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Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Don’t Fear the Reaper

A Response to Steve Treder’s “What Pitch Counts Hath Wrought”

On Hardball Times, Steve Treder recently published an article looking at the history of pitch counts.  Agreeing with Bill James and Don Malcolm, Treder argues that reliance on pitch counts has been misguided.  Fortunately his main concern is not sabermetric navel-gazing, so he does not critique the work done by, for example, Baseball Prospectus. 

Instead, his main concern is how top starters are used less now than they used to be and whether this leads to fewer injuries.  Using Tangotiger’s pitch count estimator, he looks at league leaders in pitch counts over the post-war period.  Unfortunately, Treder takes aim at the wrong target.  He also overlooks some of the potential victims of high pitch counts.  His analysis also leaves a bit to be desired, but I’m not going to improve on it here, so I am equally guilty.

Pitchers ain’t what they used to be

Treder’s main finding is that starting in the mid-80s, there was a significant drop in the total number of pitches thrown in a season by the league leader. 

There were roughly three periods.  From 1946 to 1969, the heaviest-worked pitcher in the majors was estimated to throw between about 4,500 and 4,900 pitches in a season. [warning: almost every pitch count referenced in this article is estimated, not actual, and I will mostly drop the “estimated” qualifier from here on out. If we had more actual, game-by-game, pitch count data, we’d probably have settled these arguments by now.]  From 1970 to 1980/1983, the league leaders tended to throw between 4,900-5,500 pitches in a season.  Starting in 1984, that dropped substantially. Between 1984 and 2003, the league leader topped 4,300 pitches only twice and has dipped below 4,000 in 2003.

  Along with this of course came a drop in innings pitched.  Innings not pitched by the best starters leaves more innings to be pitched by other pitchers.  Some of these innings are picked up by 5th starters, some are picked up by the bullpen (some of whom are probably actually more effective in their short stints than the starters).

Minor problems with Treder’s analysis

The first problem is that he has to rely on Tangotiger’s pitch count estimator.  This estimator probably works quite well at the league level and probably quite well overall, but how well it does predicting extreme observations like the league leaders is, to my knowledge, unknown.  [See the posted “Research Note” for more information.]  Unfortunately, right now, I have access only to the pitch count data available on ESPN. But in 2003, the pitch count estimator names Roy Halladay the league leader with 3,950 pitches. In actuality, Halladay was 4th with just 3,630 pitches. Using the estimate, Halladay threw 110 pitches per start when he actually threw just 101. That seems to be an extreme case. Randy Johnson was estimated to throw 4,116 in 2002 but actually threw 3,996, a gap of 120 pitches or about 3.5 pitches per start. And in 2001, the estimator underestimates Johnson’s total by 58 pitches. That’s as far back as ESPN goes. Who knows how well the estimator has worked in predicting the league leaders in previous eras. Treder also uses Tangotiger’s “basic” estimator rather than the “expanded” one. He also uses an estimate of the number of batters faced (3*IP + H + BB) rather than actual batters faced (which is now available in the Lahman database). There are some fairly large differences between the two estimators. For example, for Bob Feller in 1947, the basic estimator gives him 4,712 pitches while the expanded one gives him just 4,509, a difference of 203 pitches. This difference between the two estimators is not the same over eras. For example, over the last 10 season leaders, the basic estimator ranges from 1% to 4.7% higher than the expanded estimator; in the first 10 seasons, the basic estimator ranges from 2.6% to 5.9% higher. The basic estimator always produces a higher pitch count in this sample (and in general). But I don’t want to overstate this. Assuming Tangotiger is correct that the expanded estimator is more accurate, the basic estimator has overstated the number of pitches thrown in every era, slightly more in the earlier era. However, the difference across eras is not extreme and the two estimators are highly correlated, so using the expanded estimator would not change any conclusions about trends. Consequently, for ease and consistency with Treder’s article, I will stick with the basic estimator.
It is just important to keep in mind that one should never compare, for example, actual pitch counts from today with estimated pitch counts from earlier eras. And also that those pitchers of yore may not have been quite as studly as the numbers in Treder’s article suggest.
The second problem is using league leaders to display a trend, unfortunately a pretty common occurrence in baseball analysis. Pretty much by definition, the league leader is the most extreme outlier. Now many times they may not be very extreme and therefore will give you a good idea of the general trend, but there will be times they won’t. For example, in 1972, Wilbur Wood led the majors with 376.7 IP, about 10% more than the #2 finisher, and was one of just 4 pitchers with more than 300 IP. In 1946, Bob Feller led the league with 371 IP, nearly 80 (>25%) more than the #2 and over 100 IP more than the NL leader. In contrast in 2003, while Halladay still led the #2 pitcher by 10%, there were at least 19 pitchers within about 25% of his total. In short, Roy Halladay is a much better example of the current trend than Wood or Feller were of their current trends.
Or to put it another way, in 2003, Halladay led the majors with 266 IP. In 1946, Howie Pollett led the NL with 266 IP and Tex Hughson was 3rd in the AL with 278. Those numbers don’t look so different from Halladay’s.
To investigate this, I looked at the #5 and #10 pitcher in terms of the number of pitches in each year, and all starters with at least 25 starts. Table 1 displays the mean number of pitches in the “medium” pitch count era (1946-1969) and the “low” pitch count era (1984-2003) for the #1, #5, and #10 finishers and all pitchers with at least 25 starts.

Era#1#5#1025+ gs
1946-19694,7694,2633,9973,521
1984-20034,2073,9403,7823,225
Ratio low/high.882.924.946.916


It would seem that using league leaders overstates the difference at 12%. Keeping in mind that starters of those days often pitched in relief, the difference in pitches between “average” starters was about 9% and the difference between “top” starters was somewhere around 6% to 9%. Those are still sizeable differences of course.

