Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"The Epic" Is Supposed to Refer to His Name, Not His Workload.

I know there’s a lot of topics I should cover since we last spoke, but first things first. 129 pitches? Really?

Even before the season began I was a little worried that Trey Hillman might bring with him, of all the philosophical differences between Japanese and American baseball, the one Japanese viewpoint that I disagree the most vehemently with: the cavalier attitude towards pitcher workloads. We’ve all heard the stories of how Daisuke Matsuzaka threw 250 pitches in leading his high school team to the Koshien championship, or how Matsuzaka and many other Japanese starters would be pulled from the game after throwing 140 pitches, only to go throw another 100 in a bullpen session immediately afterwards.

I’d like to think we’re a little more enlightened over here. We didn’t treat our pitchers that way when Hillman left for Japan 5 years ago, and we certainly don’t treat them that way today. But maybe Hillman missed the memo while he was gone.

In 1988, a starting pitcher threw more than 130 pitches in a game 211 times in the major leagues. In 2000, that number was down to 65. By 2004, it was 14.

Last year, it was zero.

Now, I’m not saying that a pitcher should never throw more than 130 pitches in a game, and frankly I’m surprised the pendulum has swung as far as it has the other way. A veteran pitcher, in a pennant race, in a tight game, with a shaky or overworked bullpen…there’s definitely a time and a place for 130+ pitches.

But in April? For a team that (realistically speaking) is unlikely to contend? It’s telling that, as David Boyce pointed out in the Star today, Meche had the highest pitch count of any Royals pitcher since July 28, 2001, three managers and a lifetime in the evolution of pitch counts ago.

That pitcher was Chad Durbin, who threw a complete game that day even though the Royals led 9-2 going into the ninth. Ah, the genius of Tony Muser. (The game I remember more than that one was the game on June 2nd, when Durbin was sent out to pitch the 8th in a 2-2 tie and gave up a single, a walk, and finally the deciding single on his 132nd and final pitch. What made that game so memorable was that the entire inning Denny Matthews was telling us how tired Durbin looked on the mound, how he was, in Denny’s words, “really fighting it.” Our radio announcer was a far better judge of pitcher fatigue than our manager, which summed the Royals up pretty well.)

It’s not a coincidence that Durbin, who was a well-regarded prospect and was in the Royals rotation at the age of 22, blew out his arm the next spring and took six years to re-emerge last season as a competent swingman. Now, Durbin probably never would have become anything more than a league-average innings-muncher even had he never been hurt. Jose Rosado, on the other hand, was a two-time All-Star by the time he was 24 when he was allowed to throw 120 pitches seven times in eight starts in the summer of 1999. When that streak started, Rosado had a 2.80 ERA in 15 starts; he would post a 4.71 ERA the rest of the season.

The next season he would gut out five starts in April despite pain in his shoulder; the Royals claimed they were monitoring it but refused to get an MRI (hey, they cost almost two grand a pop!) until, after his fifth start – which he won – the pain was so excruciating that he could not bear it any more. The MRI showed that he had basically destroyed his shoulder. He never threw another pitch in the majors.

So pardon us if we’re a little paranoid about the care of our starting pitchers, particularly one who is under contract for $11 million a year from now through 2011. Yes, I realize they do things a little different along the Pacific Rim. Some guys can handle it fine. You just said goodbye to Hideo Nomo, who was subject to a workload in Japan that bordered on criminal, and was still a great starting pitcher until he was 34 – when he lost his fastball overnight. (By the way, that was five years ago. I’m glad you finally noticed.) Some guys can’t. You might remember seeing Chin-Hui Tsao in camp this spring. Tsao was one of the best pitching prospects in baseball five years ago; now he’s struggling to make it out of Triple-A as a reliever. This might have something to do with it.

I realize I'm one of the leaders of the pitch count revolution, given that I've been writing about the subject for almost ten years. But I’m really not that concerned about one start, Trey. Meche is 29; his arm is fully-developed. He hasn’t had any major injury issues in six years. The Royals had a day off yesterday, so presumably he’ll get an extra day of rest before his next start. He had only thrown 83 pitches his last time out. Nunez and Soria had both pitched three days in a row, Ramirez had thrown two of the last three days, so maybe you asked Meche to gut it out in a close game rather than leave the game up to the bottom-feeders in the bullpen.

