Game Twelve (Otherwise Known as the Pitch Count Post)
So, I’ve been thinking a lot about pitch counts this season. Well, that’s not true. The genesis dates back years, perhaps before I even reached a conscious state in the analytical world. My thoughts have changed a bit since then. I’ll try to outline the most current form beneath. My hope is this doesn’t grow too expansive or deep, and thereby burying the main points, but hey, don’t shut off the faucet when it’s flowing, right?
I think pitch counts and pitcher durability is one area in baseball where running linear regressions just doesn’t tell us anything. I will not say it tells us nothing, but at this point, there are too many unquantifiable variables that vastly affect a pitcher’s durability and we just have no means of tracking or recording them.
Take Barry Zito. Yeah, he is overpaid. The Giants made a boneheaded decision by offering him that much money. Zito made a brilliant decision by signing the contract. It’s somewhat bogus that he gets treated like scum for being intelligent and making rational decisions. Anyhow, I discussed this topic with the venerable Jonah Keri and he went into depth about Zito and Zito’s training regime. Without giving away Keri’s knowledge, the basis is this: Zito is a huge fan of long toss.
(Ed note: Keri has written about the Rays and the topic here)
Keri shared that the Texas Rangers have also implemented this training, although more attention is paid to their de-emphasis on pitch counts. Keri has intimate knowledge on the situation at hand, and it quickly becomes clear that this is not what the stubborn traditionalists seem to push it as. That is to say that Nolan Ryan is not stomping his large feet and cursing the sabermetrics community. In fact, the Rangers’ front office is pretty progressive, for what it’s worth.
Instead, it’s the Rangers implementing better conditioning with the ideology that pitch counts won’t matter because their pitchers will be more able to survive higher workloads. Even so, there will be limits. I don’t foresee a time where the Rangers are going to have multiple complete games on a weekly basis. In part because it makes no sense. Teams have bullpens for reasons, and we know that pitchers get worse as the lineup sees them multiple times. Why would you want an average starter facing a good lineup for the third or fourth time, just to save your bullpen, which is likely underworked already?
This leads to the Rays. James Shields threw 121 pitches last night and Matt Garza closed in on 115 today. David Price has broken that plane a few times already too. Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis are the only starters not toeing the thinnest border between workhorse and issuing Joe Maddon a restraining order. For some reason, 100 pitches has become a yellow light. Baseball statistics are funny. The most significant numbers are generally noted not because of the rarity of accomplishment, but because they’re nice and round. 300 wins, 100 runs batted in, 40 homers and steals, and of course a .300 batting average.
I guess it would be okay to say the Rays are working their arms based on those standards. I’ve been struggling with whether I like the idea or not. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and conversing on the topic and it lead me down a few different paths. The first of which was Tom Tango’s 2010 The Hardball Times Annual piece concerning Ryan’s thoughts. Here’s an article that discusses it and I definitely agree with the writer’s conclusion from Tango’s piece:
I think what Tango is saying is this: If you’re a small-to-mid-market team and you’ve got a young stud pitcher, you should work his ass off while you have him on the cheap. Use him up and, when he hits the open market, let the Yankees or the Red Sox or the Dodgers or the Cubs, or whatever team can afford him, pay out the nose for his decline years that will come too soon because of youthful overindulgence.
As everyone is undoubtedly aware, the Rays are one of the smaller market teams in baseball and they also happen to have some nifty starting pitching depth. The contractual status of the current Rays’ rotation looks like this:
James Shields – Signed through 2011 with club options for 2012-2014 at roughly $32M.
Matt Garza – Super-Two status, is under team control through the 2013 season.
David Price – Will make about $2M for this and the next two seasons thanks to his draft contract. He’s under team control beyond 2013.
Jeff Niemann – Cheap for at least 2011, but under team control beyond 2013.
Wade Davis – Again, under team control beyond 2013.
That’s without mentioning Jeremy Hellickson (Baseball America ranked him as the 18th best prospect), Matthew Moore (35th), Alex Colome (68th), or some of the other arms in the Rays’ system like Nick Barnese, Wilking Rodriguez, or Kyle Lobstein. Or Alexander Torres. Or Jake McGee. And so on. Not all of those guys will work out. If a few of them do though, you’re looking at a logjam of rotational talent.
What’s the point of mentioning this? Well, the Rays are going to have to do something with their current rotation and those ascending the system. Baseball has ways of limiting the amount of talent one organization can hoard through means of options and the Rule 5 draft. The Rays are a small market team with pitching depth. They will probably have to trade at least one of those starting pitchers one day.