The Wrong Target
There’s an interesting line in Steve’s article:
Whatever the case, it’s certain that what pitch count limits (and their first cousin, the five-man rotation) have created is a situation in which the very best pitchers of the current day ply their trade quite a bit less frequently than did their predecessors.
There’s no disagreeing with that statement, except that it’s the first cousin that’s to blame.
I looked at the league leaders in the low pitch count era (1984-2003), ignoring the strike years of 1994 and 1995. Those 18 league-leading seasons totaled 75,435 pitches, 4,773 innings pitched, 638 starts and 3 relief appearances. That’s an average of 4,191 pitches, 265 innings pitched, and 35.4 starts.
I looked at the league leaders in the medium pitch count era (1946-1969). Those 24 league-leading seasons totaled 114,483 pitches, 7,518 innings pitched, 933 starts and 59 relief appearances. That’s an average of 4,770 pitches, 313 innings, 38.9 starts and 2.5 relief appearances.
Now in comparing these, one problem is the relief appearances. I decided to go with the rule that 3 relief appearances is the equivalent of one start, giving the low era 639 starts and the medium era 953 starts. But I’ll also take a look at it assigning just 1 IP per relief appearance.
I then formed low era to medium era ratios for games started, # of pitches thrown, and innings pitched:

Games started ratio:.894
Pitches ratio:.878
Innings ratio:.847

So what we see here is that the lower number of pitches thrown in the modern era is a nearly perfect match for the lower number of games started. Another way to look at it is by looking at pitches per game started. In the modern low-era, it’s 118 p/gs; in the medium era it’s 120 p/gs. The gap is a bit lower if we use the expanded pitch count estimator.

So maybe pitchers are what they used to be after all
In the last few years, we’ve been debating pitch count limits as they apply to pitches in a game. This clearly shows that it’s not that starters aren’t worked as hard on average, it’s that they’re getting fewer starts. The culprit for lower seasonal pitch totals is not enforcing in-game pitch limits, it’s that the orthodoxy of the 5-man rotation has led to fewer starts and naturally fewer innings and fewer pitches in a season.
Note, if we limit relief appearances to 1 inning, the gap widens but not hugely. The pitches/gs would still be 118 for the low era but is up to 122 in the medium era. The games started ratio is up to .91, the pitches ratio (counting starts only) is up to .885, and the innings ratio is up to .853.
We see however that the innings ratio is a good bit lower than the games started and innings pitched ratios. Treder downplays the notion that pitching today is more stressful, but I think this does show that pitchers have to work a bit harder to get through an inning now. Using these top starter numbers numbers, the average inning in the low-era is 15.8 pitches and in the medium-era 15.2, or about 4 extra pitches per 7 innings.
These are small differences, but small differences can add up. Using the pitches per inning numbers, 118 modern pitches are the equivalent in IP to about 113 pitches in the earlier period. The difference between those 113 pitches and the 120-122 that earlier pitchers threw is about half an inning. Half an inning per start is 81 IP per year for the team, or the equivalent of one reliever. Note about half that difference is due to the larger number of pitches per inning.
These differences are about the same if we look beyond the league-leaders. The gap in pitches per game started actually appears to widen slightly as you move towards the “typical” starter. If we look at the mean pitches per game started for pitchers with 25+ starts in each era, the gap is 107 to 102. With the difference in pitches per inning, this still adds up to about half an inning. And here too, the increase in pitches per inning is responsible for about half of that difference.
I think we can all agree that today’s pitchers could handle another 2 to 5 pitches per start. But that’s not really the source of the “problem” that Treder is concerned with. The questions are: (1) can we reduce the number of pitches per inning and (2) can we get rid of the 5th starter?

The missing piece
The underlying question is whether high pitch totals lead to injuries. Treder doesn’t have the data to look at this (neither do I and as far as I know no one has a good historical database of either actual pitch counts or injuries). Unfortunately, this doesn’t keep him from claiming that pitchers of yesteryear were no more likely to be injured than today. There are no data presented to support or contradict this view. And keep in mind that we are talking about very small sample sizes in this study – even if there is something like a 10% difference in injury rate between high and low pitch count eras, that’s an injury here or an injury there. We should not rely on our observation to be able to detect such small differences (not that this will stop me).
More importantly, as the above shows, the differences in seasonal pitch counts across eras are the function of fewer starts not in-game pitch limits. As such, this study adds little or nothing to the current debate about in-game limits.
However, bearing in mind the caveats above, his study might shed some light on whether the use of 5th starters has reduced injury risk. So let’s look more closely at the data that Steve does present and a specific injury claims he makes. I’ve kept Treder’s designation of the medium era (1946-1969), but it’s clear that the low era goes back to at least 1984. Note, this “helps” his point as it moves Fernando Valenzuela’s injury into the low era.
I’m going to ignore the high era. First, after omitting 1981 due to the strike, it’s only 13 seasons long. Second, knuckleballers Wilbur Wood and Phil Niekro led the league 5 times. Steve Carlton led the league three times at ages 35, 37, and 38 – long after we care about impacts on long-term health. Add two seasons by super-freak Nolan Ryan and this really isn’t an interesting group of pitchers for our purposes. Finally, neither Treder nor I consider a return to this type of pitcher usage to be likely.
In discussing the low era, Treder notes that only 3 of the league leaders over this 24-year period had their careers ended by major arm injuries. However, in those 24 seasons, there are only 15 different pitchers that led the league (no knuckleballers as far as I know). 3 out of 15 isn’t that high, but it’s higher than 3 out of 24 makes it sound.
The three pitchers cited are Sandy Koufax, Vern Bickford, and Denny McLain. Koufax was finished after his age 30 season. McLain essentially finished after his age 25 season and completely finished after age 28. Bickford didn’t make the majors until age 27, had his big year at age 29 (312 IP), but then threw just 165 and 161 IP the next two years then had just 62 IP over two seasons.

