Why baseball’s pitch count era may be ending

4 Jan

The pitch count era of baseball is now firmly twenty or so years old having reached widespread use in the late 1980’s. While initially the pitch count was scoffed at, the big money era of the early 90’s made working on a pitch count a reality for most young pitchers entering professional baseball. How and why the era began in itself leads us to see why it may also be coming to an end.

Prior the early 1980’s it wasn’t uncommon to see starting pitchers toss 20 complete 9 inning games each year. Even second tier starters could be depended on to toss several complete games. By the mid 1970’s the era of the closer became more dominant with the emergence of pitchers like Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Sparky Lyle, and Rich Gossage. Managers saw these closers as guys that could come into a game for two or three innings and go lights out. Initially the thinking was they were a specialist stopgap to aid a struggling starter, but eventually they became the go to man in every close game with increasing regularity whether a pitcher struggled or not. As closers became a more dominant part of the landscape and their roles evolved, starters threw fewer innings and likewise fewer pitches per game in most cases.

Moving forward managers and GM’s began setting teams up with the philosophy that so long as a starter could go seven innings and they could turn a game over to a closer all was well. Pitchers were then being trained with that in mind in the minor leagues. By the 90’s, big money contracts and deepened bullpens which had closers, setup men. middle relievers, and specialists that were groomed specifically for each role further cut down the need for starters to go deeper into games as well as their pitch count.

It was believed this was good thing as it protected the large investments made developing young starting pitchers by reducing the wear on their arms. it was theorized that in doing so these youngsters would remain serviceable if not dominant for a longer time period. The second bonus was they often believed that by throwing pitches teams would save money by not paying a pitcher on the disabled list suffering from arm injuries as well as their replacement that was called up from the minors or acquired from outside the system

What happened in reality is that pitchers were still getting injured as often as their counterparts from an earlier era. The second problem noted was that few pitchers that made their way to the majors who were trained on pitch counts failed to have the ability to go deep into games if need be and actually needed more rest than pitchers of earlier eras. many forget that it wasn’t until the mid 1970’s that all teams had finally moved from the 4 to 5 man starting rotation. In effect GM’s and owners are now noting that they are paying more money for more pitchers that do less than was necessary previously. It is finally clicking in this practice does not make the best sense.

What this has further led to is the huge overpayment of pitchers than can go deep into games because they have the ability to throw 125 pitches per game which was commonplace only 25 years ago. Examining the money spent on three prime examples of pitchers with high pitch count abilities; Josh Beckett. A.J. Burnett, and C.C. Sabathia, it is evident that as good as they are. dollar for dollar inflation adjusted, they are not equal to the likes of Steve Carlton, Jim Hunter, or even Don Sutton and Bert Blyleven.

Some GM’s like Nolan Ryan have completely removed pitch counts from the organization at all levels. Ryan has cited numerous times that had he been on a pitch count he would likely have had 70 or more fewer wins and a pile of strikeouts removed from his career total. His feeling is a pitcher that is trained with the mindset that going 9 innings is their goal every game rather than 6 is they way to build better pitchers, provide team flexibility, and not only save money, but make money. The philosophy states that having a staff of starters that can regularly complete games and not have to cede the mound to the bullpen due to fatigue means that a full complement of middle relievers and specialists is not necessary. The money previously spent on them can be rolled into improving the quality of the team as whole at that point without sacrificing anything. A better team equals more wins and higher revenue.

Not all teams have fully embraced this philosophy yet, but the trend is moving that way. Teams are willing to dig deep to acquire or train pitchers which are nowadays considered throwbacks only because they can throw a lot of pitches. They are seeing what Ryan is to a lesser degree. The worry still remains in figuring out how to get pitchers to the point they can safely throw more pitches without damaging their arms. As it is now a common practice to begin limiting the amount of pitches or innings kids can throw as early as little league, they can go through college these days having the mindset that 6 innings is a good start and everything else is gravy. It takes time to break that barrier down as much as it takes time to build durability.

The biggest thing in baseball is now as it has always been which is the economics of the trend. The feeling is once a new generation of pitchers comes through the majority of systems capable of throwing in the area of 130 pitches per start, the premium on them will deflate and make them affordable for all teams. Signing bonuses for pitchers in the draft exhibiting this ability will similarly decrease, and serve as a second financial factor. With that money a team in theory could improve itself by spending more on the offense, better coaches and development teams etc…, or the more likely scenario of lining their pockets with extra profits. In the end, the profit motive always wins out and may be the biggest reason the pitch count era is coming to an end.


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