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The Magic Number
Tom Verducci
March 31, 2003
It's 120, the maximum pitch count for almost any starter under any circumstances. But does it really protect pitchers—or just managers?
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March 31, 2003

The Magic Number

It's 120, the maximum pitch count for almost any starter under any circumstances. But does it really protect pitchers—or just managers?

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The Joy of the first complete game Mark Prior threw in the big leagues diminished as soon as reporters stormed the Chicago Cubs' clubhouse afterward to grill manager Bruce Kimm and pitching coach Larry Rothschild. "I thought we were going to get burned at the stake," Rothschild says.

What caused such an interrogation after Prior, then 21, struck out 13 batters while beating the Colorado Rockies 4-1 last August? The latest standard unit of measurement in the increasingly Newtonian world of baseball: the pitch count. Prior threw 136 pitches, which far exceeded protocol for a young pitcher and sent townspeople running for their pitchforks and flaming torches. As recently as last month an aghast American League general manager, recalling the game, said, "A hundred and thirty? I'd never do that."

Rothschild says he and Kimm allowed Prior, who ended the eighth inning with 120 pitches, to complete the game because his delivery was intact and he was not laboring. "It looked like he was playing catch," Rothschild says.

How unscientific. Amadeo Avogadro, a turn-of-the-19th-century physicist, found that equal volumes of gases, at the same pressure and temperature, have the same number of chemical units in one mole, a base unit of measurement in the metric system. That number, known as Avogadro's number, is 6.02 x 10[23] and is represented by the symbol N. Baseball's equivalent of Avogadro's number, according to popular wisdom, is 120—i.e., all major league pitchers have the same number of pitches in their arm before risking injury. It is represented in your morning box score by the symbol NP, for number of pitches. An NP greater than 120 is bound to set off alarms.

The pitch count is the addendum to the five-man rotation in baseball's quest to keep pitchers healthy. To survive the stress of getting through today's power-packed lineups, starting pitchers throw less often and check out of games quicker than any of their forefathers—and still break down with regularity. The ability of starters to pitch out of trouble rather than rely on relievers, to pitch with some fatigue, and to have the willpower to be their own closers is dying out. The pitch count is here to stay, but its one-size-fits-all dogma and low standard of workload may actually hinder development of the game's most precious resource.

"I'm torn," says Theo Epstein, the 29-year-old Boston Red Sox general manager and a major proponent of statistical analysis. "I believe in protecting young pitchers as much as anybody, but maybe the pendulum has swung too far—so far that we're babying young pitchers, and they don't get stretched out or learn how to pitch out of jams."

Arizona Diamondbacks righthander Curt Schilling once said that pitchers are like dogs: They'll do what you train them to do. And most teams are training them not to throw more than 120 pitches. The Red Sox, for instance, are one of many organizations that have incremental pitch limits at every level of their minor league system, maxing out at the magic 120 in Triple A If the number of pitches is tightly managed, the theory holds, so is the risk of injury.

In nearly every major league dugout a coach or the next game's starter uses a handheld clicker to count pitches during games. More and more ballparks keep pitch counts on scoreboards. Think of a kitchen timer: click, click, click... Ding! He's done!

Reliance on the pitch count has become so prevalent and formulaic that managers routinely explain away the removal of their starting pitchers by saying, "Well, his pitch count was getting up there." The number of 120-pitch games in the AL dropped 71% in the past five years alone, from 289 in 1998 to 83 last year. The number of 140-pitch AL games shrank from 17 to zero over the same period.

"This whole issue is about managers not having the balls to give whoever is out there the benefit of the doubt," says former pitcher Jack Morris (page 70), who retired in 1994 after 18 seasons and 175 complete games, not including ones he threw in spring training. "The negative effect is that pitchers have been conditioned not to do it anymore, so they don't know how to do it anymore. Kids today are bigger, faster, stronger. There's no doubt they could pitch 250 innings, 300 innings if they had to. Twenty complete games wouldn't be out of the question. But they're never, ever conditioned to do that."

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