However, Steve leaves out Don Drysdale who was done at age 31 (he pitched 62 IP at age 32 with an ERA+ of 75). According to dondrysdale.com this was due to a torn rotator cuff.
He also skips over Johnny Sain, who led the league in 1948 with 4,757 pitches (315 IP and an ERA+ of 147). He did follow that with a more than respectable 243 IP, but an ERA+ of just 79. He had his last season over 200 IP in 1950 at age 32. Sain’s career consists of a great 1946-1948 stretch and a nice 1953 as a swingman. In short, he was not the same after 1948.
Robin Roberts could be another. He remained a durable starter, but he was a much less effective pitcher after age 28, which was his last of 4 seasons leading the league in pitches. Bob Feller also was not the same pitcher after age 30.

So the tally of “diminished careers” could go as high as 7 out of the 15 pitchers.
Potentially more interesting, 12 pitchers in this era led the league at least once before the age of 30. Four of those 12 had their careers essentially end by age 32 (Koufax, Drysdale, McLain, Bickford) and Robin Roberts was durable but less effective after age 28 and Bob Feller was both less durable and less effective after age 30. None of the twelve had a good late career, though Bob Friend certainly has nothing to be ashamed of.

Is that Typical?
Of course lots of pitchers don’t make it past age 32 and lots more decline in their 30s (of course most pitchers aren’t Hall of Fame caliber like Koufax, Drysdale, McLain, Feller and Roberts clearly were). Is there any evidence that the eras are different in this regard?
Without an historical database of injuries, that’s impossible to answer with certainty. I hope to follow this piece up with another that tries to find a proxy for injury and thereby analyze data beyond this small sample. But for now, we are limited. Note that no matter what we do, we’ll always have the problem that injuries that used to end careers often no longer do. Another problem is that teams carry more pitchers, so it’s probably easier for older, declining pitchers to hang on. Expansion might have had a similar effect, but I think the talent pool has expanded at least as much as the total number of roster spots.
The most obvious thing to do is to look at the low era (1984-2003, dropping the strike years). Ignoring Charlie Hough because he’s a knuckleballer and Roy Halladay because it’s too soon to tell, eight pitchers have led the league in this time. Six of them (Roger Clemens, Mike Moore, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, Fernando Valenzuela, Pat Hentgen) did so before 30. None of those pitchers had their careers end by age 32. Valenzuela and Hentgen had severe arm problems and were pretty much finished by that age. Kevin Brown has a reputation for being injury prone, but he was in fact quite durable and effective until age 36 (note, he wasn’t a really good pitcher until age 30). Mike Moore was never consistently effective (before or after) but he was durable through age 33 and pitched through age 35.
Given the sample size, we can’t say anything with certainty. Clearly the differences aren’t huge and open to interpretation, but I’d argue that the 5th starter era is the better of the two. All of the latter pitchers survived past 32 and 2-3 of them have had very successful late careers (depending on how you feel about Brown).

Of course, you can argue that the eras are equal by considering Hentgen and Valenzuela similar to, say, Bickford and Drysdale. Clemens and Johnson both had seasons with arm trouble. And I would argue that even if there is a difference, there’s no reason to ascribe it to having fewer starts – there are too many potentially confounding variables.

Does this have any implications for the in-game pitch count controversy?
As I noted, Treder’s focus is on the historical trend, which is perfectly proper. As such, it doesn’t address research done (and unsubstantiated claims made) the last few years by Baseball Prospectus. However, James’ and Malcolm’s focus was on research done by Baseball Prospectus. And Treder’s research gives us one interesting insight here.
All disciplines eventually become more focused on their internal squabbles than on the subject they originally formed to study. An important finding in Steve’s analysis is that the current low seasonal pitch count trend began in 1984, twenty years ago. This was long before anyone came up with PAP. And unless there was some secret sabermetric revolution 20 years ago, the move to low seasonal pitch counts was the result of “old school” thinking (or “new old school” thinking).
So while there’s much to criticize in BP’s work on pitch counts, it was folks like Whitey Herzog, Tony LaRussa, Chuck Tanner, etc. who created the low seasonal pitch count environment.
The current debate on pitcher injuries has centered around the impact that high pitch count games have on starters. The most controversial has been Baseball Prospectus’ “PAP”, “PAP3”, and “stress”. Leaving aside Prospectus’ methods, claims, etc. can seasonal pitch counts help us evaluate the impact of these measures?

PAP was based on raw pitch counts. As such, seasonal pitch counts and/or pitches per start probably correlate well with PAP and might be useful as a proxy to test whether higher PAP is associated with higher injury risk. However, even Prospectus has junked PAP.
PAP3 is a non-linear function intended or claimed to measure an increasing impact as the in-game pitch count climbs higher – e.g such that pitch 115 is more potentially harmful than pitch 114.
It is defined as:
(# pitches – 100)/3
Prospectus showed that a single game with very high PAP3 led to a small, short-term decline in effectiveness.
In that same article, they introduced “stress” which they defined as PAP3 divided by the total number of pitches, both summed over some period of time (they used career-to-date in the article). They showed that high stress pitchers were more likely to suffer an injury of at least one month (though they provided no significance test).
Unfortunately, seasonal pitch counts cannot be used to capture the non-linear nature of PAP3 or stress. Even if we calculate pitches per start, that’s not a good proxy for PAP3. For example, 30 starts of exactly 110 pitches each is equal to 30,000 points of PAP3; 15 starts of 120 pitches and 15 starts of 100 pitches produces the same mean of 110 pitches per start, but 120,000 PAP3 points.
“Stress” complicates things further.
If a low era starter has 30 starts of exactly 110 pitches each, his stress score for that season is about 9 (30,000 PAP3 divided by 3,300 pitches). If a medium era starter has 35 starts of exactly 110 pitches each, his stress score for that season is about 9 (35,000 PAP3 divided by 3,850 pitches). If Prospectus is correct, there’s no reason to expect that first starter to have a lower injury rate.
If we had found substantially different values for mean pitches per start across eras, it would be highly likely that the low era pitchers had lower values of stress and therefore we could use differences in injury rates to assess Prospectus’ finding. But we have very similar mean pitches per start in the low and high era, so there’s no immediate reason to think that one era had higher “stress” than the other.
Note, there are reasons to suspect that, even with similar pitches per start, medium era pitchers had more high pitch starts. They had more complete games, suggesting more high pitch count games. If that’s so, to maintain the same mean, they must have also had more low pitch-count games. As we saw above, between two pitchers with the same number of pitches per start, the one with more high pitch starts will have the higher PAP3. But we can’t know this nor its magnitude or impact on “stress” without game-by-game pitch count data.

