Counting Pitches?

By on September 5, 2013

Chris Archer of the Tampa Bay Rays a young pitcher with All-Star future potential (photo Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Imagine the drama: Two outs, bottom of the ninth, 3-2 count. The closer fires and it’s a called third strike! Game over, a perfect game.


What about that scenario doesn’t seem right. Yep, a closer finished out the no-hitter featuring five pitchers.


You may not like it, especially any old-school devotees of complete games. But we’re closer to this scenario being a daily part of baseball than you think. Heck, look what Rays manager Joe Maddon, never hesitant to use his bullpen, conjured up Sunday against Oakland. Fearing an unfavorable pitching matchup with Roberto Hernandez, the Rays used seven relief pitchers, with none working more than 3-1/3 innings. Teams are already carrying eight-man bullpens. It limits a team’s bench strength but allows managers such as Maddon to mix and match the last third, or sometimes longer, of any game.

Even with Joe Maddon’s success and being a fan favorite, he’s often criticized for pulling pitchers too soon (Eddie Michels photo)


With pitch counts and protecting young arms all the rage, it’s not far-fetched to see more of this scenario. Soon enough five innings and two runs allowed will replace six innings and three runs as a quality start. I get it; teams invest millions in drafting, paying and developing arms. The Rays are as good as any organization in baseball in doing this. It has allowed them to compete among baseball’s elite since 2008 working with limited funds. However, it’s almost the norm nowadays that once a pitcher hits 70 pitches their effectiveness spirals down and the bullpen brigade begins.


The theory of multiple pitchers makes sense in that you want hitters to have multiple looks during a game, and you’re trying to prolong a career. But are teams doing pitchers a disservice by babying them? Arm and elbow injuries are more prevalent than ever. True, modern medicine helps them rehab and come back quicker. But pitchers have always been viewed as the most valuable commodity on a team, and often the highest paid. Flash back to the 1960s and ‘70s and check out salaries for Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Jim Palmer and even Denny McClain. They annually worked 300-plus innings and still had lengthy careers by throwing more and building up arm strength. Ask star relievers of that era including Dave Giusti, Mike Marshall and Goose Gossage, who routinely recorded three-inning saves several times a week.


Ryan, now the Rangers’ president, is trying to buck the trend and go old school, stressing greater fitness, more throwing and greater arm strength, hoping it translates into longer outings from his starters. He and Texas pitching coach Mike Maddux banished pitch counts when they instituted this program in 2009. If pitch counts were kept when Ryan worked, the Hall of Famer would have been out of most games by the fourth inning.

The results have been mixed. In 2011, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis stayed healthy and the rotation went a combined 74-40 with a 3.65 ERA. The 74 wins were the 11th most by an American League rotation since the beginning of the 2000 season and the second most in club history. Rangers starters won 72 games in 2012 but injuries led to starters only working 111 games.

Odds are we’re still headed to more relievers and one-batter specialists because it’s the current norm. But keep an eye on the Rangers staff. Baseball isn’t known for bucking trends. And the Rangers still use their bullpen much like other teams, with late-game matchups dictating their game plan. But then again, Ryan was one stubborn hombre on the mound. That’s what made him great, and that’s what makes his philosophy worth watching, particularly if Texas wins a world championship after near misses in 2010 and 2011.



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