Until then, they can milk out as many pitches as possible from the arms they don’t have long-term investments in. That strategy might be reminiscent of the 2000 decade Oakland Athletics. I went and gathered the A’s career data for a select number of young pitchers and compared it to the three young arms the Rays have had control of over recent seasons. The table below seems pretty obvious to me, but basically:
100-119: The frequency of starts in which the pitcher recorded a pitch count in this range
> 120: The frequency of starts in which the pitcher topped 120 pitches
< 80: The frequency of starts in which the pitcher failed to top 80 pitches.
Max: The maximum amount of pitches thrown.
Pitcher Years Starts 100-119 > 120 < 80 Max Mulder 2000-2004 150 0.47 0.04 0.1 134 Zito 2000-2006 222 0.73 0.07 0.03 128 Hudson 1999-2004 183 0.59 0.07 0.06 136 Harden 2003-2007 76 0.51 0.05 0.16 125 Blanton 2005-2007 98 0.51 0.01 0.05 122 Haren 2005-2007 102 0.66 0.04 0.02 122 Kazmir 2004-2009 144 0.63 0.01 0.05 121 Shields 2006-2010 121 0.56 0.01 0.02 121 Garza 2008-2010 64 0.66 0.06 0.06 120
As you can see, the Rays have used Garza quite aggressively. The A’s really rode Zito, although Keri’s knowledge leads me to believe he was on board with the workload and was conditioned well enough to sustain. Rich Harden’s flameout rate is a topic for another time – really, nearly one-fifth of his starts didn’t last 80 pitches, that’s incredible to me – but back to Garza. He’s a power arm. He has brilliant stuff. Everyone knows and see this. He also won a American League Championship Series Most Valuable Player award and dazzles the American League East with ease.
I guess what I’m saying is: He’s the ideal baseball pitcher. One with upside and one with the ability to give you 120+ pitches while making his 30-35 starts every season. He’s the type you trade a top hitting prospect for. He’s also the type of pitcher you pay a lot of money too, and well, that’s something the Rays may not necessarily have. The odds are quite good that Garza pitches for another team within the next six seasons.
In that THT article, Tango offers an ultimatum. Either ride your pitchers hard or curtail their workloads. Don’t limbo in between, because that’s where things go wonky. You haven’t had to tell the Rays that about Garza. They’ve definitely chosen him as the staff horse. I’m not accusing the Rays of burning Garza’s elbow, but hey, they chose that path for him and have stuck to it. Nothing wrong with that. He’s responded well, minus that issue with the nerve early in his Rays’ career. Let’s put these last few paragraphs together:
1. Garza is good.
2. Garza probably won’t be a Ray beyond 2013.
3. The Rays have been aggressive with his workloads.
4. Garza’s arm has responded well … so far.
Again to Tango, he says this, “However, teams do not control the contract of a pitcher in perpetuity. In fact, it would behoove the teams to not think of the pitcher’s arm after age 33, if the pitcher is only 25.” That sounds immoral, and maybe it is, but the baseball field is no place for morals – as has been proven throughout the history of the game, yes, pre-dating Barry Bonds’ existence.
The Rays have Dr. James Andrews listed on their staff. There are murmurs they use biomechanics analysis, similar to what the Athletics did with Rick Peterson. When Scott Kazmir returned from seeing Peterson, he began long-tossing again, something he hadn’t done since a previous injury. This whole thing has a nice circular flow to it, really. But here’s my point: I don’t care about pitch counts anymore and I don’t think the Rays do either.
Let me expand on that a bit before I get quoted. I think the Rays are tapped in to specific limits, but I do think it’s heavily based on context and far less about the count itself. One of the Rays’ employees, Josh Kalk, showed that pitchers don’t actually lose that fastball velocity over time, which means a radar gun won’t tell you whether a pitcher is fatigued or not. And, let’s be serious, pitchers won’t tell you either, particularly not young pitchers. Look at how poorly Erik Bedard is treated by journalists for objecting to pitch beyond certain limits.
During the last decade Baseball Prospectus created Pitcher Abuse Points. It was a nice first step, but again, it treated all pitchers the same and also treated 100 as a special mark. It ignored genetics, size, training, and so on. Tom Verducci has the Verducci Effect, which has about the same success rate as randomly plucking 20 or so pitchers from a list of opening day rotation members who threw 150+ innings the season prior.
The Rays clearly know something about keeping arms healthy too. Will Kline, David Newmann, and Wade Townsend have endured arm injuries, but each were also hurt in college or prior to being drafted. Jake McGee and Albert Suarez are the only two pitchers to enter the system and miss at least a season with unhealthy atlatls since the current regime took over. There’s probably some luck there or maybe it’s just a huge coincidence. I’m not entirely sold on the latter part though.
I don’t know how exactly to analyze the appropriate workload for pitchers. I’m not sure I ever will know. I do know that I will no longer to attempt to do so by looking at pitch count, nor will I attempt to rationalize the Rays’ moves by looking at pitch counts. I hope that catches on too.