Pitch count follies

This week’s guest post from Joe Guzzardi, a regular Wednesday contributor here, looks at the practice in recent years of limiting pitch counts.

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When Nolan Ryan took over as the Texas Rangers’ president, one of the first things he did was announce that throughout the organization he would banish the use of the pitch count to determine how long a pitcher stays in the game. Ryan wants his pitchers to go deep instead of being pulled when they reach an arbitrary number like 100.

At the start of the season, Ryan summed his philosophy up to the Dallas Morning News about what he expects to from starters: “The dedication and work ethic that it takes to pitch an entire season…as a starting pitcher and the discipline to continue to maintain his routine all year. And he wants the ball every fifth day, and he’s going to go out there with the intent of pitching late into games and not complaining.”

Speaking from his own experience, Ryan added that he “had to develop stamina because my intent was to pitch a lot of innings.” That message is being sent loud and clear to the Texas starters.

The pitch count debate has picked up over the last couple of years. And not a moment too soon, if you ask me. When you’re brought up as a baseball fan in the era of pitchers like Warren Spahn, Bob Friend and Robin Roberts who finished what they started, it’s hard to listen to a barrage of pitch count statistics from the broadcast booth.

During last night’s game in Arlington between the Rangers and the Pittsburgh Pirates, two divergent pitching philosophies went head-to-head with Ryan emerging as the clear winner—and not just on the scoreboard where Texas won 6-3.

At the center of it all is yesterday’s Pirate starter Ross Ohlendorf.

In August 2009, the Pirates manager John Russell (a former major league catcher) and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan (once a major league pitcher) decided to “shut down” Ohlendorf, their best starter, who had an 11-10 record in 176 innings. The premise was that the Pirates wanted to save Ohlendorf’s arm for the next season.

In an interview with Pirate announcer and former pitching great Steve Blass, Kerrigan justified his move by claiming that it’s a proven that once young pitchers go over a certain number of innings, their likelihood of injury increases dramatically.

But Ohlendorf isn’t young; he’s 27. And, at 6’5” and 245, he’s not a frail rookie. Like Ryan, he’s a Texas-born cattle rancher. And, finally, Olendorf wasn’t about to exert himself during the off-season. He’d committed to an internship at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. where he’d be in a coat and tie working in a cubicle all winter.

Things haven’t worked out as Russell and Kerrigan planned. Ohlendorf hasn’t won a game since he was yanked from the rotation. Last night, the Rangers shelled him in the fifth. Another Pirate announcer and one-time starting pitcher Bob Walk said that after four innings, Ohlendorf had “nothing.” Ohlendorf’s 2010 line: 0-6; 5.43 ERA

By the way, Blass, Walk and all-time relief great Kent Tekulve who does the Pirates post-game analysis are all pitch count skeptics.

Bob Feller, Tim McCarver and other pitchers and catchers with impeccable credentials are among the multitudes who agree with Ryan, Blass, Walk and Tekulve: let pitchers pitch.

By the way, during the 1946 season when Feller was Ohlendorf’s exact age of 27, he pitched 372 innings and won 26 games with a 2.18 ERA.

Then there’s Ryan’s case.

In his 26 year career, Ryan averaged 262 innings per year. In 19 of those years, Ryan exceeded Ohlendorf’s 170-180 inning “shut down” total. When he was 44, Ryan pitched 173 innings (and compiled a 12-6, 2.61 ERA season).

All of baseball is watching the Rangers. Baltimore Orioles’ president Lee MacPhail thinks it will take years to know if Ryan’s experiment works. Said MacPhail: “We need to see if the pitchers under the Texas system remain durable and how many more innings they pitch over an extended time. That’s how we will gauge the results.”

In the meantime, Ryan and MacPhail can point to Ohlendorf as Exhibit 1 of pitch count folly.

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Joe Guzzardi is a writer and member of the Society for American Baseball Research. Email him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

0 thoughts on “Pitch count follies”

  1. The problem with Ryan’s decision is that all the pitchers in their organization have been on pitch counts and innings limits for the last couple of years. Plus the players they draft have been on pitch counts in little league, high school, and college. Pitchers are no longer built to go deep because they aren’t given the chance when young.

    Unless Ryan can control his pitchers from age 10 its highly unlikely this will work. I also think there is the issue of Ryan probably being one of the hardest workers ever in baseball. For him to expect his pitchers to work as hard as he did in between starts and in the offseason isn’t very logical.

    Dusty Baker has never believed in pitch counts and all he has gotten credit for is ruining pitchers (Prior and Wood) and not winning a World Series.

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