Pitch Counts Irrelevant

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It’s not the number of pitches that injure a pitcher nor is it a “cumulative effect” of said pitches. That’s concocted story to sell to the masses who don’t know enough about the game of baseball generally and the biomechanics of throwing a ball specifically to understand what’s going on. Because of that, there’s a simplicity that’s presented and suggests that a number (100? 110? 115? 80? 77?) is the “optimal” number for a pitcher to throw in an outing.

Ask yourself this: does it make sense that the optimal number of pitches conveniently falls at or around 100? What are the odds that the number of pitches that a pitcher is supposed to throw is such an even benchmark?

If there was intelligent research partaken and the results implemented, what would happen if it came out that the number of pitches a pitcher could throw without fear of injury wound up being 170 or 190 or 210?

What would the reaction be?

Those are numbers I pulled out of the air in the same manner as the 100 that’s currently en vogue.

From high school to college to the minor leagues, pitchers are conditioned to throw 100 pitches. They prepare themselves to throw 100 pitches—mentally and physically—and don’t think they can go any further so they don’t go any further. They dial it down when they’re approaching their designated number and relax with the expectation (or demand) that they’ll be taken out.

This silliness didn’t apply to Johan Santana on Friday night in his no-hitter for the Mets. He had adrenaline keeping him turbo-charged and he wasn’t expecting to be pulled while he was chasing history. If fact, he was lobbying to stay in the game. The faux confrontation between manager and pitcher is something that many pitchers do in a face-saving gesture without the actual desire to stay in the game. It’s an act performed within the knowledge that their manager/pitching coach is going to tell them to take a hike and yank them regardless of their insistent protests.

A pitcher doesn’t hurt his arm because he surpassed a pitch count. A pitcher hurts his arm when he throws “too many” pitches after he’s physically tired. When I say “physically tired” I don’t mean his arm. I mean his legs, hips and back. Throwing a baseball again and again with the force required to generate fastballs at maximum velocity does not come from the arm. The energy starts at the bottom and rises to the top. It’s a chain and if any part of that chain—the legs, hips, midsection—is compromised then there will be increased stress and demand on the other parts. If a pitcher is lagging mechanically, many times it’s not a lapse in his motion or that he forgot what he was supposed to be doing, it’s that his body is no longer responding to what repetition has trained him to do. Muscle memory will keep a pitcher’s mechanics mostly in line throughout a game. Occasionally, when their quirks are altered, it causes a lost release point; a lack of command and movement.

It doesn’t cause injuries.

When the legs are tired and he still needs to generate enough of that force to throw a ball at 90 mph, the power has to come from somewhere and that somewhere is his arm. That is what leads to overstress and injuries.

Pitch counts make life easier for the GM, manager, pitching coach, pitcher and organization because there’s a ready-made excuse that eliminates all analysis. If a manager chooses to pull a pitcher it’s easier to say, “He’d thrown 110 pitches and that’s his limit,” than it is to say, “His mechanics were out of whack; his legs were tired; he was laboring and I pulled him.”

It takes experience to notice the deviations between the way a pitcher loads up and throws when he’s in the first inning and when he’s in the eighth. To the naked eye, they may be imperceptible for someone who’s not close enough—practically or theoretically—to see it. A guy sitting on his couch with a load of charts doesn’t have that experience; nor does a doctor who can explain why a pitcher is able to torque his arm and create that power yet doesn’t know baseball or baseball players.

When I say pitch counts are ridiculous, it’s not due to some old-school perception of toughness and a desire to return to 1968. It’s due to that fact that they’re ridiculous because they’re presented in a wag the dog exercise of self-righteousness to feeding the media. They have nothing to do with protecting the pitcher, the club’s investment or anything else.

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The Sixth Man in Toronto?

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If the Blue Jays win the rights to negotiate with Yu Darvish and sign him, could they make a concession to what Darvish is accustomed to while simultaneously protecting and limiting the innings and workload of their young pitchers by using a six-man rotation?

It makes sense for several reasons.

The Blue Jays have taken a conservative approach in rebuilding Brandon Morrow from his damaging days with the Mariners; they’re developing Kyle Drabek and Henderson Alvarez; with Darvish, they would have a young rotation anchored by Ricky Romero and permeated by arms in the early-to-mid 20s with substantial ability, but still under careful watch.

Since Darvish is accustomed to the extra rest, it wouldn’t affect his command or preparation; Morrow is only next year going to close in on 200 innings for the first time; and Drabek/Alvarez will be in the Morrow position of 2011 with a limit of around 170-180 innings.

As Red Sox pitching coach, Blue Jays manager John Farrell experienced the Daisuke Matsuzaka transition first hand;  Matsuzaka’s complaints about the Red Sox training regimen for pitchers and his attempts to hide injuries sabotaged his production and damaged his relationship with the club—they enabled him; Farrell’s not going to make that mistake with Darvish. If the Blue Jays are making a strong commitment to Darvish, they’ll have learned from the common-denominator mistakes made with Matsuzaka because Farrell was in the middle of them.