If that’s your rationale, I’m fine with it. If 129 pitches represents the rare confluence of a number of unusual factors, an anomaly that’s unlikely to be repeated any time soon, then I’m cool.

But I don’t know that for sure. (And my friends at the Star have not, to this point, asked you about it.) All I know is that, less than a month into your managerial career in North America, you let one of your most valuable commodities throw 129 pitches in an April game, the most pitches thrown by a starter in April since Curt Schilling threw 133 on April 25th, 2006. If you’re willing to do that in April, when most pitchers are still stretching out their arms and haven’t hit their mid-season stride, what are you going to do in July?

27 comments:

the Ascetic Sensualist said...

Sorry to post this so immediately, but I was actually at this game:

Orlando Hernandez did throw 130 pitches in a game at Pittsburgh last year. So, I guess nobody threw MORE than 130...but someone did throw 130.

Good points as usual.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Trey remembers what Billy Martin did to the Oakland A's starting pitchers and how many careers he shortened.

Your points are, as usual, right on.

Ryan said...

Thank you for addressing that pitch count. In April, for this Royals' team, it's unneeded.

I'm worried about Meche's mental state. I haven't seen him pitch, but I keep reading how he's angry and stomping around the mound.

Then on Sunday what does he do the first three batters?
Rios Triples.
Rios scores on a wild pitch.
Overbay flies out to right.
Rolen homers to left. (Rolen's first of the year.)

Meche settles down only gives up one more run for the rest of his 129 pitches. He is quoted by saying that he "needs more outings like that."

It doesn't sound like he was mentally ready to go at the top of the game and that the triple and wild pitch might have let him let Rolen go yard on him.

Meche needs to quit the stupid tantrums and pitch under control. He's not a 22 year old out there. He's a 29 year old veteran and he needs to act like it. Someone needs to buy him a copy of "The Mental Game of Baseball" and "The Mental Game of Pitching" and make him do some book reports.

Also the fact that he has the number 55, when he signed a $55 million contract with the Royals is moronic. Why would you remind yourself of that pressure every time you put on the uniform? Stupid.

Adrian said...

At least we didn't sign Meche for $126M. As far as I know, triple digits are not allowed.

Carson said...

Hopefully Bob McClure was there to mention it, because for all that time Trey was in Japan, Bob has been here. Bob deserves much credit for the improvements in the pitching staff, and I can't imagine he will stand by and watch Trey kill his pitchers.

Anonymous said...

You should have heard me ranting up and down the aisles while trying to sell peanuts. Meche had 109 pitches AT THE START of the 7th; I was SHOCKED when he came out to start the inning. Off day coming up, Peralta AND Gobble both hadn't pitched since the Thursday before, so there was an easy path for the last 3 innings without stressing ANYONE, starter or reliever.

WHAT WAS THE POINT? Meche is at 109, there is 3 innings to go, so more than likely Peralta and Gobble are BOTH going to pitch NO MATTER WHAT, even if you do miraculously squeeze another inning out of Meche.

WORST managerial decision by Hillman so far; unlike tactical decision errors, ones like this could set back the franchise for years.

Gary said...

Rany,

I’m not with you on this one. I think you have fixated on pitching and specifically on pitch counts to the detriment of your ability to rationally analyze the sport in general and the Royals in particular. For the first season in over a decade, pitching is at the bottom of the Royals list of things that need improvement. This year you have strained your journalistic back yanking the pendulum of support back and forth to the extremes. Makes me wonder where you’re coming from on everything you say now.

I am not a believer in pitch counts. While I don’t think the number of pitches to be thrown is infinity (and in fact think 130 is a really big number on one night) I likewise don’t think that another arbitrary number is likely to be correct for a given pitcher in a given game. 100 Seems to be the flavor of the month; why 100? Why not 129 or 109 if he gave an intentional walk?

While I am very pleased with the bullpen this year, we have our best pitchers in the rotation. Makes no sense to take them out when they can still throw stuff unless we know we are hurting them. Arbitrary pitch counts are as silly as not counting. Durban looks tired in the 9th? Pull him UNLESS a tired Durban is still your best bet. Grienke looks strong through 107 pitches? Send him out because a strong Grienke is better than anybody in your pen. Remember when the Royals couldn’t be trusted with anything less than 5 runs in the 7th and 3 runs in the 9th?

