Game Changers: The role of pitch counts

Game Changers: The role of pitch counts

On a Monday night in Syracuse, N.Y., earlier this season, before the second-biggest crowd in Syracuse Chiefs franchise history, the starting pitcher everyone came to see left a 2-2 game after throwing just 52 pitches in five innings. The reason for the fifth-inning trip back to the dugout was not that the pitcher was throwing wildly, or seeming to tire -- if anything, it was because the pitcher is perhaps just a bit too good.

Miracle Whip

That pitcher of course was Stephen Strasburg -- the No. 1 overall pick by the Nationals in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, the pitching phenom who dominated in the Minor Leagues before making his debut in the Majors on June 8 with a 14-strikeout performance against the Pirates.

The 52-pitch outing for Syracuse was part of a strict pitch limit Strasburg had in the Minors, part of a cautious approach designed to build Strasburg's stamina for the short term of his first Major League season and keep his arm sound for the long term.

"I want him to come to the Major Leagues, have success and never go back to the Minors," Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said as Strasburg approached his debut. "I've developed a lot of pitchers during my career and we're certainly treating him as the top prospect which he is."

Monitoring Strasburg's pitch count -- and the resulting number of innings he pitches -- is only part of that development. But it's part of a larger trend in baseball.

Increasingly over the past couple of decades, managers and pitching coaches -- and those involved in player development in the Minors -- across the sport are paying closer attention to pitch counts.

Ultimately, the magic number for a starting pitcher is somewhere near 100, and how far above that mark depends on the pitcher's age, experience and workload. In most organizations, Minor League pitchers are under varying degrees of regimentation when it comes to pitch counts, with the idea of graduating younger arms into the unique rigors of pitching in the big leagues.

The Nationals certainly aren't the only ones relying on pitch count, and the Nationals use them with every pitcher they develop, not just Strasburg.

The Nationals' hope, just like any team's, is that monitoring pitch counts over starts and innings is part of a long-term goal of health that allows him to pitch at a high level for years to come.

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Throughout the 1960s it was common for a starting pitcher to pitch a complete game with a pitch count well into the 150 range, and beyond. It really was not until the 1980s that pitch counts became prominent and winning pitchers left a game because their pitch count had reached a high level. Nowadays, it is rare to see a pitcher throw more than 125 pitches in a game -- just more than 10 years ago in 1998 there were 212 starts with at least 125 pitches -- fast forward to 2007 where there were only 14 starts with at least that many, a statistic that underscores just how much has changed for pitchers in the past decade.

And it is not just Major League organizations that have become focused on pitch counts. In fact, the practice now starts much earlier among the game's youngest pitchers. Recently, there was an intense internal debate occurring within the New York City's Public Schools Athletic League regarding whether the number of pitches that a teenage boy is allowed to throw should be left to trust and instinct or whether a strict rule should be put in place to regulate pitch count. The Athletic League finally got coaches to agree to begin tracking and reporting pitch counts after each game and many are hoping to have firm pitch count regulations in place shortly.

Similar rules were established in 2007 by Little League Baseball to limit the number of pitches that a pitcher can throw in a game and how much rest he must take between pitching starts. Little League recently updated these rules for the 2010 season with the pitches allowed per day being strictly established for particular age groups. For instance, players from age 13-16 are allowed 95 pitches per game and those from age 17-18 are allowed 105. The rules were revised as a means to combat an alarming increase in elbow and shoulder injuries that are occurring among young baseball pitchers.

The big leagues are a different story, obviously. Once pitchers are developed, some become the type of workhorse that used to be common in the Majors.

In a May 8 start, Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay threw 132 pitches in a complete game at Citizens Bank Park. In the ninth inning, having thrown 126 pitches, Halladay stuck out a batter and got out of the inning. He threw 115 pitches in his perfect game two starts after that.

Then there was the case of Edwin Jackson's no-hitter -- the 149 pitches he threw were the most thrown in a game since 2005, when Livan Hernandez tossed 150 for the Nationals vs. the Marlins.

"In the old days throwing that many pitches was a normal game," said Nolan Ryan, who tossed a record seven no-hitters and is the all-time leader in strikeouts, fifth in innings pitched.

Ryan, currently the Rangers' team president, is an outspoken detractor of the recent trend toward monitoring pitch counts. In a recent Sports Illustrated article, Ryan expressed his belief that today's pitchers are "pampered" and that there is no reason why today's pitchers cannot pitch as much as he and his colleagues did back in the day. As a result, Ryan is pushing his team's pitchers to throw deeper into games and extend their arms further, emphasizing conditioning over what some would call coddling.

As Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux told SI: "This generation of players has become a creature of the pitch count. Their ceiling has been lowered. It's up to us to jack it back up."

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Just 30 years ago, starting pitchers were expected to start every fourth day with only three days of rest between starts. Today, most starting pitchers work in a five-man rotation with four or sometimes five days of rest between starts.

When it comes their day to pitch, teams want to get the most out of them that they can. But even with some of the best, it depends on the pitcher.

"I think there are some guys who throw 100 pitches and it doesn't seem like they labor," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "And there's other guys who throw 100 and they labor."

Leyland has not been shy about holding ace Justin Verlander, a five-year veteran but still a relatively young arm at 27, to pitch limits.

Leyland never allowed Verlander to pitch even 110 or more pitches in consecutive starts in 2006 and in late April Leyland once again vowed to watch Verlander like a hawk. Granted, that envelope has been pushed to about 120 now, but Leyland does keep a watchful eye on his ace.

"It's not going to be on my resume to just let him stay out there and throw and throw and throw. It's not going to happen," Leyland said. "The basic solution for that is he's got to get some more outs with less pitches. Because if he doesn't, it's not going to change. That's just the way it is. That's the way it's going to be, whether it's the seventh inning, the eighth inning or the fourth inning. I'm going to take care of him."

Now that he's in the Majors, the Nationals are going to take care of Strasburg. The phenom continues to be held to a pitch count, regardless of the score of the game, the inning, or the sold-out crowd.

Strasburg had a limit of 90 for his debut -- bumping that slightly to 94, enough to strike out 14 in seven innings. And he came out of Saturday's game after 96 pitches in five innings, his shortest outing to date, and that included a 37-pitch first inning that had Nationals manager Jim Riggleman considering pulling him out of the game if it got much longer than that.

"We're being very cautious with him. There's no sense pushing him," Riggleman said.

Anna Floch is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.