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Posted: Monday June 15, 2009 12:50PM; Updated: Monday June 15, 2009 4:17PM
Joe Posnanski Joe Posnanski >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Talkin' pitch counts, Nolan Ryan's crusade, with Bill James (cont.)

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Bill: On June 25, 1975, Kansas City's Steve Busby pitched 12 innings in a game at California, winning the game 6-2 when the Royals scored four in the 12th. Busby was 25 years old at the time. His career record before that game was 52-35, and he had thrown two no-hitters. His career record after that game was 18-19.

Buck Martinez, the Royals catcher in that game, would say later that he was trying to tell manager Jack McKeon for several innings that Busby wasn't right. McKeon, under pressure to keep his job, put winning that game ahead of keeping Busby healthy. McKeon was fired less than a month later (July 23), and came to be widely blamed for destroying Busby's career because of that game.

Fidrych the next year threw 24 complete games at the age of 21. He was never good again.

These incidents generated a great deal of chatter among those of us who talk about managers -- and I don't doubt, even now, that they should have done so. Twenty-four complete games for a 21-year-old? It's crazy.

Joe: Nolan Ryan threw 26 complete games in back-to-back years -- 1973 and 1974 -- and he threw 300 innings in each of those years. As far as I know, nobody counted pitches then, but can you even IMAGINE the number of pitches Nolan Ryan must have thrown in, say, 1974? The guy set the modern record that year with 383 strikeouts -- here we are, 35 years later, and that record still stands. But Ryan also walked 204 batters that year -- nobody has come CLOSE to that number in the last 35 years. According to Tom Tango's pitch-count estimator, Ryan AVERAGED 134 pitches per start that year, and almost certainly threw more than 200 pitches on a couple of occasions.

And he loved it. That, undoubtedly, is what drives him now. Ryan believed that the game belonged to the starting pitcher. It was his. Ryan HATED 1987 -- that was the year when Houston manager Hal Lanier put Ryan on a strict pitch count (Ryan did not complete a single game that year). On one level it worked: Ryan led the league in ERA. On another, it did not: Ryan finished the season 8-16. You have to think that year is part of what's driving him to recapture a little bit of the 1970s.

Bill: Putting Nolan Ryan on a pitch count is like telling Oprah she can't cry. It's like telling him, "Be somebody else."

Around 1984 ... wish I knew for sure the exact year... USA Today began publishing box scores WHICH INCLUDED PITCH COUNTS FOR PITCHERS.

When you introduce hard facts into a discussion, it changes the discussion. The pitch counts introduced by USA Today became a weapon of the critics. Whenever a young pitcher got hurt, someone could always point to this game when he threw 162 pitches on a cold day in Detroit, or these two games in July when he threw 150-plus pitches twice in six days in hot weather, or ... SOMETHING. Every time a pitcher got hurt, somebody could point to something that the manager had done to cause this injury.

It is my view that, once conventional wisdom about leaving pitchers in the game stampeded into a full-fledged retreat, it ran right past the point of reason, without any real effort to balance the discussion by taking account of the costs of pulling pitchers out of the game too early and too often.

Joe: Something happened around 2001, too. I'm not sure what it was ... but while managers were definitely being more careful with pitchers throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it had not reached the point of absurdity. In 2000 managers let their starters throw 120 pitches or more about 12 percent of the time -- there were 454 instances of a pitcher throwing 120-plus pitches. That was more or less in line with the 1990s.

But in 2001 the 120-plus pitch games were cut in half. By 2006 they were cut in half again. Last season there were only 71 games where a pitcher threw 120-plus pitches ... these games have become almost extinct. I do think it's fear-driven ... most of the managers I talk to around the game privately DESPISE the pitch count. Or, more to the point, they despise the oppressive nature of pitch counts -- "Sure, we have to be careful with pitchers," one big-league manager told me. "But we're to the point now where we're babying them. You'll see pitchers now throw five or six good innings, and they feel like they've done their job. That's our fault."

Bill: The problem with the move toward pitch counts was that there was never any logic or research that said that limiting a pitcher to 100 pitches would prevent injuries, as opposed to 130 pitches, or 130 for young pitchers and 160 for mature pitchers, or as opposed to getting the pitcher out of the game at the first sign of a problem, or as opposed to improving his training regimen. I am opposed to making decisions based on fear, and in favor of making decisions based on logic and research, and therefore I support what Nolan Ryan is trying to do.

I always admire people who have the courage to confront the conventional wisdom ... I mean, people within the system. Those of us on the outside ... it's easy for us to say whatever we think, because there are no consequences to it. It's much harder to say, "I think the conventional wisdom is full of beans, and I'm not going to go along with it," when you're inside the system and exposed to the possibility of actual failure. I think the people who do this drive the world to get better, whereas the people who snipe at anybody who dares suggest that the conventional wisdom is malarkey are, in my view, gutless conspirators in the mediocrity of the universe. To me, what Ryan is doing is the clearest and boldest example of challenging the conventional wisdom from within the system that I've seen in years, and I'm applauding.

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