Treder is analyzing the historical change to 5th starters (i.e.the reduction in the number of starts among the very top pitchers) not an historical change in pitches per start. He advocates for pitcher usage more similar to that medium era.
In conclusion, let me note that Rany Jazayerli, who came up with the idea of “pitcher abuse points”, is an advocate of a return to a “4-man” rotation – i.e. more starts for your best starters. The data in Treder’s article suggest that if today’s top starters returned to starting 38-40 games a year, they’d throw as many total pitches as their forebears.
This suggests that “both sides” agree that a return to at least the 1946-70 era is possible.

Walt Davis Posted: August 10, 2004 at 02:13 AM | 24 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Darren Posted: August 10, 2004 at 03:03 AM (#787328)

more cowbell.

Sorry. It was a nice article Walt. As always, well-thought-out and well-researched.

   2. Danny Posted: August 10, 2004 at 06:36 AM (#787467)

That seems to be an extreme case. Randy Johnson was estimated to throw 4,116 in 2002 but actually threw 3,996, a gap of 120 pitches or about 3.5 pitches per start. And in 2001, the estimator underestimates Johnson’s total by 58 pitches.  That’s as far back as ESPN goes.

Prospectus has season pitch totals on their PAP pages dating back to 1988, when Dave Stewart led the league with 4337 pitches.

   3. kcboomer Posted: August 10, 2004 at 03:11 PM (#787694)

The key in all of this pitch count stuff is we still haven’t figured out the best way or even a good way to limit pitcher injuries. I can’t see anyway in which a pitcher can develop arm strength without throwing the ball which is the very act that injures the arm.

   4. Loren F. Posted: August 10, 2004 at 04:22 PM (#787816)

Perhaps the upshot is that in-game pitch count is exactly the wrong thing to look at. The best way to wring more value out of a team’s one or two best starters is to have them start two or three more games per season.

Ironically, I suspect that if a team were to attempt giving its Durable Ace 37 starts, it would try to mitigate the extra workload by paying closer attention to in-game pitch counts—i.e., they’d shoot for the Ace going 7 innings per game in 37 games rather than 7.7 innings per game in 33 games.

   5. Human Papelbon Virus Posted: August 11, 2004 at 01:30 PM (#789589)

Ironically, I suspect that if a team were to attempt giving its Durable Ace 37 starts, it would try to mitigate the extra workload by paying closer attention to in-game pitch counts—i.e., they’d shoot for the Ace going 7 innings per game in 37 games rather than 7.7 innings per game in 33 games.

What I think is missing from pitch count analysis is the advantage managers and coaches have of knowing each pitcher.

Did anyone see the “Outside the Lines” last year with Will Carroll, Leo Mazzone, and someone else (can’t remember who right now)?

Leo basically said pitch counts were one resource, but that the Braves based their decisions more on what they actually saw as opposed to the actual number of pitch counts. Pitching coaches know their pitchers’ mechanics very well. They can tell when the pitcher is tired, when the mechanics fall out of whack, when a pitcher is susceptible to arm injury. This trumps any method of simply taking pitch count and nothing else into consideration.

Why haven’t the Braves or some other team attempted to throw their best pitchers on less rest? That’s a good question, one that I wish I could ask Mazzone. Perhaps he feels that, with his program of throwing on off-days, that pitchers are more effective with 4 days rest. Maybe the Braves in the past have had to push pitchers’ starts up one day and didn’t like what they saw with less rest.

Pitch counts have a limit to their usefulness. I think at some point we need to start trusting some managers and pitching coaches. I know I trust that Cox and Mazzone are doing what experience has taught them to be the best for their staff.

   6. Slinger Francisco Barrios (Dr. Memory) Posted: August 11, 2004 at 03:15 PM (#789731)

Whitey Herzog, Tony LaRussa, Chuck Tanner, etc. who created the low seasonal pitch count environment.

One major “etc.” who I think deserves mention is Sparky Anderson, a.k.a. Captain Hook.  Not that Anderson wasn’t flexible, but if he didn’t have the horses, he was more than willing to do the bullpen-by-committee; he crafted the first ones of which I’m aware for his early-70s Reds teams.

   7. Mike Emeigh Posted: August 11, 2004 at 07:47 PM (#790281)

Why haven’t the Braves or some other team attempted to throw their best pitchers on less rest?

Maybe because there’s really no net benefit to the team for doing so? (See comments on previous Treder threads.)

—MWE

   8. Human Papelbon Virus Posted: August 11, 2004 at 08:43 PM (#790374)

Maybe because there’s really no net benefit to the team for doing so? (See comments on previous Treder threads.)

I kind of answered my own question in the same paragraph. The Treder threads have been great discussion.

   9. Walt Davis Posted: August 11, 2004 at 10:05 PM (#790481)

I’m sorry the article didn’t format better—there were supposed to be line breaks in between paragraphs.

One major “etc.” who I think deserves mention is Sparky Anderson, a.k.a. Captain Hook. Not that Anderson wasn’t flexible, but if he didn’t have the horses, he was more than willing to do the bullpen-by-committee; he crafted the first ones of which I’m aware for his early-70s Reds teams.

Just FYI, my list wasn’t meant to be a list of the managers I thought were actually responsible, it was just a list of managers around at the time of the change.

