Baseball pitchers have been a fragile bunch. Over the last 10 years there have been an average of 16 Tommy John surgeries a year on Major League pitchers. Even though the success rate of this surgery is extremely high the rehab period is usually long and hard taking 12 to 18 months. Some pitchers have had to go through this twice. Because of this, organizations do everything they can to protect young pitchers and work them gradually up the ladder into the Major Leagues. When they get in the majors, the magic number seems to be 100 pitches per game. When a pitcher approaches this pitch count, no matter how he is doing, this becomes the time to take him out. There are some exceptions, and we will see these later in the blog, but 90% of the time this is the unwritten rule. Pitchers are taken out even when they are throwing a no hitter. Because of this, many fans and sportscasters wish for the good old days, when pitchers almost routinely pitched complete games, and would never be taken out if they were pitching well, let alone pitching a no hitter. This leads to the question of why do so many pitchers have arm problems today, even though they are monitored much more closely than they were 40 to 50 years ago. My answer to that is who cares, this is just the way things are at the moment. The quest should go on to find out what can be done to help avoid all of these arm problems. Until that happens, major league teams should accept the fact that this is the way it is now and do even more to protect their pitchers. Before we go into that, lets go back 35 seasons to 1988, the first year that pitch counts were on the stats in baseball reference.
Let us look at 5 pitchers from the 1988 season, Orel Hershiser, Frank Viola, the 2 Cy Young award winners, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Dave Stewart, 3 of the best pitchers from that era. We will look at games started, complete games, and average number of pitches per game. Hershiser started 35 games, completed 15 games, and averaged 101 pitches per game. One game he threw 153 pitches for his season high. Frank Viola started 35 games, completed 7, and averaged 106 pitches per game. Three times he threw 122 pitches and once 121. Roger Clemens was the big workhorse that year. He started 35 games completed 14 and averaged 119 pitches per game. He had one game where he threw 162 pitches and had 12 games of over 130 pitches. No wonder he took steroids at the end of his career. Greg Maddux started 34 games but there were 2 games where no pitch counts were recorded. For the 32 games they did he averaged 105 pitches per game and completed 9 of them. He had an 11 inning 167 pitch game and 6 others that were over 130. Dave Stewart pitched 37 games, completed 14 and averaged 114 pitches per game. Now we head to 2022 and start with Sandy Alcantara the current Cy Young award winner. Alcantara started 32 games, completed 6, averaging 102 pitches per game. His highest pitch count was 117. Gerrit Cole started 33 games, completing 0, and averaged 99 pitches per game. His highest count was 118. Corbin Burnes started 33 games, completing 0, and averaged 99 pitches per game. The most pitches he threw in a game was 115. The stats are about the same for every well know starter in baseball last year. Even though they rarely completed a game their pitch counts did not average that much less than the pitchers in 1988, even though the complete game was much more common. The pitchers of 2022 were really never allowed to get their pitch count to a very high level as they did in 1988. One of the highest in 2022 was Miles Mikolas who threw 129 pitches trying to no hit the Pirates. This pales in comparison to the over 160 pitches that Clemons and Maddox threw that year. There is no question that it takes a lot more pitches today to accomplish the same thing that pitchers did in the 80’s. This is due to more batters being selective or to put it another way, begging for walks. This is the way it is in baseball at the present, and teams should change the way they think about how pitchers should pitch and on how much.
The above data shows that pitchers today get a lot less done on about the same number of pitches. Now it takes about 100 pitches to get through 6 to 7 innings. Pitchers back in the 80’s could complete a game on about the same number. Teams need to make 100 pitches the max any pitcher throws regardless of the situation. This would be the most effective way to help preserve pitching arms. This policy will also help them be more pitcher ready for the playoffs. Another thing that would help pitchers is to abandon the so called waste pitch. If you have a batter down no balls and 2 strikes, just challenge the guy and be damned about the results. In today’s environment every pitch is precious. You got two strikes on the batter get the third one and if he hits hit it out, he hits it out, who cares. The old way of thinking about an 0-2 count has got to stop. Pitchers need to think about throwing strikes on every pitch and forget about burying one in the dirt. It is the only way that pitchers have any chance of going deeper into games than they are now. Here is one last curiosity about pitch counts. How many days rest does a pitcher need if throws 50 pitches. I have often thought what if teams limit pitchers to 50 pitches a game and just start rotating them in the game. Forget about the role playing that pitchers do today. The average number of pitches thrown in a game is about 150. That would mean about 3 pitchers per game. With 12 to 13 pitchers on most teams, that means they would throw about every 4 games. They might even be able to cut that down with more aggressive pitching, by eliminating the waste pitch. Of course, starting pitchers would not like this idea, but in the long run it might be the most effective way to prevent runs. I would love to see some team put this into play. Tampa Bay are you listening? Twelve to thirteen pitchers just rotating through the games every 4 to 5 days. Even though this is unlikely to happen, teams still need to apply the 100 pitch mode as a hard and fast rule. In the long run this will save arms and may make your staff one of the best in the playoffs.