Why pitch counts don’t matter

AP photo

Andy Lopez (AP photo)

Maybe it’s impossible to prevent pitchers from being injured. So what really matters when it comes to managing pitcher’s health?

Baseball leaders at all levels are constantly searching for methods to keep their pitchers healthy. Personalized workouts and regimented throwing programs can be combined with biomechanics, video review and other physiological studies to find the optimum program for pitchers today. Pitch count rules have been implemented at all levels, with the hopes of keeping the pitcher’s health (and their arms) intact. But does any of it actually work?

Use vs. abuse

In 2012, LSU signee Mitch Seward tossed 154 pitches in 10 innings and counterpart Emerson Gibbs hurled 193 pitches in a Louisiana high school district game. This past year, Japanese phenom Tomohiro Anraku hurled 772 pitches in the span of nine days. There is currently no record of any of them having arm troubles.

On the other hand, prized prospects Stephen Strasburg and Dylan Bundy have both been meticulously observed and carefully monitored with pitch counts and inning caps, and both have succumbed to ailments that required Tommy John surgery.

Inevitably, there will be those that point to high pitch counts from the past to explain injuries that occur years later. When Bundy was injured, for example, many pundits pointed to a four-day span where he threw 484 pitches over two high school starts in 2010, nearly three full years prior to his injury.

By comparison, Greg Maddux and Nolan Ryan threw 186 and 205 innings (respectively) at age 19. “I don’t remember a pitch count,” said Maddux in a 2012 Sports Illustrated article, “if you looked like you were getting tired, if there was a change in arm slot, they took you out.”

The “magic number”

Maddux’s sentiment is shared by many others, including Andy Lopez, head coach of the 2012 national champion University of Arizona Wildcats.

“First and foremost, I’ve never known the magic number,” said Lopez in our Winter 2013 issue. “If we see a drop in velocity or location or something physically, we’re gonna go get ’em.”

When it comes down to it, a pitch count threshold is impossible to generalize over youth, amateur and professional baseball. So what’s the point of implementing a broad-stroked pitch count for these players?

At its most basic sense, pitch counts simply seem to serve as a number for coaches to hide behind (or become exposed for) if their pitchers are injured. The bottom line is that there’s no exact science when it comes to policing pitch count, as pitchers continue to go down before, during and after games at the beginning, middle and end of playing seasons.

Rest vs. “rest”

One overlooked aspect in this equation seems to be pitcher workload. If we’re so strict about pitch counts, why do we look the other way when coaches call in their shortstops, center fielders, etc. to the mound? Why do we ask players to play multiple games in the field and then call them in to pitch? Are the required “days off” between outings actually days off, or are they days spent at other positions on the field?

For what it’s worth, the mindset is much different the few times that position players are brought in to pitch in professional baseball. “I wasn’t trying to mess around,” Texas Ranger outfielder David Murphy said after an appearance in 2012. “My arm is definitely not in condition to pitch, and I didn’t want to do anything silly or anything I would have regretted. I mean, it would have been fun to throw as hard as you can and light up the radar gun, but I wasn’t going to do that.”

Pittsburgh Pirate utility player Josh Harrison was handed the ball for a mop-up assignment this past season. The advice manager Clint Hurdle gave him? “We told Josh to keep it low and don’t get hurt.”

The stress test

Instead of oversimplified pitch counts, how about keeping track of stressful pitches and stressful innings? “I’ve seen some of the most stressful 45 pitches in the world and I’ve seen guys breeze into the seventh inning with 90 pitches and it looks like they can throw 150,” said Lopez. “It’s not a crude or archaic method; we see the visual signs with radar guns and I keep it simple- if a pitcher is maintaining velocity and throwing low strikes and we have good communication, we let him keep going.”