If a person was to develop a system that kept pitchers significantly healthier than they are now, that person would become rich. It’s part of the game – pitchers get hurt. No matter how much we know, or think we know, this will always be true.
As a general rule, throughout baseball history we’ve asked pitchers to do less and less. In 1884, Old Hoss Radbourn appeared in 75 games, threw 678.2 IP and amassed 387 PA as a hitter. Steve Carlton in 1980 was the last pitcher to throw 300 innings in a season and he amassed 111 PA as a hitter. Last year the AL leader in innings was David Price and he posted 230 IP and amassed 11 PA. And yet pitchers continue to get hurt.
As another general rule, it’s far better to do something than to do nothing and rationalize it by the fact that pitchers are going to get hurt, anyway. The most visible way we have to monitor hurlers is by their pitch count. It’s unusual these days for a pitcher to go much more than 100 pitchers by start. You’ll see 105 on a somewhat regular basis. A 110-pitch outing is not all that unheard of. But if each team plays 162 games, we’ll have 4,860 starts and we probably won’t have 50 games all year that have 120 or more pitches thrown by the starter.
Generally, this is a good thing. I’m sure we’d like to go back to the 1980s and not have Dwight Gooden throw so many pitches. The first year that pitch totals show up for Gooden on Baseball-Reference is 1988 and he reached 120 pitches in a start eight times, including a high of 138 in a complete game over the Dodgers that the Mets won, 7-1.
But before that, the best we can do is try educated guesses. Tom Tango came up with a pitch count estimator and his basic formula was that pitch counts equal 3.3*PA + 1.5*K + 2.2*BB. Let’s try that out with Gooden’s 138-pitch start in 1998. In that game, he faced 34 batters, struck out 8 and walked 1. That leaves this: 3.3 (34) + 1.5(8) + 2.2 (1) = 128.4 – not on the money but close enough for our purposes.
In his second start in 1985, Gooden faced 33 batters, had 10 Ks and 2 BB for a 131.3 estimate. His last start of the season against the Cardinals, the estimator comes up with a total of 152.5 pitches. There’s no way any pitcher would be allowed to throw this many in a game today, much less a 20 year old.
But the flip side of that is we have pitchers coming out today perhaps earlier than they should. Saturday night, with the Mets bullpen still in sad shape from their general overuse plus the 16-inning game on Thursday, the Mets needed their starter to go as deep as possible. Jacob deGrom tried his best to accommodate, as he threw 97 pitches in seven innings and retired the last six batters he faced. By the eye test, he was cruising.
But the Mets went to their bullpen and Fernando Salas, working for the eighth time in 12 games for the Mets this year (a 108-game pace over 162 games) allowed his first runs of the year and took the loss in a game the team should have won.
Pitch counts are useful but even their biggest advocates would claim they were a blunt tool. One of the things that we at least give lip service to today is the idea of “stressful pitches.” Not all pitches are created equal and if a pitcher needs 30 pitches to get through an inning without a run, that inning was more stressful than if he needed just 15 to do likewise.
deGrom’s pitches by innings is undoubtedly available somewhere – perhaps one of you has it. But a quick search came up empty so let’s use Tango’s estimator for an inning by inning look at deGrom’s outing:
1 – 17.7
2 – 18
3 – 9.9
4 – 12.9
5 – 17.7
6 – 16.9
7 – 14.4
Total – 107.5
We know the estimator is over on the amount of pitches thrown and we see that the innings were getting easier by this accounting, which matches the eye test. In a time when the bullpen needed rest, this would have been a good time to try to push deGrom past the traditional 100-pitch limit. His last innings were not what we would consider high-stress ones.
Also, the Mets have an off day on Monday, meaning deGrom would have gotten an extra day of rest before his next start.
“I don’t know how many times we have to say that right now we have made a commitment to take care of these guys, to make sure we don’t over do it,It’s easy to say, it’s easy to second guess, when you blow a save…. You could have ran Jake out there. … We’ve got three pitchers who are coming off surgery…now, if Jake goes out there and he gets in trouble. The immediate thing is why didn’t you take him out.”
A defensible choice? Sure. But it comes across as one designed to prevent the manager from being second guessed, rather than one where the health of the pitcher was the only thing that factored into the decision. No one was advocating for deGrom to throw 30 more pitches in the game. Ideally, he would have had a three-up, three-down frame. You could have had Jerry Blevins warming up ready to go in for deGrom if lefty Christian Yelich, the fourth batter in the inning, came up, guaranteeing that deGrom did not exceed three batters in the frame.
My issue with the decision to remove deGrom is that it implies something magical about the 100-pitch mark. The Mets would not have been asking him to exceed that threshold when he was already struggling. They would not have asked him to do it as part of a pattern and they would not have asked him to do it and then turn around and pitch on short rest.
All of the planets were aligned for deGrom to go further. He was not struggling with high-stress innings, there was a built-in buffer with the perfect opportunity to use your high-paid lefty specialist so that deGrom wouldn’t face more than three additional batters, there was no plan to make this more than a one-game blip and it also would help to ease the wear on Salas, who was more overworked at this point than deGrom.
Let’s end this with a quote from someone who actually makes these decisions for a living. David Manel from Bucs Dugout shared this from Pirates GM Neil Huntington back in late 2015:
“We don’t anchor ourselves to innings pitched,” Huntington said. “We recognize there is a much better metric to measure than pure innings pitched. We’re not going to get in the details of how we measure [or] what we measure. You can look at a six-inning, 100-pitch outing, and look at another six-inning, 100-pitch outing, and they may be completely different, in terms of the stress levels and the intensity. So there is a huge number of variables we work in when we are looking to identify when we should begin to limit where our young pitchers are going.”
… snip …
“There is no right or wrong answer,” Huntington said. “And that’s where it is more art than science and we are trying to use science to refine our art.”