Comparing the Mets’ recent SP usage to the 1976 squad

There’s safety in doing things the way every other team in MLB does it. Then there’s the reality of what may be good for some clubs is not good for your team. And the Mets are being served a healthy dose of reality here in 2019, specifically in regards to how they run their pitching staff. By action, the Mets would prefer to keep their starter to under 100 pitches and use relievers in designated one-inning roles to finish the game. But the reality is that the Mets’ bullpen stinks and they need to totally rejigger how they use every pitcher on their staff.

Remarkably, we’ve seen the braintrust ask the starting pitchers to go longer and throw more pitches in games. The bullpen has been such a dumpster fire, they’re ignoring their long-held belief about the 100-pitch boogeyman. Hallelujah!

Starting pitchers generally lose their effectiveness the more times they go through a team’s lineup. But the reality for the Mets right now is a starting pitcher going through a lineup for the fourth time is probably better than just about any reliever facing a hitter for the first time. But even when one accepts that reality, there’s still the stigma of “abusing” the pitcher by letting his pitch count go significantly past 100 pitches.

We’ve developed an entire generation of fans who believe that pitchers going past 100 pitches on a regular basis will definitively result in injury. And what’s remarkable about that is that there’s no proof whatsoever that says 98 pitches equals safety and 115 pitches equals danger. But we’ve developed a fondness for paint-by-number managerial strategy. And when you combine that with an understandable desire to keep pitchers healthy – you get this strict adherence to a pitch count system based on round numbers rather than any concrete science.

There’s a great episode of the TV show M*A*S*H where Col. Blake is consoling Hawkeye after the doctor lost one of his patients. Blake says, “There are certain rules about a war. Rule number one is young men die. And rule number two is that doctors can’t change rule number one.”

The MLB equivalent of that is this – Rule number one is that starting pitchers get injured. And rule number two is that no utilization rule by smart men can change rule number one.

We all want to keep as many pitchers healthy as we can. And certainly, we want to see the best pitchers handled with care. There are two things to keep in the front of your mind. First is that all pitchers are not created equal. And second is that not all pitches are created equal. And what’s crazy is that we had a better understanding of this 40 years ago than we do today.

An idea has built up that before we started tracking pitches that club’s used little discretion on how they employed their starters. If he was pitching well, he was left in the game as long as possible. But the reality is a little different.

Let’s look at the pitch counts for the 1976 Mets. That year’s team was chosen because not only did it have the big three of Tom SeaverJerry KoosmanJon Matlack – it also had fairly stable, well-known guys filling the final two spots in the veteran Mickey Lolich and the youngster Craig Swan. Here are the ages and starts that season for that quintet:

Seaver – age 31, 34 starts
Koosman – age 33, 32 starts
Matlack – age 26, 35 starts
Lolich – age 35, 30 starts
Swan – age 25, 22 starts

It’s not perfect, but it’s a decent ballpark age group for the 2019 Mets, whose rotation guys check in with the following ages:

Jacob deGrom – age 31
Noah Syndergaard – age 26
Zack Wheeler – age 29
Steven Matz – age 28
Jason Vargas – age 36

Pitch counts for 20 games were checked, starting with Seaver’s start on June 9. Worked out pretty nicely as the Mets were trying to get over the .500 mark in this period, too.

The big thing is that we don’t have pitch counts for all games in this era. Instead, Tom Tango’s basic pitch count formula was used. In this estimator, three things are taken into account: batters faced, walks and strikeouts. And the formula to come up with the estimate is as follows:

Total batters * 3.3 + BB * 2.2 + Ks * 1.5

How good is the estimator? Well, we know that Syndergaard threw 105 pitches Saturday night. He faced 27 batters, had 2 BB and 5 Ks.
27 * 3.3 = 89.1
2 * 2.2 = 4.4
5 * 1.5 = 7.5
Total estimate = 101

Saturday night was a bit unusual, as Syndergaard left in the middle of an AB. If he had thrown one more pitch and that PA ended, he would have thrown 106 and the estimate would have been 104. Or if he had thrown two more pitches and walked the batter, he would have thrown 107 and the estimate would be 107. But still, four pitches off from an extremely simple formula is great. Plugging the numbers in, we get the following estimates:

Seaver – 112
Matlack – 142
Kossman – 91
Swan – 139
Lolich – 94
Seaver – 109
Matlack – 119
Koosman – 88
Swan – 118
Seaver – 116
Lolich – 75
Matlack – 73
Koosman- 86
Swan – 111
Seaver – 141
Matlack – 128
Koosman – 108
Swan – 96
Seaver – 90
Lolich – 127

The information was presented this way so you could see that the Mets weren’t slaves to pitching guys every five days. Perhaps that’s another thing that the 2019 Mets could go Back to the Future with in regards to how they handle their starters. Regardless, let’s show these numbers broken down by pitcher:

Seaver – 112, 109, 116, 141, 90
Matlack – 142, 119, 73, 128
Koosman – 91, 88, 86, 108
Swan – 139, 118, 111, 96
Lolich – 94, 75, 127

Not every outing was 140 pitches. And eight outings, when no one was concerned one bit about pitch counts, were under 100 pitches. When Lolich and Swan were going good, they were left in to fly past what would be acceptable today. And four of five starts for Seaver could easily fit in to what they did today. But they didn’t hesitate to let him go to 141 pitches in the other.

Let’s show these pitch estimates one more way. Let’s strip away the pitcher and show the raw estimates, from high to low:

142, 141, 139, 128, 127, 119, 118, 116, 112, 111, 109, 108, 96, 94, 91, 90, 88, 86, 75, 73

This is a 20-game sample of the 162-game season. We get a Mean of 108.15 and a Standard Deviation of 21.06. Now let’s compare that to what the Mets have done the last several games. After Syndergaard was removed in an outing where he had just passed the 100-pitch boogeyman, there has been an apparent shift in allowing starters to go longer in the past 10 games. Now we can use the actual pitch count rather than an estimate. Here they are in that time frame:

117, 107, 112, 120, 98, 94, 93, 116, 113, 105

In this 10-game sample, we get a Mean of 107.5 and a Standard Deviation of 9.77. It’s interesting that the means are fairly close but the SD from our 1976 sample is over twice as large as it is in the sample from today. Does that mean anything? Maybe, although we shouldn’t be quick to make any definitive judgments.

In our 1976 sample, four of the five starters had been in the majors at least four years previously. The outlier was Swan, who had been in the majors parts of three previous seasons and had been in 16 games (15 starts). But Swan was relatively older at age 25.

My opinion is that you need to be careful with younger arms but older arms which have been properly stretched out are capable – in the right circumstance – to go considerably longer than what they typically do here in the 21st Century. Of course, the right circumstances are not so easily defined. If a pitcher is cruising through the first four innings and then has a 22-pitch inning in the fifth and a 32-pitch inning in the sixth – maybe you don’t ask him to come out for the seventh.

But if deGrom has thrown 112 pitches through seven innings and they’ve been relatively stable, or getting easier the last few innings, then perhaps he should be allowed to pitch the eighth, especially given the makeup and results of the 2019 bullpen.

The advantage of the 2019 Mets’ rotation is that they don’t have anyone who necessarily needs to be babied. Syndergaard at age 26 already has 101 starts in the majors under his belt. Matz at age 28 has made 43 starts since his last big trip under the knife. Wheeler at age 29 has made 60 starts in the majors since his last major surgery.

No one would argue that the staff hasn’t been trained – both mentally and physically – to throw 95 pitches in an outing. No one is suggesting that they go from this level to throwing 142 pitches like Matlack apparently did. But they’ve all exceeded 105 pitches in an outing with Matz going as far as 120. They’ve gradually moved to the current level and my opinion is that they can keep gradually extending what they ask from this group.

Right now, my opinion is that we should look at 115 pitches as the new 100-pitch level. Every outing does not have to be 115 pitches. Look at Koosman’s pitch estimate in our 1976 sample, where three of his four outings had an estimate of under 100 pitches. But if a 2019 Mets pitcher is cruising at 112 pitches, we shouldn’t react with horror if he is sent out to start the next inning.