Prospectus has season pitch totals on their PAP pages dating back to 1988, when Dave Stewart led the league with 4337 pitches.

Thanks Danny, I just found out these data were available yesterday.  I hope to have time to see what I can do with them.

The key in all of this pitch count stuff is we still haven’t figured out the best way or even a good way to limit pitcher injuries. I can’t see anyway in which a pitcher can develop arm strength without throwing the ball which is the very act that injures the arm.

Well, this pitch count stuff is about trying to figure out what leads to injuries. 

As to your second point, it could be it’s like weighlifting—throwing a certain number of pitches builds strength, but going too far in one session and/or doing it without sufficient rest in-between sessions is counterproductive.  Or maybe not.

Perhaps the upshot is that in-game pitch count is exactly the wrong thing to look at. The best way to wring more value out of a team’s one or two best starters is to have them start two or three more games per season.

Ironically, I suspect that if a team were to attempt giving its Durable Ace 37 starts, it would try to mitigate the extra workload by paying closer attention to in-game pitch counts—i.e., they’d shoot for the Ace going 7 innings per game in 37 games rather than 7.7 innings per game in 33 games.

As noted in the article, Rany Jazayerli (Mr. PAP) advocates a return to the “4-man” rotation.  The early 90 Braves actually did this fairly regularly—the top starters got about 35-37 starts each and the #5 guy got about 18-20.  I think that’s quite doable.

The change these last few years has been a move away from a 5-day rotation as those Braves teams did to a far more strict 5-man rotation.  The 2003 Mariners were pretty much unique in that they only used 5 starting pitchers all year.  They also had the “perfect” 33/33/32/32/32 distribution of starts.  Using a strict 5-day rotation, without looking at their schedule, I suspect they would have needed maybe 25-27 starts from their #5.  Using a more aggressive approach where occasionally their top starters went on 3-days rest, I suspect they could have gotten him down around 18-20.

I think the historical record gives us a good indication that pitchers could, from a physical standpoint, return to making more starts per season, if not necessarily the 70s usage patterns.  Whether that would be a good idea from the performance/value perspective is another question.

   10. Walt Davis Posted: August 11, 2004 at 10:08 PM (#790485)

Leo basically said pitch counts were one resource, but that the Braves based their decisions more on what they actually saw as opposed to the actual number of pitch counts. Pitching coaches know their pitchers’ mechanics very well. They can tell when the pitcher is tired, when the mechanics fall out of whack, when a pitcher is susceptible to arm injury. This trumps any method of simply taking pitch count and nothing else into consideration.

I think everyone agrees it’s more than straight, simple pitch counts.  But I’m not willing to put this much faith in pitching coaches.  You hear this a lot—his mechanics were still good, his fastball was still the same speed, etc.

I’d suggest that if you wait until a pitcher is so fatigued that his mechanics are off or his fastball is down 5 MPH, you’ve already waited too long—from a performance standpoint!  And it probably isn’t any good for his health either.

And think too about how often you, I, and even morons like Rob Dibble notice that a pitcher’s arm angle has dropped and he’s leaving the ball up in the zone, but the pitching coach is nowhere to be seen until 3 runs are on the board.

Now Leo Mazzone’s got a stellar (though hardly perfect) track record and I’m happy to “trust” him (exactly what I’m trusting him to do I’m not sure).  Jeff Torborg has an awful track record and I don’t trust him at all, and I betcha he and his pitching coaches have said the same things.

We can also say this—whatever special insight pitching coaches have hasn’t kept pitchers from getting hurt.  A select few pitching coaches might indeed have this ability, but it seems that most pitching coaches could use a good bit of help in reducing pitcher injuries.

Whether pitch counts will provide much help remains to be seen.

And if you don’t buy that (or you do), let me expand on a point from the article:  No matter what you think about pitch counts, it’s irrefutable that today’s pitchers throw fewer pitches; the last few years at least has seen a decline in high pitch-count starts; most organizations put their minor-league pitchers on pitch limits.  These decisions were made by the GMs, farm directors, managers, and coaches that you say know better.

So either they know so much that they came to the same conclusion as pitch count limit advocates without the benefit of research;

or they know so much that they thought the ideas put forward by the pitch count limit advocates made sense;

or they don’t know what they’re doing and were either dumb enough to believe pitch count research or they stumbled onto a good idea by accident.

So aren’t we left with one of 3 options: (a) agree with coaches that pitch count limits are a good idea; (b) agree with bonehead statheads that pitching coaches are idiots; (c) both (a) and (b).

No matter what, at least I’m half-right. :-)

I know I trust that Cox and Mazzone are doing what experience has taught them to be the best for their staff.

Even assuming they do know how to reduce injuries, the key word there is “experience”.  How many pitchers get hurt on that road to knowledge?  Similarly, how do managers/coaches really know who can handle the high workload until they throw them out there and see who survives?

Assuming somebody ever comes up with a model that helps predict injury, I’m happy to assume it would be of little use to Leo Mazzone at this stage in his career, but I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t useful to a young pitching coach.

FYI, not all the years of Prospectus stats are up yet, but here’s the Braves ML rank in category IV or higher starts (122+ pitches) for the available years:

1993 11
1994 12
1995 9
1996 9
1997 3
1998 16 (many-way tie)
1999 missing
2000 29

They topped out at 25 in 97, most seasons before that were in the 18-21 range.  The highest number of category V starts (134+) was 7 in 94.  They had 0 in 98 and 2 in 00.

Mazzone may rely on observation not pitch count, but it seems to lead to pretty much the same place.

   11. Human Papelbon Virus Posted: August 11, 2004 at 10:41 PM (#790522)

I think everyone agrees it’s more than straight, simple pitch counts. But I’m not willing to put this much faith in pitching coaches. You hear this a lot—his mechanics were still good, his fastball was still the same speed, etc.

Didn’t mean to convey that it was simply straight simple pitch counts. Just trying to highlight the discrepancy between counting and observation.

