The pitch count is an old school versus new school battleground on which crusty traditionalists such as Morris have lost out to New Age risk-management thinkers such as Oakland As pitching coach Rick Peterson, whose motto is, In God we trust; all others must show data. Peterson keeps a little black book in which he logs with a four-color pen every pitch thrown by his starters, even in bullpen sessions. He gauges pitches in 11-day increments. So if a pitcher has a high-pitch-count game, his side session and next start will be curtailed.
The mere counting of pitches is not new; teams have done it for generations. It's the idolatry of fixed numbers as a training and strategic device that has changed. Forty years ago Warren Spahn, then 42, and Juan Marichal, then 25, threw 201 and 227 pitches, respectively, in their famous 16-inning duel. Nolan Ryan was to pitch counts what Tolstoy was to word counts. In an 11-week span in 1974 Ryan threw 150 pitches (a two-hitter with eight walks and 11 strikeouts), 172 pitches (19 strikeouts), 184 pitches (an 11-inning, 1-0 loss to Mickey Lolich in which both pitchers threw complete games) and—hang on to your clickers—235 pitches (a 13-inning effort against Luis Tiant, who took a complete game loss in the 15th inning). Ryan pitched for 27 seasons and started more games than any other pitcher except Cy Young.
The statistical service STATS Inc. began tracking pitch counts in 1987, about the same time that many teams were announcing pitch counts in the press box as part of a pitcher's line score. The hegemony of the number, however, wasn't yet established. In the 1970s and '80s managers such as Earl Weaver and Billy Martin paid more attention to radar-gun readings than pitch counts when deciding when to remove a pitcher. Former Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly consulted his watch. "I always thought most pitchers began to tire after two hours, 10 minutes or two hours, 15 minutes," he says.
The shortening of the pitch-count leash began as signing bonuses hit seven figures for high school pitchers—the Yankees gave Brien Taylor an industry-rattling $1.55 million bonus in 1991—and the computer age sparked an explosion of statistical information. Heightened awareness of numbers created heightened concern. When USA Today started putting pitch counts in its box scores in 1997, every fan with two quarters became an expert on when to remove a pitcher. Last year the online magazine Salon.com questioned why the Diamondbacks had allowed Randy Johnson to throw 107 pitches in a game, hardly enough to raise a bead of sweat on the brow of the game's premier workhorse.
Johnson, a more efficient version of Ryan, threw more pitches last year (3,996) than any other pitcher in baseball, averaging 114 per start. He exceeded 120 pitches 10 times—more than the entire staffs of 26 teams. Of the 4,852 starts by pitchers last year Johnson accounted for the only one with 140 or more pitches: a turn-back-the-clock 150-pitch workday against the Montreal Expos. "Once he gets going, he seems to get stronger, and he doesn't want to come out," says Seattle Mariners manager Bob Melvin, the former Arizona bench coach. "He won't let you take him out. Pitch counts go out the window."
Pitching coaches agree that how a pitcher runs up his pitch count can be more important than the number itself, especially if he labors through long innings. Says Anaheim pitching coach Bud Black, "Take Ramon Ortiz. He's susceptible to getting out of his delivery if he has a long inning. So he's more at risk [for injury] if he throws more than 30 pitches in an inning than if he throws 125 pitches easily."
No starting pitcher was as efficient last season as Atlanta Braves righthander Greg Maddux, who needed, on average, only 13.3 pitches to get through an inning. Conversely, Philadelphia Phillies pitch-guzzler Brandon Duckworth needed 177 pitches per inning. Duckworth threw 234 more pitches than Maddux but had 36? fewer innings to show for it.
As for Prior, who had a 3.14 ERA in his five starts after the 136-pitch cause c�l�bre, he has a new manager: Dusty Baker, whose San Francisco Giants' staff led the majors last season in 120-pitch games, with 19. Says Prior, "My goal is to give the team seven, eight solid innings every time out, and I want to go nine." Will the almighty pitch count allow it?
"It's become so prevalent," Rothschild says, "pitchers are monitoring it themselves. If you think you should be getting tired because your pitch count is getting up there, you will be tired. I'm not so sure we're not developing pitchers who are conditioned to be tired at 120 pitches. Pitch counts have taken on a life of their own."