A new approach to developing young pitchers

Around 2000, I recall encountering discussion of pitch counts in baseball. Maybe I just hadn’t been paying attention before, but that was when I became aware of it. I first heard about it from Rob Neyer, I believe, a writer who was in touch with the sabermetrics movement that tried to use objective analysis (statistics, including the invention of what proponents considered new and better statistics) rather than relying on the conventional baseball wisdom. If you’ve seen or read Moneyball, you’re familiar with that movement. Overall, it’s made baseball teams and analysts smarter.

The idea with pitch counts was that young pitchers whose arms were developing shouldn’t be overtaxed by throwing more than 100 or so pitches in a single start; throwing tired hurt one’s arm. Of course, one objection was that this was babying pitchers. After all, what about all those years before pitch counts came in vogue? The answer from the pitch counters, if I recall correctly, was that abuse had eliminated a lot of pitchers in the minor leagues, before they made it to the big stage. As a Cubs fan who watched Kerry Wood’s and Mark Prior’s careers derail as their managers relied heavily on them, it made sense to me.

Tim Keown recently had an article critiquing this approach as well as limiting the throwing that pitchers do outside of their starts, and it seemed pretty persuasive. Here’s an excerpt:

But the emphasis on pitch counts and innings limits obscures a central fact: Pitchers are overpitched and undertrained. The reason everybody goes nutty when the White Sox allow Chris Sale to throw 115 pitches on May 28 and 119 on June 3 isn’t because there’s some magic number that portends weakness or injury or imminent surgery. Instead, it’s because most professional pitchers aren’t allowed to train their arms to throw 110-plus pitches in a game and be in a position to be strong five days later….

Professional baseball has some arcane ideas. One of them is that there are only so many bullets in the gun, which is another way of saying there is a finite number of throws in each person’s arm. Under this theory, every time you throw a ball you’re taking one throw off your career. Whether it’s a curve off the bullpen mound or a long, effortless throw in the outfield, the result is the same: It’s one fewer throw you’ll have down the line. It’s a strange thought process, akin to an NFL coach believing his wide receivers shouldn’t run in practice because every step they take is one less they’re going to be able to take down the road.

In the words of one longtime college pitching coach, “If Michael Phelps trained his body the way pro baseball people train arms, he’d drown.”

But there is a counterrevolution at work, and it started with Nolan Ryan and the Rangers. Since Ryan is a guy who once threw 245 pitches in a game and pitched until he was 46, baseball people did a double-take when he said he wasn’t about to have his pitchers tied to a pitch count. As an old scout once told me, “The hitters will tell you when a guy’s finished, not a number on a scorebook.” Ryan hired Mike Maddux as his pitching coach and put this into practice. The hitters told the manager when the pitcher was done. And if a starter felt he operated best by extending his arm to 350 feet between starts, that’s what he did. If a reliever felt fresher if he limited his throws, that was fine, too.

I remember hearing a sports radio host say that Nolan Ryan’s approach would lead to his pitchers getting hurt, and agreeing with it. Instead, Texas has developed some pretty good pitchers when the team had struggled to do so playing in a very good hitters’ park. It will be interesting to see if this becomes the new paradigm.

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2 thoughts on “A new approach to developing young pitchers

  1. What a wonderful proliferation of posts, Scott! I imagine it must be summer. =)

    From a physiological point of view, I think both views are valid relative to context. Muscles build by stressing them — you actually damage muscle in order for it to rebuild stronger. But if you overdo it or do not provide the right environment for the regrowth (e.g. nutrients, rest, movement), you can cause more permanent damage.

    I suspect that Ryan’s approach is better because it is more responsive to the players, and incremental, allowing games to be played at the same level as practice, rather than games being more physically stressful. In fact, from what I’ve read, champions tend to train at a more difficult level than the contests require.

  2. That’s a good way to put it, Kevin. It seems that the strict pitch-count approach is based more on fear (what if our expensive pitcher gets hurt?). Ryan’s is more nuanced, more responsive, as you said, without having the machismo that seemed to characterize the objections to pitch counts.

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