By the way, I have NEVER heard a statement such as “his mechanics were still good, his fastball was still the same speed, etc.” Maybe I just don’t listen.

We can also say this—whatever special insight pitching coaches have hasn’t kept pitchers from getting hurt. A select few pitching coaches might indeed have this ability, but it seems that most pitching coaches could use a good bit of help in reducing pitcher injuries.

Anyone who engages in any physical activity at any level is aware that there is physical risk involved. There is always going to be some injury, no matter how good the pitching coach or the mechanics. Pitching coaches will never keep pitchers from getting hurt, but they should do what they can to minimize the risk of injury by pulling pitchers when they are not throwing with their normal mechanics. This is where I think observation is superior to pitch counts.

Even assuming they do know how to reduce injuries, the key word there is “experience”. How many pitchers get hurt on that road to knowledge? Similarly, how do managers/coaches really know who can handle the high workload until they throw them out there and see who survives?

The same question can be asked about pitch count data. As long as we continue to look at historical data, the only way we can determine upper limits is via injury. How will sabermetricians know what types of pitchers can handle the high workloads until they are thrown out there to see who survives?

</i>Assuming somebody ever comes up with a model that helps predict injury, I’m happy to assume it would be of little use to Leo Mazzone at this stage in his career, but I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t useful to a young pitching coach.</i>

True. I have to believe that any good model will include observation and pitcher feedback as opposed to pure numbers. Those are things you can only get in the dugout.

Mazzone may rely on observation not pitch count, but it seems to lead to pretty much the same place.

The same place? Wow, I am really interpreting that data much differently than you are. It looks to me like they are able to adjust year to year based on their staff. I don’t think a team that went by pitch count analysis would show this much y-t-y variation. To me it appears that going by observation they dont lock themselves in to a set pattern each year irregardless of their pitchers.

   12. CoachAdams Posted: August 11, 2004 at 10:48 PM (#790529)

Pitch count limits do not limit injuries.  Last time I checked the PAP list, Guardado, Karsay, Mantei, Nen, Wagner and Williamson weren’t listed, yet all have experienced serious injuries to the elbow or shoulder.  I wonder what pitch count limits they were on? 

The answer to the question “why are pitchers getting hurt” can’t be found by analyzing numbers.  It can only be found by analyzing mechanics; it’s not how many pitches are thrown, it’s how they are thrown.  Pitchers who employ poor mechanics to deliver a baseball at maximum intensity are at risk, regardless of their usage.

   13. Steve Treder Posted: August 11, 2004 at 11:14 PM (#790564)

It would probably be decent of me to say here what I said to Walt in an email earlier this week:  I congratulate him on his predictably excellent work.  I’m delighted by his interest.

   14. Harold can be a fun sponge Posted: August 11, 2004 at 11:36 PM (#790617)

A couple nit-picks on Walt’s summaries of PAP/PAP3:

PAP and PAP3 are very similar in construction, in that both are non-linear measures of pitches beyond 100.  PAP is basically quadratic (pitches 101-110 are worth 1 “point”, 111-120 are 2 “points”, 121-130 3 “points” and so on).  PAP3 is cubic: (pitches-100)^3.  I know Walt knows this, but it just didn’t show up properly in the article.

   15. Ozzie's gay friend Posted: August 12, 2004 at 08:38 AM (#791915)

needs more cowbell

   16. Walt Davis Posted: August 12, 2004 at 06:11 PM (#792749)

By the way, I have NEVER heard a statement such as “his mechanics were still good, his fastball was still the same speed, etc.” Maybe I just don’t listen.

Really?  It seems to me it’s been pretty common these last few years.  Of course it only gets pulled out when some reporter has the gall to ask a manager why he left someone in the game after X pitches, which is not a particularly common reporter question.

Pitch count limits do not limit injuries. Last time I checked the PAP list, Guardado, Karsay, Mantei, Nen, Wagner and Williamson weren’t listed, yet all have experienced serious injuries to the elbow or shoulder. I wonder what pitch count limits they were on?

No offense coach, but you’re showing a common misunderstanding here.  The fact that some low pitch-count pitchers get hurt does not mean that pitch-count limits aren’t effective.  Not all smokers get lung cancer, some non-smokers do get lung cancer, but your odds of getting lung cancer are much higher if you smoke.  Pitch counts pretty clearly aren’t as big a factor in pitcher injury as smoking is in cancer, but the mere existence of injuries among low pitch-count pitchers doesn’t invalidate the claim.

If for some reason you still don’t buy that, look at it this way if you want—the more pitches thrown by a guy with poor mechanics, the more damage he does; the more pitches thrown by a guy with good mechanics, the more damage he does.  If you control for mechanics, pitch counts matter; if you control for pitch counts, mechanics matter.  If you don’t control for anything when looking at mechanics or pitch counts, they’ll give you a muddled picture.

No one is saying that pitch counts are the only factor.  Heck, no one should be saying with certainty that pitch counts matter at all.  Also no one I’m aware of is claiming that results found in a sample of starters can be applied to relievers.

But to expand on this, you write: Pitchers who employ poor mechanics to deliver a baseball at maximum intensity are at risk, regardless of their usage.

No one is saying otherwise.  Being overweight is one risk factor for heart disease; smoking is another risk factor for heart disease.  Overweight people are at risk, regardless of their smoking habits.  Starters who throw too many pitches may be at risk regardless of their mechanics.  Pitchers with bad mechanics may be at risk regardless of their pitch counts.  The mix of bad mechanics with lots of pitches could be worst of all.

There’s no reason to think it’s only one of these things.

Finally, if it is just mechanics, then why are pitching coaches not fixing these guys’ mechanics?

And of course, limiting guys with poor mechanics to relieving might well be a way of reducing their injury risk via lower pitch counts. 