I personally like Hillman and think he is trying very hard to move this team from where they are to where they can compete. I think he is fighting the legacy of years of bad baseball in this town and is trying not to move so fast that he destroys the flimsy, but promising group of youngsters he inherited. I also think he is clinging to the few solid players he has and is trying to get everything he can out of them.

Your blog, but I would greatly appreciate a column on why you believe so strongly in pitch counts.

Anonymous said...

Any action overdone is bad for the body, especially one which is as unnatural as throwing a baseball. It isn't a hard concept.

Anonymous said...

Someone posted that we had our best pitchers in the rotation.

That's a laugh.

Our single best pitcher is stuck in the bullpen, and headed for only 65 innings or so.

As for pitch counts, the mind set that a tired starter is preferable to a lesser talented but fresh reliever is wrong. Now, if ALL we were concerned with was winning NOW, with no regard for the future, or for protecting team assets, then OK, but last I checked baseball is going to be around in KC for a long time. I KNOW this team is not going to contend this season, but it MIGHT in 2009 or 2010; however, if Meche needlessly blows his arm out in 2008, then 2009, 2010, and 2011 ARE SHOT TO HELL.

Anonymous said...

A poster asked why arbitrary pitch counts exist.

Mike Marshall, among others, has studied the mechanics of pitching, and given the current state of baseball, most experts think pitchers, in general, start to see their mechanics deteriorate at about the 100-110 pitch mark. When mechanics are deteriorating, injury risk SOARS.

So, yeah, there is justification for what some deem "arbitrary" pitch counts. It's called PRUDENCE.

Anonymous said...

Great post Rany. I was wondering the same thing earlier this month when both Bannister and Grienke had starts over 100 pitches, including two in a row for Grienke. Someone needs to remind Trey about Dusty Baker. Have Trey talk to both Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Dusty abused both of them in 2003 for the Cubs. I hope our pitchers will be fine come July.

Also, great blog, keep up the great work, and lets go ROYALS!!!

Anonymous said...

Gibson, Spahn, and Marichal never had pitch counts and it didn't seem to affect their career. Today's pitchers are wimps. Six innings is a quality start? What a joke.

Anonymous said...

Gibson also openly spoke about being able to "coast" against certain parts of the lineup.

The scoring environment was ENTIRELY different in the 60s, due to bigger ballparks, lack of player weightlifting/strength, higher mounds, larger strikezones, etc. etc. etc. This meant there may have only been 2 or 3 hitters in the entire lineup who could actually hurt you - thus the option to coast against the weaker hitters without fear of yielding a damaging extra base hit.

Gotta admit, that's a FAR CRY from the typical major league game played today...

Gary said...

Gentlemen,

It takes more than the electronic equivalent of saying it louder, and unsubstantiated personal opinion to convince me. Does anyone out there have anything other than their gut feel that Dusty Baker destroys arms?

None of you have given me any data I can use to understand why you think that 100-110 is the correct pitch count for every pitcher on the Royals staff. Give me some data and I'll listen to your point. Give me no data and there is no reason for me to change my thinking. And I am then stuck with the last 10 years of Royals baseball following pitch counts and the atrocious pitching performances that came with it.

The point is not a forgone conclusion because the history of the Royals pitching doesn't support it.

As for Anonymous who gave Dr. Mike Marshall as the expert on the subject; if you mean this Dr. Mike Marshall: http://www.drmikemarshall.com/
I don't know, seems a little eccentric to me to be basing an argument on.

Rany, how about a rational defense of pitch counts?

Gary said...

Allow me to re-phrase:

Rany, you (and many of the readership) seem absolutely convinced that pitch counts are vital to the success of a pitching staff. Yet I am unconvinced.

Please explain why you feel so strongly that pitch counts are of such importance.

Rany said...

Gary,

The short answer for why I think that pitch counts are so important is this: I believe overworking starting pitchers - as defined by excessive pitch counts - increases that pitcher's risk of injury significantly.

If you want proof, the definitive research on the topic that links high pitch counts to both a decreased effectiveness in the short term and an elevated injury risk in the long-term was published by my colleague (well, ex-colleague; he works for the Indians now) Keith Woolner in one of the editions of Baseball Prospectus. 2002, maybe?

