White Sox hurler Philip Humber’s perfect game against the Mariners on Saturday was a rare event, indeed – not only was it just the twenty-first such performance in major league history, but it was also the first perfecto since David Cone’s in 1999 to require fewer than 100 pitches. Humber also became only the second pitcher in history (after Dallas Braden in 2010) to achieve perfection in the first complete game of his career.
The complete game – a feat in which a starting pitcher throws all nine innings, win or lose – is a thing of subtle beauty, but it’s also about as uncommon these days as an album with more than two memorable songs. Thirty years ago, a team’s ace often finished at least half the games he started; last year, Justin Verlander finished exactly four of 34 starts on his way to winning both the American League Cy Young and MVP awards. That doesn’t mean Verlander’s a wimp; the guy’s pitches have been known to hit 100 mph, even in late innings. But today’s managers – due in part to the economics of the game, as well as increased bullpen specialization – no longer expect or require their starters to go the distance. And then, of course, there’s that damn pitch count to contend with.
Back when men were men and legends like Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver and Catfish Hunter stalked the mound, nobody gave a rat’s ass about how many pitches they threw per game. But over the past two decades, skippers and pitching coaches have become increasingly fixated upon the pitch count, yanking their starters once they’ve reached 100 pitches, regardless of what’s happening on the field or how well they might still be throwing at the time. Since no manager wants to be responsible for his $20 million-a-year pitchers ending up on the DL, the tendency to cover themselves by adhering to this arbitrary limit is as prevalent as it is maddening.
Not everyone buys into this one-size-fits-all pitch count concept; Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan, a man who knows a thing or two about pitching, believes that proper conditioning, not pitch limits, is the key to preserving pitchers’ arms. And Jim Leyland, the Tigers’ crusty old-school skipper, did let Verlander throw 131 pitches while nailing down a complete game victory against the Royals on April 16th. But with so many managers pathologically keeping tabs on the pitch count, we decided to ask our panelists a two-part question this week: Is there too much importance placed on pitch counts? And if your pitcher has a shutout going after eight innings, would you let him come back in the ninth to finish the job, even if he’s already reached the 100-pitch mark?
These days, when a pitcher’s arm is costing the team $15-20M a year, pitch count means everything. The days of complete games being a meaningful stat are long gone. Teams just can’t risk “overworking” these delicate athletes. And when you’ve got specialists like Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon, why risk it?
There’s not too much importance placed upon pitch counts, because there’s so much money involved now in winning – everything‘s important. As far as throwing a shutout, it depends on the situation. If you’re up 10-0, leave the pitcher in; if it’s 1-0, you’ve gotta take him out – the game’s on the line, and you’re there to win. Ask Bobby Cox if he should have taken Tom Glavine out of Game Six of the 1995 World Series, when the Braves were up three games to two and he’d pitched eight shutout innings. Did he send him out to pitch the 9th? Nooooo. End of conversation.
You have to at least consider pitch count in today’s game. Any manager/GM/owner that doesn’t is a redneck and a dinosaur. Pitchers are too valuable, and they are asked to throw more different pitches at higher velocities than ever before. One hundred pitches going into the 9th? Depends on the pitcher, the batters he’ll face in the inning, importance of the game, etc. One thing’s for certain – you better get it right.
Name: Tom Morello
Band: The Nightwatchman, Street Sweeper Social Club, Rage Against the Machine
Position: Guitar, Vocals
I would always leave the starting pitcher in, as the Cubs’ bullpen woes this season have already caused me to bite my fingernails down to nubs.
While I think the 100-pitch count is an appropriate point to assess how much longer a starter should stay in a game, I do feel there’s too much emphasis on it. It’s certainly an arbitrary number. That being said, the game has changed so much since the advent of the modern bullpen, that to attempt to employ an antiquated pitching staff (five starters working on four days’ rest throwing 120+ pitches/game, minimal bullpen, etc.) would certainly work against a team in 2012. There’s really not enough information here to appropriately answer the second part of this question. What’s the score? What point in the season are we? Are we in the midst of a pennant race? Who is the pitcher? But at this point in the season, I would most likely allow my pitcher to start the 9th and pull him if he allowed a baserunner. Winning the game is paramount. There’s little to be gained pushing a pitcher to pad his stats this early in such a long season.