19 comments for “Comparing the Mets’ recent SP usage to the 1976 squad

  1. MattyMets
    June 16, 2019 at 10:58 am

    Nice comp, Brian. When you have a team like the Mets or Nats that has a strong rotation and struggling pen, 120 should be the new 100. When you have a team like the Yankees with a monster pen, but thinner rotation 100 is about right.

    PS – happy father’s day

  2. Pete from NJ
    June 16, 2019 at 11:34 am

    Nice historical data. Maybe even a nicer quote from Colonel Blake. I think the deciding factor is if the starting five is on board with your theory. As motivated professionals I think they are.

    How about a Vargas perfect game for Father’s Day?

    • June 16, 2019 at 12:39 pm

      Perfect game – you don’t want too much!

      It will be curious to see how the bullpen goes today. Diaz has been used 3 days in a row, Lugo has gone 2 of the last 3, including last night, Gsellman has gone back-to-back, Familia has given up 7 ER in his last 4.2 IP. Could be Wilmer Font for the Save today.

  3. Chris F
    June 16, 2019 at 1:14 pm

    I think its safe to say that any article that can bring in a M*A*S*H analogy in immediately scores a 10/10. So well done.

    I also think this is an important topic to bring some light on, particularly after the Syndergaard event, after which BVW clearly pulled aside Oh Mickey Your So fine and said 100 is what we expect. I think there are other things worth noting.

    1. This is a team claimed to be based on starting pitching. If that is true, then the starters should be carrying a heavier load that team based on hitting prowess or relievers etc. I don’t see that you can be a starter centric team and only go 90 pitches or a bit more than 2 times through. In my opinion, thats not enough. By extension, I think a starting pitching-forward team needs to perform better, regularly getting 21+ outs.

    2. I cant help but wonder if there is some analytics on the pitch counts, that do indicate increasing injury. Although we can look back to the 70s, as I often do, but its also very worth remembering those players were making peanuts. Suppose there is a 10% increase in injury after 100 pitches, is that something you are willing to gamble on with 10s-100s of millions of dollars are stake?

    Anyway, Id like to see starters go more pitches, but more importantly, more outs.

    • June 16, 2019 at 10:48 pm

      Thanks for the kind words.

      There are things that front offices have that are not in the public domain, absolutely. But those are either complex, proprietary formulas or data that’s not available for anyone to look up at the normal places. But the thing is that both pitch counts or a decent estimate like what I used here are available in the public domain. If there was some correlation, there would have been a study done by now. And by someone who knew what they were doing, like Tango or Pizza Cutter. Not Tom Verducci.

      My belief is that pitch counts are a CYA approach designed to eliminate criticism more than prevent injury.

  4. John Fox
    June 16, 2019 at 5:11 pm

    One aspect to consider in comparing pitch counts from the mid 70s to contemporary times is that the 2019 SP throws, on average, a few more mph than did the 70’s SP, so that could factor in.

    • June 16, 2019 at 10:50 pm

      That’s a fair point. I would also throw out there that there’s more attention to mechanics and stretching and “pre-hab” now than there was back in the 70s.

  5. Mike Walczak
    June 16, 2019 at 9:55 pm

    I love this article. How many pitches did Nolan Ryan throw per start? And he pitched for 27 years. This 100 pitch count stuff is a joke. These guys are soft. Tell Syndergaard to get his ass back in the game and throw the damn ball.

    I love Alonso. He has fire in his belly. Most of the rest of them need some fire.

  6. Michael
    June 17, 2019 at 12:08 am

    Great article. For those too young to remember him, Lolich was a freak of nature. He was pretty washed up by the time he came here but 5 years prior, he threw 376 innings for Detroit. In 5 games that season he went 13, 13, 12, 11, and 10 innings. Using your formula of batters faced, walks and strikeouts, that translates to 184, 181, 170, 162 and 152 pitches thrown. We will hardly ever see that again.

