When Chris Young — one of the smartest pitchers to ever stand on a pitching mound — played for the Kansas City Royals, he once said he wished they’d take radar gun readings and pitch counts off the scoreboard.
If he was getting people out, what difference did it make if he was doing it with a fastball in the high 80s?
If he felt good, what difference did it make if he had thrown 100 pitches, and if he felt tired what difference did it make that he’d only thrown 80?
And Young’s total pitch count might be less important than how that total was put together: One 30-pitch inning is way more tiring than two 15-pitch innings.
Young’s points are pretty much undeniable, so why do we continue to use pitch counts to decide when a starting pitcher is done throwing?
How pitch counts protect careers
One of the best ways to shorten a long coaching career is to have a pitching prospect hurt his arm on your watch. So minor-league coaches and the organizations that employ them might tend to keep pitch counts and innings pitched on the low side.
Then, whatever happens, the coach or manager can then say:
“Hey, don’t look at me, I followed the workload guidelines.”
The problem with being overly protective with pitch counts and innings pitched is starting pitchers are no longer training themselves to go deep in games and throw 200 innings per season, which used to be the mark of an outstanding starter.
As recently as the year 2000 there were 36 pitchers in baseball who threw at least 200 innings; in 2018 it was 13. In the year 2000 David Wells led all of baseball with nine complete games; in 2018 eight pitchers tied for most complete games with two.
Baseball has a saying for just about everything, and five-and-dive used to describe pitchers who wanted out of a game if they had a lead after five innings.
It was an insult: After qualifying for a win, nothing bad could happen to a pitcher that found an excuse to quit pitching. If his team went on to lose the game, a five-and-dive pitcher wouldn’t get the “L” in his column, even though leaving early may have been why his team lost.
These days starters are throwing fewer innings and putting more strain on their team’s bullpen and if a pitcher leaves after five innings, a lot of teams have a hard time finding four shutdown relievers to hold onto a lead.
Why pitchers still get hurt
If teams are limiting their starting pitchers’ pitch counts, why do starting pitchers still get hurt?
Lots of reasons, but one you can’t ignore is everybody is going all-out all the time. Too many hitters are trying to hit home runs on every pitch, and too many pitchers are trying to strike every batter out: Home runs and punch outs get you paid.
So a pitch-count limit can actually hurt a pitcher when he looks up and sees he’s thrown 90 pitches, has been told he’s going to throw 100 pitches and decides to really air it out on those last ten.
Pitch counts designed to protect a pitcher’s arm can wind up hurting it.
Instead of making pitch counts lower and lower, some people have asked what would happen if pitch counts went the other direction: what if a starting pitcher’s pitch count limit was 120 — or 130?
Then that pitcher would have to quit throwing with max effort and quit trying to strike everybody out. He’d have to learn to pitch to contact; learn to locate and manipulate the ball.
He’d have to go back to pitching like starting pitchers used to pitch.
The herd mentality
By the time the rest of us catch on to what cutting-edge teams are doing, it’s too late to take advantage of that trend; it’s like hearing about a hot stock six months after it got hot.
Following in the steps of everybody else is the path to mediocrity.
The Kansas City Royals of 2014-15 had an advantage when they loaded up on relievers while a lot of teams spent their money on starters.
So now some people in baseball think it’s time for the pendulum to swing the other way: Some team is going to go rogue and ask more from their starting pitchers and if it works, that team will have an advantage until everybody else starts doing the same thing.
And if it works, maybe Chris Young will get his wish: They might never take pitch counts off the scoreboard, but maybe everyone will spend less time worrying about them.