Talkin' pitch counts and Nolan Ryan's crusade, with Bill James
The current 100-pitch limit that has overtaken baseball doesn't make much sense
Rangers president Nolan Ryan is trying to get his pitchers to go deeper into games
Last season there were only 71 games where a pitcher threw 120-plus pitches
The following is the continuing evolution of an experiment that we tried a few weeks ago -- and the latest installment of a new weekly column on SI.com. It's a combination column with Boston Red Sox senior advisor and baseball writer extraordinaire Bill James. For a few years now, Bill and I have exchanged e-mails about everything from sports to politics to religion to crime to the qualities of Marlon Brando as an actor (Bill thinks he's overrated). So we have talked about bringing those e-mails to the stage. This is not a pure e-mail exchange ... it is rewritten to come out as a column. Anyway, we hope so ...
The topic this week is pitch counts, and it's mostly fair to say that we don't like them. That's oversimplifying, of course. We both like the idea of team officials doing what they can to protect their young starting pitchers ... nobody wants to go back to those days when a 21-year-old Mark Fidrych throws a preposterous 198 innings in the 13 weeks between May 15 and Aug. 29.
But the current 100-pitch limit that has overtaken baseball doesn't make much sense, either. Why 100 pitches? Is it because it's a nice round number? Does it have any basis at all? Has it proven to prevent pitcher injuries -- does anyone believe pitchers are getting hurt less often these days? With teams spending more money now than ever on starting pitchers, doesn't it make sense to get MORE for the money rather than less?
Questions. Down in Texas, Rangers president and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan is taking on convention. He is trying, slowly, to get his pitchers to train harder and go a little bit deeper into games. Already, he is taking abuse for it -- "It won't work, we're a soft society today," a baseball man told Randy Galloway of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram -- but we're watching closely. We think it can work.
More to the point, we hope it does work. We both would love to get back to the days when starting pitchers had a bigger impact on games. As Bill says: "Baseball is a better game for the fans when you have two starting pitchers engaged in a duel, rather than each pitching five innings and turning it over to a long series of interchangeable relievers. Joe Wood vs. Walter Johnson, man. Nobody reminisces about Clint Brown vs. Al Benton."
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Bill James: I think that what Ryan is doing CAN succeed, because he is doing battle with an empty suit. There's really no basis to the belief that a mature starting pitcher can't throw 150 or 160 pitches in a game -- when he's feeling good, when he's throwing freely and not fighting anything -- without negative consequences.
Joe Posnanski: The thing that fascinates me: How did we get here? Let's think about this for a moment. Baseball, as an industry, spends billions of dollars on starting pitchers. Billions. Look: CC Sabathia signed a $161 million contract. Johan Santana signed a $137 million deal. Barry Zito cost $126 million, Carlos Zambrano $91 million. That's a half billion dollars RIGHT THERE, four pitchers. Throw in Roy Oswalt ($73 million), Josh Beckett ($42 million), A.J. Burnett ($82 million), Zack Greinke ($38 million), Roy Halladay ($40 million), Jason Schmidt ($47 million), Kelvim Escobar ($28.5 million), on and on ... yes, everybody knows that teams spend a lot of money on pitching, but I really want to highlight the point.
And the point? Teams spend all this money on starting pitchers, and then they decide that the round number, 100 pitches, is ideal. Exactly 100 pitches. Not 110. Not 123. Not 97. No, 100 pitches, ideal, no matter how old the pitcher, no matter what kind of stuff he throws, no matter if he's left-handed or right-handed, no matter what. One hundred pitches.
And make no mistake: 100 pitches is the magic number. This year, going into Sunday, there were 1,543 starters who went at least five innings in a game. Their average pitch count: 99.2. Can you believe that? Teams are spending all this money on pitching, and they sure seem to be trying to protect their investment based on a decision my 7-year-old daughter could make ("Um, let them throw, uh, 100 pitches. Is 100 a lot?").
Bill: The movement toward harder and lower pitch counts, which began about 1980 and matured about 2000, was driven by the desire to avoid injuring pitchers, which is laudable. None of us wants to see starting pitchers get hurt. It was -- is -- an excellent idea to do anything you can to avoid starting pitchers getting hurt.
In the 1970s there was a lot of criticism directed at managers who allowed pitchers to burn out. There was criticism of Larry Shepard, the pitching coach for the Big Red Machine, after the early career arm problems of Wayne Simpson, Don Gullett and Gary Nolan.
Joe: Not to interrupt, but since the Big Red Machine came up: Sparky Anderson, in many ways, invented the modern bullpen in the early-to-mid 1970s. In 1975 the Reds set what was then a record by going 45 consecutive games without a starter throwing a complete game. Funny to think that was a record once: In 2007 the Florida Marlins went THE ENTIRE SEASON without throwing a complete game.
Anyway, Anderson took a terrible beating. The Reds were running away with the division, but Anderson would get booed at home when he went to the mound. His pitchers -- well, some of them still despise him for it. It was a whole other mindset in 1975 -- by managers, fans, pitchers, everyone.
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