinctions for high school and college signees. The Expos limit counts for three-start stretches. The Braves have one of the more elaborate programs, assigning limits based on pitchers? years of professional experience rather than level. (The Rockies declined to share their limits, citing the possibility of a lawsuit should a pitcher exceed them even once.)

The Blue Jays have rules for relievers?throwing 35 pitches gives them the next day off, 45 pitches the next two. Meanwhile, last year?s two pennant winners, the Giants and Angels, have no standardized limits at all. "It?s not like we?ll let them go 150 and not care, but we encourage complete games," Angels farm director Tony Reagins says. "If a guy is up 1-0 in the eighth at 100 pitches, we?re not going to take him out. We?ll let him try for the complete game," and go into the 125-pitch range if necessary, Reagins says.

Duquette doesn?t want to take any chances and prefers being stricter, checking managers? reports every day for starters? pitch counts. "We don?t want them going over it at all," he says. "Maybe there?s an exception when it?s 3-and-2 and a guy fouls a few off you don?t take him out. But we give them a range for a reason. Guys get ticked off when they?ve thrown 90 pitches and get relieved in the fifth. Our response is, you should go well into the sixth on 90 pitches."

What if a manager goes over the limit? "My first phone call is to hear his thought process," Duquette says. "The next time I wouldn?t care what his answer was."

This is a relatively new phenomenon. Maddux, David Cone and most other veteran pitchers today don?t recall being on any pitch limit in the minor leagues. Innings in a season, perhaps, but never pitch limits for one game. Says Duncan, "I was watching a game during the ?81 strike, and saw an A-ball pitcher throw 205 pitches. I never heard from him again."

Dave Wallace, the Dodgers? senior vice president of baseball operations and a longtime pitching coach in the minors and majors, says he remembers hearing about pitch counts in the early ?80s?right when the cost of signing amateur pitchers in the draft began to skyrocket. Steve Rogers, a workhorse for the Expos in the 1970s who now works for the union, phrases the financial consideration this way: "When I was in the game, what did they have invested in you? Two hundred grand, tops? The investment has dictated that they take care of their talent."

The cost of strict pitch limits is that few pitchers reach the major leagues with the physical or mental background to pitch even into the eighth or even seventh innings. "We?re making babies out of farmhands in baseball today," longtime Royals executive Art Stewart complains. Adds Indians farm director John Farrell, perhaps more sympathetically given how he threw 164 pitches in a game for the 1989 Indians before flaming out, pitchers begin to have their internal clock focus on leaving games by the seventh inning.

But amid the cries of conservatives, most teams still are sacrificing game stamina for (they hope) career health. Some are more fatalistic?"Most guys are going to get injured," Wallace says. "Is it going to be two years from now or nine years?"?but the pitch-count controversy still has reached all the way down to youth leagues.

Many youth organizations, such as Little League, limit the number of innings a pitcher may be used in a calendar week. A study by the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham claimed that more pitches meant more pain for youngsters, and recommended the following limits based on age: 10-year-olds (50), 12 (70), 14 (75), 16 (90) and 18 (105). There has been some talk of forging a compromise based on a maximum of batters faced in a game, so pesky opponents won?t simply take pitches to force a youngster out of a game.

In 1995, a firestorm raged when Wood, then a senior at Grand Prairie (Texas) High and days after being drafted No. 4 overall by the Cubs, threw 146 pitches in the first game of a state tournament doubleheader and then started the nightcap, going another 29.

This April, again in baseball-crazy Texas, Carroll High senior Charles Benoit threw 123 pitches in his second start of the season, prompting his father Bob to call such use abusive. The coach, Admin Hughes, said, "I don?t usually go that far, but the irony of this is that I really wanted Charles to get the win and it backfired on me." Benoit didn?t attend practice the day after that game, so Hughes dismissed the reigning Texas Class 4-A player of the year from the team.

Over in Austin, the University of Texas program and its longtime (but now former) coach, Cliff Gustafson, once were blamed for overusing star pitchers such as Calvin Schiraldi and Kirk Dressendorfer. Most top programs faced similar complaints. But the tensions between professional and college coaches have eased over the years as proper use becomes more widely understood. While at Southern California in 2001, Prior says he was never allowed to go above about 115. "That was about the point we would come out of a game," he recalls, "whether we were doing well or not."

Old-timers like to regale us with stories of how they threw 250 pitches on 110-degree days without a sweat. This is the pitcher?s equivalent of grandparents trekking to school uphill both ways in 12-foot snowdrifts and doing homework on the back of a shovel. But were yesteryear?s pitchers as hardy as they claim to be?