Note given how often they may pitch and warm up in a season and given that relievers tend to have both higher walk and strikeout rates, I’m not sure that, say, 3 relief appearances is that much different than a start in terms of pitch count.  Who knows what’s the case, but I see no reason to assume that relieving three straight days or 4 days out of 5 isn’t similar to a long start.

PAP and PAP3 are very similar in construction, in that both are non-linear measures of pitches beyond 100. PAP is basically quadratic (pitches 101-110 are worth 1 “point”, 111-120 are 2 “points”, 121-130 3 “points” and so on). PAP3 is cubic: (pitches-100)^3. I know Walt knows this, but it just didn’t show up properly in the article.

Actually no, I’d forgotten.  I thought PAP was just #pitches - 100.

   17. Walt Davis Posted: August 12, 2004 at 07:03 PM (#793046)

Let me follow up on my reply to coach with a purely theoretical example.  This is not meant to be “realistic”, just illustrative of what _might_ be going on.

Let’s assume the following.  Pitchers have bad, average, or good mechanics.  Let’s assume that each of those makes a linear contribution to the probability of being injured.  So bad mechanics are worth .15, average mechanics are worth .10, and good mechanics are worth only .05.

Pitchers have low, moderate, or high pitch counts.  Making the same linear assumption, low pitch counts contribute .05, average ones .10, and high ones .15.

We have a possible 9 combinations of mechanics and pitch counts and we can calculate the injury chances for each of them.  For example, pitchers with bad mechanics but moderate workload would have a .25 probability of getting hurt (.15 for bad mechanics, .10 for moderate workload).  Your “average” pitcher has a .20 chance of getting hurt.

Assume we have 90 pitchers and they are equally distributed among those 9 combinations (also meaning each row is 30 pitchers, each column is 30 pitchers).  We’d have the following table of # of expected injuries per cell:

——————Mechanics————————
———bad———avg——-good——-total (%)
low …….2……………1.5…………..1………….4.5 (15%)
mod…….2.5………….2…………….1.5…………6 (20%)
high…….3……………2.5…………..2………….7.5 (25%)

In that sort of world, even though both pitch counts and mechanics matter, it should be easy to detect different injury rates by pitch count even without controlling for mechanics.

But that assumes that pitch counts and mechanics are independent of one another (i.e. pitchers er evenly distributed among cells).  Assume instead that pitching coaches limit pitchers with bad mechanics.  It could be they limit them out of concern for their health, but it also could be that pitchers with bad mechanics will tire more easily and start getting hit hard and so are usually pulled from the game before getting to a high pitch count.  So let’s assume that 20 of 30 bad mechanics pitchers have low pitch counts, 10 have moderate pitch counts, and 0 have high pitch counts.  Let’s assume that average mechanics pitchers are still evenly distributed.  Good mechanics pitchers are never low count, 10 are moderate count and 20 are high count.

Remember, mechanics have the same impact on injury as before; pitch counts have the same impact on injury as before.  The only thing that’s changed is that we’ve introduced an association (a very strong one) between mechanics and pitch counts.  Here’s that same table.  Each row and column still represents 30 pitchers, but there are no longer 10 pitchers in each cell:

——————Mechanics————————
———bad———avg——-good——-total (%)
low …….4……………1.5…………..0………….5.5 (18.3%)
mod…….2.5………….2…………….1.5…………6 (20%)
high…….0……………2.5…………..4………….6.5 (217%)

Now we’re talking a very small difference.  With a sample of 90 pitchers (about one season’s worth of qualified starters), on average we’d see just one more injury in the high vs. low pitch count comparison, something which obviously could be easily masked due to randomness.  If we looked only at pitch counts without controlling for mechanics, we might well conclude that pitch counts matter little if at all.

Note, we’d be led to the same conclusion about mechanics – the bad group has 6.5 injuries and the good group 5.5.

Mechanics may have a much larger impact than pitch counts do.  And that makes finding pitch count differences harder.  In fact, if you double the contribution of mechanics in that second example (i.e. p(injury for bad mechanics)=.30, etc.), you’ll actually find a lower number of injuries in high pitch count pitchers even though high pitch count pitchers are 3 times more likely to be injured than low count ones, controlling for mechanics.  Or I made a small math error.

So in all these examples, you would reduce injury risk by limiting pitch counts.  But if we looked at it only controlling for pitch counts, we’d likely miss it except in the first case where the distribution of pitch counts and mechanics are independent.

Of course the relationship between mechanics and pitch counts is surely neither as strong nor as weak as in the above examples.

(Note, nobody models risk in the linear way that I assumed here, but similar principles hold and this is a lot easier to explain).

   18. CoachAdams Posted: August 12, 2004 at 11:01 PM (#793863)

The fact that some low pitch-count pitchers get hurt does not mean that pitch-count limits aren’t effective. Not all smokers get lung cancer, some non-smokers do get lung cancer, but your odds of getting lung cancer are much higher if you smoke. Pitch counts pretty clearly aren’t as big a factor in pitcher injury as smoking is in cancer, but the mere existence of injuries among low pitch-count pitchers doesn’t invalidate the claim.

Let’s say you knew that introducing tobacco smoke into the lungs causes lung cancer, but you feel it is the quantity of the smoke that is really the cause of the problem.  To prove this, you invoke a 15-per-day limit on those in your company who smoke and you analyze the results. You later determine that the people who smoked more than 15 per day are slightly more likely to get lung cancer than those who smoked 10-15 per day.  However, your analysis indicates that even those who smoke 3-4 cigarettes every other day are getting cancer, at nearly the same rate as those in the 10-15 per day rate.  Wouldn’t you re-think your postulate that it’s the quantity of smoke to blame and re-focus on the act itself?  I think I would.

Finally, if it is just mechanics, then why are pitching coaches not fixing these guys’ mechanics?

Pitching coaches are baby sitters.  Have you seen Bull Durham?  “Candlestick holders make a nice gift.”  I’m afraid that’s about the extent of the ‘instruction’ they get.