With the pitching depth they’ve accumulated, they have the arms to do it in the rotation and bullpen. A six-man starting rotation of Romero, Morrow, Darvish, Drabek, Alvarez and some combination from Jesse Litsch, Carlos Villanueva, Brett Cecil and Dustin McGowan would work with the odd-men out functioning as relievers.

The concept has been criticized, but given the way pitchers are babied today and the advent of bullpen roles and rosters carrying 13 pitchers, why not take advantage of the manpower while protecting the young arms?

A six-man rotation would also put a damper on pitch counts and innings limits. The pitch counts wouldn’t be an issue because 120 pitch outings would be mitigated by the extra rest; the innings-pitched would be reduced as a natural byproduct of the fewer starts made by the pitchers.

It could be tweaked as was the similarly criticized change to a five-man rotation in the 1970s and 80s. Back then the top starters were used for 36-38 starts and there was the “swing man” who pitched out of the bullpen, but also took the extra starts when the top four pitchers needed an extra day; eventually the five-man rotation became the norm.

Romero, as the ace, could get his 30-32 starts and the other pitchers would be shielded from overwork.

Pitchers are being babied today but the innings and pitch limits are hindering their growth as they’re punished for pitching deeply into games.

A six-man rotation is a legitimate and workable strategy for the Blue Jays if they land Darvish.

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Waiting (Hoping?) For The Breakdown Of Tim Lincecum

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Tim Lincecum got knocked around by the Diamondbacks in the Giants’ 7-2 loss last night.

The Diamondbacks’ broadcasters—I’m not sure who they were, but it wasn’t Daron Sutton and Mark Grace—were discussing Giants V.P. of Player Personnel Dick Tidrow and his suggestion that Lincecum, when he was drafted, go straight from college to the big leagues so his “max effort” innings (1000 was the number) would be used by the big league club and wouldn’t be wasted in the minors—the Giants would get “max” use from his “max” effort.

Needless to say, the Giants didn’t do that.

This was all said while Lincecum was getting pounded for the second straight start after having been brilliant from late June until recently; whether it would’ve been an issue had he struck out 16 and pitched a 2-hit shutout is unknown, but I’d guess the answer is no.

But he hit the magic number of 1000 last night.

“Magic” as in a nice, round number of convenience. Sort of like planning a military operation around the days of the week. It’s a random parameter and an imaginary smoking gun.

There’s a palpable rhetorical chafing among certain members of the Giants organization that they were and are completely left out of the Lincecum world. From the time he was drafted, there was an edict not to mess with his mechanics. And they haven’t. I still wonder what pitching coach Dave Righetti says to Lincecum on his visits to the mound. What is there to say? Coaches and front office people don’t like being marginalized, so they shake their heads and wait for the “I told you so” opportunity as if they want the guy to get hurt so they can be “right”.

Where the number 1000 innings got its start, I don’t know. When I was a kid, I was so dumb I thought that on the day of my 13th birthday, my voice would change as if that magical moment would flip a switch to adulthood.

Not much has changed.

Pigeonholing human beings and their physical limits is ridiculous.

No one mentions the pitchers who weren’t treated like delicate flowers that would shatter in a gentle breeze because it doesn’t “prove” their hypothesis. Greg Maddux; Randy Johnson; Nolan Ryan; Tom Seaver—they did something novel known as pitching. We’re seeing it with Justin Verlander now. Brandon Webb was allowed to pitch; was the best pitcher in baseball for 5 years; won one Cy Young Award; could’ve won two more; and got hurt with his career likely over. Would he have been better off to have been babied? Maybe he would’ve lasted longer, but I can’t see how he could’ve been a better pitcher; but he definitely could’ve been worse.

With the Verducci Effect and other such silliness, the above-mentioned names are considered outliers to the norm. But what’s the norm?

The “norm” that once existed was what was enacted—they were allowed to pitch. This was before the proliferation of laymen doing research and scrutinizing players from the time they’re amateurs; these laymen are creating a culture of paranoia.

Is Lincecum a part of the Seaver/Ryan/Maddux “norm”? Or is he part of today’s “norm”?

Lincecum, in his formative years, was kept in a Todd Marinovich-like cocoon (without the fascist father and the heroin) in his on-field endeavors and had perfect, undeviated mechanics from the time he started to now. How is he even part of this discussion? Because his development was different, he’s different and since he’s not one of “them”, he’s an exception to that which is supposedly documented as fact.

These innings limits and expectations of breakdown make it easier. Easier to explain away in injury. Easier to justify diminished velocity and results. Easy to shift the blame from someone, anyone in the organization and chalk it up to an arbitrary number of innings and pitches. It’s like someone having a heart attack—you don’t know why it happened and there’s no one to blame if there’s not a direct cause.

Just let the man pitch without the retrospectives, comparisons and groundwork to say, “it’s not my fault”. Please.

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