Pitchers certainly don?t pitch as many innings as they once did?none has reached 300 since Steve Carlton?s 304 for the 1980 Phillies?but innings are not quite what they once were. First, it takes far more pitches to dispense with today?s hitters. In 1932, Baseball Magazine reported that the average nine-inning game saw about 115 pitches. Today it?s in the high 150s, one-third higher than before. That means that what got you through nine innings back then now only gets you into the seventh.

Evidence also suggests pitchers once were able to save their strength during games by easing up on weaker hitters. Christy Mathewson, Baseball Magazine wrote in 1913, "takes things comfortably where he can, not exerting himself, once he has the game well in hand, pitching only enough to win, and using the minimum amount of strength . . . Matty?s system has been generally incorporated in the repertoire of almost every other progressive twirler in the game."

As the game has progressed through the generations, lineups have gotten deeper, with fewer places to let up. Also, hitters? gradual ability to drive pitches the opposite way out of smaller ballparks has taken away the option of putting balls over the outside of the plate and letting the field dimensions play defense.

Today, with hitters taking more pitches than ever, former innings standards (200 for a rookie pitcher, for example) have needed to be translated into pitch limits. STATS Inc. began counting pitches in 1987; USA Today put them into box scores a decade later. Needless to say, it was only a matter of time before the sabermetric community, the folks who study baseball statistics in depth, began analyzing them. Few subjects have so intrigued the numbers people and brought new understanding to light.

STATS? annual "Baseball Scoreboard" printed the highest pitch-count starts every offseason, and often chided managers such as Jim Leyland for abusing young starters like Livan Hernandez and Jesus Sanchez. The press caught on to the point where over the last few years Dusty Baker faced frequent criticism for his liberal use of Hernandez and Russ Ortiz while managing the Giants. Following Prior?s 136-pitch start last year, Cubs pitching coach Admin Rothschild faced such outcry that he feared he would be "burned at the stake."

One of the most thorough and interesting statistical studies belongs to Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner of Baseball Prospectus. In an effort to assess the cost of a starting pitcher?s high-pitch outings, five years ago Jazayerli developed a system he called Pitcher Abuse Points. Rather than looking at average pitches per start, which would hide 130-pitch outings if they were followed by 70-pitch ones?Jazayerli developed a scaled system that increases after the pitch count crosses 100. ("It?s not the number of pitches thrown?it?s the number of pitches thrown tired," Jazayerli wrote.) Woolner later fine-tuned the system and confirmed a correlation between starts above 100 pitches, particularly those above 120, and both decreased short-term effectiveness and increased chance of long-term serious injury.

Duncan says he has read studies like these. "I believe in a lot of them," he says. "You?ve got to use your common sense and be informed." Mazzone, however, maintains his more conservative bent.

"I don?t want to see them," he says. "My eyes are going to tell me more than any f?-ing number."

So when is the best time to pull a pitcher, assuming he?s still effective? There are as many philosophies as there are teams. All keep pitch counts in mind to some degree and have their different guidelines. They also consider other factors. "It?s how you detect fatigue," Indians general manager Mark Shapiro says.

Arnsberg looks at whether the breaking ball still has bite. Duncan watches for fastballs up in the zone, the result of lax mechanics. Says Mazzone, "Fatigue is going to show on mound presence, the pitcher?s face, his mechanics, his body language, all more than some number. That?s coaching. That?s what you?re supposed to do as a coach, is be able to see that and recognize it."

Arnsberg relies on the pitcher to be forthright about his own stamina. "If you can?t be honest with me, I can?t help you," he says. "You need a day, I?ll give you a week. You need a week, I?ll give you a month." While young pitchers have historically feared admitting fatigue either after or during games because they could either lose their jobs or be labeled as soft, anecdotal evidence suggests a less austere atmosphere today. "They always come to you," Beckett says. "It?s not their fault if you get hurt."

Still, a bulldog mentality remains. Prior calls pitch counts "a necessary evil?none of the pitchers likes them."

Even Duncan, who reads the studies and monitors limits carefully, doesn?t want to worship at the altar of pitch counts and will allow some pitchers to go 10-20 pitches over his limit. "Is it in his best interests long-term to have games like that? Probably not," Duncan says. "But every now and then, there?s a game that maybe you?re in the eighth inning, and he?s pitched his a** off, and the game?s tied. And it?s his game, and he?s battling. And he?s been battling for eight innings. He wants that game. You?re going to take it out of his hands? When he?s still going good? Because he?s got 125 pitches?"

Some say yes, some say no. But everyone seems to be saying something.
 

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