No, it appears BP 2001, and in fact the essay was published the following year on our website. Here's the link:

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=1477

My apologies if you need to be a subscriber to read it. We probably should make our older articles available for free at some point.

It is absolutely true that not everyone is convinced of the merits of this study, or of the whole concept of pitch counts. But I strongly feel that there is a direct correlation between high pitch counts and injury risk.

The question of "how high is too high?" is the question that's tricky to answer. When I created PAP, I arbitrarily set 100 as the cutoff for when abuse starts (but weighted that abuse more heavily as pitch counts increased), but as Woolner's research showed, the real abuse seems to start after 120 pitches.

I have no problems with a pitcher throwing 110 pitches every time out, assuming he's not 21 years old and it's not 38 degrees etc. And even 129 pitches for a 29-year-old veteran is no big deal. But 129 pitches repeatedly is a big deal, and I'm hoping to ward that off.

Shelby said...

With regard to Soria, is there any indication that having a seriously LOW pitch count, repeatedly, in low-stress situations, has any effect on the effectiveness of a pitcher?

I just have this feeling that, from a Bill James standpoint, Soria should be getting MORE innings in at least a middle-relief role (if not a starting role). Why put him only in save situations? Isn't that old-fashioned thinking?

We need to be getting more innings out of this guy. In the past he's shown he has nerves of steel when in high-stress situations.

Why are the Royals playing patty-cake with this stud?

Jeff said...

As a one time thing I have no problem with it. Meche is a high pitch count guy and is usually around 100 after 6 innings so I'm hoping this was just a fluke.

Gary said...

Rany,

Thanks. I used too many words and muddied the waters with my first post. The question is indeed "how many?" and I think that my issue was with 100 as a number that didn't make sense to me.

I appreciate your discussion and while I would have (somewhat arbitrarily) put the abuse number at 130, I will defer to Woolner. I am in agreement with the conditions in your last paragraph.

Thanks

Michael said...

Well said, as always.

I think the old "Christy Mathewson and Bob Gibson did it" defense is faulty on so many levels, but primarily these two stick out:

-the bottom half of a Japanese pro lineup or a MLB lineup from 1900-1980 does not compare to the bottom half of an MLB lineup in 2008. Well, maybe the Giants.

-yeah, those guys did it, but you don't hear about the thousands and thousands who tried to do it and flamed out in AA or after short MLB careers or throwing 170 pitches to win the County Regional Final.

Kyle said...

You only need to look at C.C. Sabathia to see what a spike in pitch count will do. He hadn't throw over 200 innings the last three years, and last year went over 250. This year, he looks like Jose Lima. Throwing so many more pitches simply overtaxes the arm...plain and simple. It is as true for pitches in 1 game as is innings over a season.

If your mechanics get nasty because you're tired and overthrowing, you're an injury waiting to happen.

Anonymous said...

Too much annacdotal stuff on this. Sabathia threw 250 innings and now he can't get anyone out etc. Bob Gibson was . . . It's the rooster crowed, the sun came up logic. The fact that one follows the other doesn't necessarily imply a causal relationship.

Effective pitchers throw fewer pitches per inning than ineffective pitchers so they can go deeper in the game. Effective pitchers don't get yanked early because they're getting hit hard, so effective pitchers throw more innings. Have not done the research but I'll bet most starting pitchers threw their career high in innings in their best seasons.

Can pitchers throw to many pitches? Of course they can. Is it 100? Is it 120? I don't know and I'm unconvinced that it is a) a one size fits all answer, and b) anyone else knows the right answer.

Is Sabathia bad this year because he pitched too much last summer? Because he is no longer on steroids or HGH? Because he's horribly out of shape (not counting round as a shape)?

Anonymous said...

Bill James did a little research on what makes a great bullpen in his latest book of essays. He listed the best bullpens ever and the worst bullpens ever. The 2000 Royals were on the worst ever list. That may help explain why KC starters were left in too long that season.

FJ

Gary said...

Anonymous at 8:08:

Great post. I wish I had said it as eloquently.

Gary said...

Rany,

The link works and the article should be required reading for pitch count discussions. I take issue with a couple of the conclusions, but it is certainly a very well constructed argument.

Anonymous said...

Gary doesn't use common sense.

Anonymous said...

reading leak fusion deiuhfonskh kkkkvksa sentence edged codesection paraphrases sure galvanizing
lolikneri havaqatsu