    • Mike Walczak
      June 17, 2019 at 10:48 am

      I hated Lolich, because they traded one of my favorite Mets for him, Rusty Staub. Looking back at it years later, Lolich pitched well for the Mets in his only season with the team. Lolich was built like Pounders. Maybe we should call our new pitcher Mickey Pounders.

  7. david
    June 17, 2019 at 3:56 am

    Good Point / Pitch Counts for Seaver and Koosman and Gentry and Koonce and MacAndrew??? late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

    • david
      June 17, 2019 at 3:59 am

      Lolich was the ace on the Detroit Tigers, if my memory serves me well
      dc harrer

      Editor’s Note – Please do not capitalize words in your post, as that is a violation of our Comment Policy.

  8. June 17, 2019 at 7:20 am

    I just don’t believe that pitchers in the 40’s-80’s were less injury prone than the pitchers of today’s game. The fact is that the selection process itself was that guys who could not withstand the heavy workload were either tossed to the side, or destroyed trying to prove that they could handle the workload. The selection process identified guys who were naturally resilient for the job…it didn’t Produce Them!!!!

    Pitchers also pitch very differently today….it’s all-out gas for as long as you can go…”Empty the Tank” is the approach. That may help young pitchers hit “marks” for velocity and spin rate, etc…… I believe “The Gun” has been as poisonous to the pitching craft as any measurement tool—and it flashes up after every single pitch. What would happen if a Chef cooked everything at max temperature???….. or if music was written and performed at the highest volume on each note?

    I know my argument is highly annecdotal, but “Span and Sain and Pray for Rain” was a reality for most big league clubs—if they found 2-3 who could offer quality and sustain performance over major innings, they had a great staff–mostly, the reality is that there were never enough pitchers. That’s where all of this came from…preservation of needed arms across almost 3 dozen teams.

    • June 17, 2019 at 8:54 am

      History is filled with guys who couldn’t handle the workload and never recovered.

      The question is if modern surgery, modern training techniques and more careful usage in the teens and early 20s would allow 21st Century pitchers to handle throwing 125 pitches on a regular basis, with occasional jumps to 135 or 140.

      None of us know the answer because no team is willing to try. It’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      • June 17, 2019 at 9:37 am

        Interesting to note that people don’t blink too much if a guy has ” had ‘His TJ’ ” So, pitching a guy and blowing out his elbow is “no big deal”…bizarre, but true! The Shoulder injuries continue to be devastating. The Thoracic Outlet problems are almost always a career ender— is there evidence that this is use correlated???

        While your “argument” is stated in rational tones, there’s always the bonehead argument that guys are “Soft”… “Babied”…… it’s an infuriating argument, to Me. If you’ve played or coached or had any “attachment” to an accomplished athlete at any level, it’s easily visible that athletes play in constant pain. There is no such thing as a Healthy Player! Players above a HS level quickly learn the difference between Pain and Injury…recognizing the difference is often very difficult.

        For those of you who make that argument, you’re almost always wrong….Don’t hate the Players!!!

        • June 17, 2019 at 10:52 am

          Who was the last Mets’ pitcher to undergo rotator cuff surgery?

          I mentioned “pre-hab” and all the work that pitchers do now to strengthen the shoulder area has prevented a bunch of those surgeries. Yeah, the success rate when they do have surgery isn’t good. But if you only have a handful of people who undergo the procedure, that’s not as bad as it once was.

  9. NYM6986
    June 17, 2019 at 7:24 am

    Great analysis. Mets won 86 games in 1976. I’d sign up for that right now. With Thor and Vargas now hurt, we find ourselves back to which AAA arm gets to step up. I also believe pitchers were not so fragile back then, but can’t back that up with facts or memories. Should have taken 3/4 from the cards if not for our pen. We might be rushing to the sellers table if we can’t get to and go past .500.

  10. Rob
    June 17, 2019 at 8:14 pm

    Great piece. What always bugged about those 3 pitchers is the Mets got almost zero return for them.

    • Mark Warner
      June 18, 2019 at 10:04 pm

      There’s a call from Jesse Orosco on line 2…

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