And of course, limiting guys with poor mechanics to relieving might well be a way of reducing their injury risk via lower pitch counts.

It sure worked for John Smoltz didn’t it? And Matt Mantei, Rob Nen, Eddie Guardado, Scott Williamson, Brian Harvey and Rob Dibble.

It’s not the number of cigarettes, it’s the smoke.

   19. Darren Posted: August 14, 2004 at 12:44 AM (#796291)

Coach, it’s also the number, as you indicate.

According to your metaphor, the best solution is for no one to pitch. That’s not going to work.

It sure worked for John Smoltz didn’t it? And Matt Mantei, Rob Nen, Eddie Guardado, Scott Williamson, Brian Harvey and Rob Dibble.

This is the same thing that you did before. Making a list of names does not prove anything. Watch: Keith Foulke, Rollie Fingers, Jeff Reardon, Lee Smith. See, even though all of those guys have been pretty healthy as relievers, you’re still not convinced, are you?

   20. Chris Dial Posted: August 14, 2004 at 08:09 PM (#797662)

That’s the problem -

Pitching tears up arms. 

It doesn’t have to be either bad mechanics or high pitch counts.  It’s just the arm itself.

Some fool has it right - the only solution is don’t pitch. 

Since that isn’t an option, the solution is keep the number of pitches reasonable (I’d go with 125 myself, but tempered with experience).

I think pitch count limits are a terrible thing when they are invoked at 100 pitches.

I think pitch counts should be used as a signal - okay, that’s 105 pitches, keep a closer eye on his mechanics, and have someone ready. 

If he never struggles, then I don’t give a rat’s arse if he throws 130 pitches (as long as he’s over 23).

   21. Human Papelbon Virus Posted: August 15, 2004 at 03:29 AM (#798482)

Since that isn’t an option, the solution is keep the number of pitches reasonable (I’d go with 125 myself, but tempered with experience).

It seems everyone has a slightly different viewpoint on this, but here’s my take…

Yes, pitching is going to cause fatigue and stress which could lead to an arm injury. When you have managers and pitching coaches in the position to watch a pitcher throw every day and learn his mechanics and factor in all of the variables unique to each game (temperature, short vs. long innings, types of pitches thrown each game, how the pitcher feels that day, how the pitcher threw in between starts, etc.), it makes much more sense to allow them to make determinations based on what they see and what they know instead of going by a pitch count limit.

Just saying “he must be taken out before throwing X number of pitches” fails to take the above factors into account.

So basically I agree with you Chris - pitch counts can be useful to prepare for the remainder of the game. If a pitcher gets over 100 pitches, you might expect to need a reliever soon.

But for outsiders to consider a model for pitcher usage and injury prevention using pitch counts to be superior to firsthand knowledge of the above factors is silly, IMO. Just have to hope your team has a quality pitching coach.

   22. Walt Davis Posted: August 18, 2004 at 03:32 PM (#804053)

Just saying “he must be taken out before throwing X number of pitches” fails to take the above factors into account.

But nobody is really saying this.  OK, maybe BP in their worse moments.

To engage in risk management, you have to understand what the risk of each action is.  To make the type of decision in your scenario, the manager has to weigh the risk of extending his pitcher’s pitch count against the other risks.  This is impossible without knowing what the risk of 127 pitches is ... not to mention the risk of temperature, short vs long, etc. that you seem to think managers and pitching coaches actually know.

On the one hand, coach is telling us that pitching coaches are nothing more than baby sitters and on the other hand you’re telling us that they are able to integrate 16 different long-term and short-term risk factors and optimize their decisions.

But fine, assume you’re correct about managers and coaches.  Managers and coaches have been reducing starter innings and total pitch counts for 20 years.  They have gotten rid of the complete game.  For at least the last 5, they have been greatly reducing the incidence of high pitch starts.

Leo Mazzone is the resident genius.  BP’s 2001 and 2002 data are missing, but in 2000, 2003, and so far in 2004, the Braves have had 4 category V starts and 13 category IV starts.

So the folks you trust to make these decisions have decided that you rarely let your starter go past 120 pitches and almost never past 130.

And it’s not just the Braves and their particular situation.  In 2000, only 7 of 30 teams even had as many as 4 category V starts and 4 teams had zero.  In 2003, only 1 team had 4 category V starts and 16 teams had zero.  (that was Montreal with 3 by Vazquez and one by Hernandez)  So far this year, no team has more than 2 and 24 teams have had zero.

So managers and coaches, whether they’re dumb baby sitters or genius risk managers, have decided that high pitch-count starts are a bad idea.

Probably just their response to increased risk due to global warming. :-)

   23. jonesy Posted: August 19, 2004 at 07:48 PM (#807118)

This an part of an actual article from a 1934 edition of the Boston Globe.

“Over in Japan a slant-eyed pitcher named Yoshida pulled off a performance that combined skill with astonishing endurance.  He was pitching his high school, Chukyo, to the championship of Japan.  On August 17, last year, he won a nine-inning 3-2 game.

“The next day he warmed up and won another, 2-0, yielding but two hits.  Nex day - tired? Not on your life - he pitched an won a game that went 25 innings, 1-0!  He stuck out 19 men and held the enemy to eight scattered hits.

“By this time you would think that Mr. Yoshida would take day off and rest that old arm - but no. His team had reached the final and was to play before 80,000 people of the school championship if the Empire.

“So Yoshida calmly walked to the mound and delivered a two-hit game to win the championship, 2-1.”

   24. Vaca Posted: August 25, 2004 at 02:07 PM (#817885)

One thing I notice is that many of the young innings pitched leaders who haven’t hurt themselves are primarily fastball pitchers:

Roger Clemens
Randy Johnson
Nolan Ryan
Steve Carlton

All had a curveball, but it wasn’t their primary pitch.

Incidentally, where do you get that Mike Moore led the league in innings?  He never did, according to baseballreference.com.  Closest was 4th in 1986.

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