Sunday, July 27, 2008

Pitch Counts

There was a fantastic article from Joe Sheehan over at Baseball Prospectus this week regarding pitch counts, abusing young pitchers and veterans throwing more than 100 pitches in an outing. Spurred by the second time this month the Mets removed Johan Santana with a reasonable pitch count after the 8th inning only to have the bullpen blow a lead to the Phillies, Sheehan concludes that today's game has taken a noble idea--limiting the abuse to young pitchers--too far and that nearly all of today's starters are babied.

As anyone who regularly watches the Orioles knows, Jim Palmer and Gary Thorne love to discuss just how many pitches Palmer used to throw when he was pitching for the Orioles. It's one of my pet peeves when former starters use the workloads they endured in the 1970s to justify the need for today's starters to go deeper into games, but the point does have some merit. The money quote from Sheehan:
The solution here is fairly simple: forget that anyone ever mentioned the
number "100." That number isn’t meaningful in any sense. If you really want to
use numbers to guide you, here are two: 25 and 120. Once a pitcher is 25 years
old, you can generally consider him physically mature enough to handle a full
workload. A full workload for a mature, healthy pitcher should include starts of
up to 120 pitches without inviting injury risk. Usage beyond that mark—actually,
121 pitches in the PAP^3 framework—do raise the risk, but that risk can be
measured against the context of the situation. Flags fly forever, and the
pursuit of one does sometimes outweigh the risks involved.
I'm all for keeping young pitchers healthy; the Orioles have been especially bad at this over the past decade, and I hope the MacPhail regime is thoroughly evaluating the pitcher development programs in place throughout the organization to determine if there was a systemic failure that led to so many injuries. However, Sheehan is right that many veterans could throw more pitches without increasing the risk of injury.

Keep in mind, though, that Sheehan is looking strictly at injury risk and not at performance. It's popular to say that Jeremy Guthrie--especially since he's the only effective starter for the Orioles--should be throwing more pitches; he has just five starts where he's thrown more than 110 pitches, and he has a number of very effective starts where he's failed to surpass the 100 pitch mark. However, he has a very noticeable split for OPS against for pitches 0 to 100 and pitches 101+. If he's not effective beyond a certain point, Trembley is right to remove Guthrie and try to preserve a victory, regardless of whether or not an additional 15 pitches will raise the injury risk. Just don't tell that to Jim Palmer.

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