It completely depends on the situation. If it’s Roy Halladay, he’s going out in the 9th inning. Edwin Jackson? Maybe not. Who’s your closer, and has he pitched the last three days already? As for pitch counts, with all the tales of past pitching greats throwing 160 pitches a game on three days’ rest, 40 starts a season, it’s hard to place the reality of today’s game in that context. There’s so much more money invested in the pitchers of today that I think teams have to be conscious of blowing someone’s career in the early going. Although the Nationals handled Stephen Strasburg with kid gloves, and he still blew out his elbow at age 21. Hell, maybe it’s just a crap shoot. Steve Carlton pitched forever, and Sandy Koufax retired at 30 from the pain. One thing seems plain to me – with age and wear and tear, 99 percent of pitchers (Nolan Ryan the obvious exception) exhibit diminished velocity as the years go on. The good ones learn to win by pitching smarter and with more finesse. (And with maybe a Tommy John surgery or two to keep ’em going…)
I would say the last thing you want is for your ace to throw his arm out. But I would ask him how he feels; if his arm feels strong, then I would say finish the game. But you have to have an expectation that your pitcher will be honest. Trust is key here. If we’re talking about the World Series, then I would definitely bring in the closer because you really need to make sure you protect your pitcher so he can make it thru the series. Ideally, what you really want is for your starter to pitch six or seven great innings and then bring in your closer.
I think it’s situational, and it also depends on how important the game is in the bigger picture of the season. If my guy seems to want it and is still throwing strong, he’ll get the shot in the 9th. Especially if we have a decent lead.
If you are a well-conditioned athlete and have the stamina to pitch nine innings, then finish the game. The other team will tell you if you’re done or not.
It really depends on the score. If the closer would be awarded a save, I’d bring him in. The object is to win, and I would have to make my decisions based on what would give my team the best chance to win. A fresh closer throwing cutters and splitters has an advantage over hitters who’ve been looking at the same pitcher for 24 outs. If it’s six to nothing, I let my starter have a crack at finishing. I pull him when the first batter reaches.
Everything depends on the situation, and all the microscopic aspects involved: Who the pitcher is, how deep in the season we are, and what the relief options are. I think, after watching our very own Joe Girardi on a daily basis, there is too much importance based on stats in general, and not enough importance placed on “instinct” and “the moment”. (Girardi and his goddamn “book”!) My thinking: “Who is my pitcher, how durable is he, how much has he thrown this season, were the hundred pitches a laboring hundred, or an in-command, fairly easy hundred?” Based on all of the above, I would probably let him start the ninth. I believe pitchers should be stronger and less babied than they are these days. I hate the automatic “go to the closer” era we have been in for years now.
These guys make millions – let them pitch, for Christ’s sake!!!
Name: Josh Epstein
Band: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
Position: Vocals, Keyboards
As with anything, there will always be the argument from a purist’s standpoint that “things were better back in the day.” Since pitch count became an officially tracked stat in 1988, pitchers have begun to have longer careers, so there is obviously something to it. I think that obviously when the playoffs begin, pitch count should go out the window. However, as pitchers increasingly become two hundred million dollar investments, it’s only natural to try to protect them. All that said, guys like Nolan Ryan, who pitched 160 times a game and still dominated for decades, are in no danger of having their legacies threatened.
Let me take you back to July 2nd, 1963. Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal went 16 innings before a Willie Mays home run finally gave the Giants a 1-0 victory. Sixteen innings! Both pitchers went all the way! And Spahn was 42 at the time! Now, somebody please tell me why a modern day pitcher could not – nay, would not be allowed to do the same thing. Stop coddling those pitchers! Or as The Baseball Project said on our last album, “pitch count, setup man, five man rotation, whirlpool, Tommy John, pinpoint location – and they still can’t do what those old guys did!” I rest my case.