06/04/2004 6:25 PM ET
Kicking the crutches out
Analysis of pitch count demands context
By Will Carroll / Baseball Prospectus
As the pitch count has come into the mainstream, the usefulness of the number has been
debated. In the normal "old school" vs. "new school" battle, the pitch count has been
taken to task by both sides. Instead of using this as one more battle in an endless war, I
want to offer a new way of looking at pitching.
In my recently released book, "Saving The Pitcher," I tried to take a holistic approach to
pitching, pitching injuries, and their causes. More important, this holistic approach allows
us to make attempts to prevent injuries, to keep our pitchers healthy, and to make the
game better. The game is hurt when pitchers can't go to the mound. Hundreds of millions
of dollars are lost per year to the disabled list and fans of the game miss seeing their
pitchers help their teams win.
Pitch count is one statistic used to monitor pitching workload. It is raw and simple.
Anyone can not only understand the statistic, but also actually do it himself or herself. It
is in the interpretation of the count that is incorrect. Providing context to the number is
what is important. Sure, there are situations when, in absence of other information, pitch
count is a useful tool. A recent case in which pitch count tells you enough is a 16-year-
old high school pitcher in suburban Indianapolis throwing 145 pitches. All but the
ignorant will see that as too much for a physically immature pitcher to handle. Winning
and high school glory are nice, but health is so much more important.
How, then, do we get context to a pitch count number? Clearly, the multi-factorial nature
of pitching tells us to get as many facts as possible. We must try to determine the
pitcher's age and conditioning, the efficiency of his mechanics, the conditions of the
game, the types of pitches he throws, whether he was forced to throw at maximum effort
a great deal of the game, and perhaps most important, what is this pitcher's normal
In Mike Bauman's recent piece here on MLB.com, he noted that Stan Conte, the trainer
for the Giants, actively monitored Jason Schmidt throughout his recent 144-pitch one-
hitter. Mike was correct in noting that Schmidt is the type of pitcher who can handle such
a workload on occasion, but he then missed an opportunity to elaborate on that point and
substantively explain why.
First of all, the monitoring by Conte is unusual. Few other trainers have the power to say,
"This guy's done," to a manager. All trainers monitor their pitchers, but few have done
the research necessary to accurately monitor their pitchers' workload. You can imagine
that it gets worse at lower levels. Schmidt had a safety net of athletic trainer, pitching
coach and manager constantly monitoring all conditions and assessing that he was able to
safely and effectively continue.
To note this multi-categoric monitoring is to avoid falling back on the simplistic pitch
count. The number "144" tells us nothing on its own. Knowing that he used few breaking
pitches tells us more. Knowing that Schmidt had an extra day of rest and that he had not
had as many starts as most pitchers tells us more. Knowing that there was only one
baserunner in the game, keeping him in the rhythm of the windup tells us more.
Not every pitcher who throws a high pitch count outing will come down with an injury.
Some may even be effective in their next few starts. Some, like Livan Hernandez, Mark
Prior and Bartolo Colon, may know something the rest of us don't. To use Conte's
marathon runner analogy, properly conditioned pitchers in the right conditions can run a
marathon without damage. They probably can't do it every fifth day.
Where many go wrong in applying casual, old-school theories is in the reliance on two
so-called myths: that we don't know what causes injury, and that they cannot be
prevented. These aren't myths; they are lies. Research from such varied sources as
biomechanics, orthopedics, high-speed film, and sabermetrics come together to break
pitching down in order to prevent breakdowns. Science has replaced anecdote in most
cases; and where science lacks, it's coming fast.
Instead of seeing pitching as a coin flip -- they get injured, or they don't -- proper risk
management will allow more pitchers to throw more innings more effectively. The work
of Glenn Fleisig at the American Sports Medicine Institute has led to effective injury
management programs with several Major League teams. The research done by Keith
Woolner and Rany Jazayerli at Baseball Prospectus has given us tools to measure
workload in the absence of insider knowledge.
system, developed by Woolner and Jazayerli, gives us a more accurate reading on
pitcher fatigue. Pitch counts, and systems like PAP, are ways to quantify or derive a
measurable index that is related to injury or ineffectiveness, which are in turn caused by
fatigue. However, fatigue cannot be objectively assessed based on information available
to the manager at the time. Self-reporting of fatigue by pitchers is notoriously inaccurate.
Expert assessment, in the form of observations of a pitcher's mechanics, may help
determine when a given pitcher gets tired, although the quality of those assessments is
difficult to evaluate. PAP3 can be another tool in a manager's arsenal and a useful one.
Not every high pitch count outing results in an injury or even a decline in effectiveness.
However, there's a chance that it will. That chance is higher the more pitches a
pitcher throws. Is the benefit gained from an extra 20 pitches in today's game worth the
increased risk of injury or ineffectiveness going forward? In some cases, the answer may
be yes. In many others, it will be no.
If the "old school" wants to look back at the days they consider better than the game we
see on the field today, they'll need to accept the results those days gave them. We
remember the ones who survived -- Tom Seaver, Whitey Ford, Jim Palmer, Robin
Roberts, Lefty Gomez, Bert Blyleven, Ted Lyons. And there are a few flameouts that
never matched the success of their early 20's -- Dwight Gooden, Vida Blue, Denny
But there are other guys who didn't survive, lost to the game and conveniently forgotten.
Pete Donahue, Ralph Branca, Gary Nolan, Dan Petry, John Rigney, Dave Rozema, Dean
Chance, Russ Bauers, Bill Monbouquette, Mel Harder, Steve Hargan, Mike McCormick,
Van Mungo among them. For the most part, we remember the survivors, and think they
were representative of all players of the past.
They weren't. We remember them because they were exceptional.
|Jason Schmidt tossed 144 pitches in his one-hitter against the Cubs on May 18. Too many pitches? Not under the conditions. (Getty Images)
Will Carroll is an author and columnist at Baseball Prospectus. Keith Woolner and Derek Zumsteg made substantial contributions to this piece. ©2004 Baseball Prospectus; license granted to MLB.com for publication. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.