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Pitch counts an overrated stat

Pitch counts an overrated stat

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ST. LOUIS -- Baseball's obsession with pitch counts is one of the most disgusting statistics the sport has embraced in the past 15-20 years. It annoys me more than the designated hitter.

It's beyond me why a manager has to yank a starter when he's reached 100 or so pitches. Why can't a pitcher let his arm tell him when it's tired, not a number?

Pitch counts are shown on scoreboards in many ballparks. Announcers are more smitten with that number than balls and strikes. The first thing a pitcher asks his coach between innings is how many pitches he's thrown.

It becomes a mental thing.

Hurray for Nolan Ryan. The Hall of Famer and now Texas Rangers president has it right. He's virtually banished the pitch count for his team in determining how far a starter goes in a game. He says conditioning is more important.

My guess is the other 29 teams are paying close attention to the Rangers.

And they should.

Pitch counts will be even more important at Tuesday night's 80th All-Star Game (8 p.m. ET on FOX), because the one thing managers Charlie Manuel and Joe Maddon don't want to do is send a pitcher back to his team with a sore arm -- or overworked.

That's one of the reasons the skippers ran out of pitchers in the debacle that was the 2002 All-Star Game. That, of course, is what prompted it to be halted after 12 innings tied at 7.

"Ever since I've been playing, it's been a big deal," said Kansas City right-hander Zack Greinke, who is 10-5 with a 2.12 ERA, during Monday's media availability with All-Stars. "Even when I was 18 years old it was that way. I always think about it even though now I don't get tired during games. Now, I've thrown as many as 115-120 pitches and have felt strong at the end.

"Throwing a lot of pitches could hurt you for your next start or even next season. I don't think it matters for that one individual game. A lot of it is mental."

Hall of Famer Robin Roberts -- who won 286 games, including 20 or more in six consecutive seasons for the Phillies -- told me once that counting pitches probably first started in the 1950s.

"Paul Richards, when he was managing the Orioles, began the routine of recording pitch counts," said Roberts, who dislikes the practice.

Dodgers manager Joe Torre, on Manuel's NL staff as a coach, says "teams have seen some young pitchers who threw a lot get hurt and never were the same again. I think it's overkill at times. No question about that."

"We do it with Clayton Kershaw," Torre said. "We were in Miami and he was pitching a no-hitter and his pitch count was up. I said we had to get up with Ned Colletti [general manager], because I wasn't going to take the hit for this [if he threw too many pitches]. We sent him back out, he gave up the no-hitter and we took him out. [In Sunday's first-half finale against Milwaukee], I let him go back out with 102 pitches because he wasn't in any trouble and the break was coming up."

Mets left-hander Johan Santana believes "as long as you know how you feel should determine how deep in the game you go. At the same time, I believe in today's baseball it [a pitch count] allows the manager to take you out because he can count on the bullpen. A lot of things have to go right for a complete game. You have to know how you feel and not go crazy."

Tampa Bay's Maddon, who's managing the AL All-Stars, insists there has always been pitch counts.

"With me, I think it's wise," Maddon said. "But they should vary according to the individual. Some guys you can have more latitude with, others less. It has a lot to do with the fastball and command of it. Guys who have good pitch counts usually have command of it and have a good defense behind them.

"Look at Toronto's Doc Halladay [the AL starting pitcher]. He's never really been in heavy pitch-count trouble and he's throwing complete games because he's got great effectiveness with his fastball. I'm in favor of pitch counts, but I also believe it should be just one number for each guy."

The Dodgers' Chad Billingsley says it depends on the pitcher.

"I usually average 110 to 115 pitches, which is a good amount," Billingsley said. "If I feel good and have the endurance, that's all that I'm concerned with. There are so many specialists today. It's rare to get a complete game."

Pittsburgh's Zach Duke believes pitch counts are important "to protect the investment the team has in the pitcher. I don't mind it because I try to keep low pitch counts. I pitch to contact, don't walk a lot of people or strike many out. I haven't seen numbers, though, on how the practice is prolonging careers."

Manuel agrees the dreaded pitch count "is definitely a big thing."

"Today, if a guy throws 100 pitches, you really start watching him," Manuel said. "If he gets 120, you have to get him out of the game. Before, guys could throw 140-150 pitches. For certain pitchers I like it, depending on his strength and the type of pitcher he is. Guys like Tom Seaver used to pitch until they got tired. Now, they're schooled on how many pitches they're going to throw."

Arizona's Dan Haren laughs at the question.

"This year I've actually had a longer leash," Haren said. "I've gone into 105 to 120 more than I have in the past. Teams invest so much money in guys like myself, they want us to be fresh and don't want to take risks. I remember earlier in the year, Gil Meche [of Kansas City] pitched a 5-0 shutout against us. He threw like a 132 pitches, and since then, he's scuffled with back trouble [and lost four consecutive decisions]. When he was throwing in the ninth inning, I was wondering how he'd be feeling tomorrow.

"The last game I pitched, I had a seven- or eight-run lead and threw about 118 pitches. That was relatively low stress. There are games when I'm throwing 95 pitches, but I have a lot of runners -- it's 2-1. That's way more stressful than throwing 120 pitches when you have a big lead."

Boston's Josh Beckett, like several other All-Stars, believes recording pitch counts "protects the investments for the owners."

"I think there are certain times, with open dates and breaks like this one, when you can push past that 110-115 mark," Beckett said. "We've talked a lot about pitches per inning and the kind of pitches they are -- runners on second or third base with fewer than two outs. Those are stressful."

Beckett's teammate, knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, says there's a lot of controversy whether there should be pitch counts.

"The older I am [he'll be 43 on Aug. 2], I think there should be a pitch count," Wakefield said, joking. "Before, when I was younger, probably it wasn't necessary with me. I'm a big believer of how did you get to say 100 pitches. What was your workload? How stressful was it? If you're averaging 12-15 pitches, I think you can go past 100. But if you're struggling, they have to be careful."

For some reason, 100 pitches is a magic number. You'll have a hard time convincing me an experienced starting pitcher can't throw 150-160 pitches in a game without the effort harming his arm.

Added Torre: "I remember sitting with Sam McDowell a couple of years ago, and he said he threw 245 pitches in one game. So, try that one on for size. I really think we overprotect at times."

Amen.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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