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.

Looking in the mirror

Rob Neyer goes beyond the usual complaints about the economics of professional sports (emphasis added):

As much as it might hurt, if the Rays aren’t going to re-sign [Carl] Crawford, they should probably trade him. Yes, they would probably take a short-term hit in the standings, because a) there are no obvious holes in the lineup that might be filled with a trade, and b) neither Matt Joyce nor prospect Desmond Jennings are ready to replace Crawford’s production (and it’s not likely that either of them ever will quite do that). But between the prospects that would come in a trade and the money that would be saved on Crawford’s salary in 2010, a deal would give the front office a great deal of flexibility down the road.

It’s a shame that things like this have to happen. In a perfect world, Carl Crawford could spend 20 years with the same club, like George Brett and Robin Yount and Tony Gwynn. But you and me and the players and Major League Baseball have all conspired, however unwittingly, to make such a thing almost impossible. Carl Crawford is just too good, and there are just too many dollars floating around out there. My dollars, and your dollars.

Fortunately for the Rays, they’re talented enough and smart enough to win almost as easily without Crawford as with him. Just wait and see.

Raising your kids right

John Kass is one of the Chicago Tribune’s treasures (his only flaw, to my knowledge, is that he’s a White Sox fan).  Most of his columns explore Illinois’ political culture in a unique way that mixes laugh-out-loud sarcasm with a true hatred of Illinois’ ubiquitous political corruption.  Sometimes, though, he takes a break from the good fight, as when he recently gave advice for parents on how to keep your kids loyal to the team that you raised them to root for:

Just dress the kids in your team’s gear, hat and jersey and so on, and take them to the other ballpark when the game is on during the Cubs-Sox series. Sox fans, take your kids to Wrigley. Cubs fans, take your kids to Sox Park.

It works best when the kids are about 6 or 7 years old, young enough to trust their parents and be completely impressionable. And you don’t even need a ticket to the game.

Just stand outside, holding your child’s hand, until a crowd of boisterous drunken fans from the other team approaches, fans shouting “Sox [stink]!” or “Cubs [stink]!”

Now here’s the tricky part. Just let go of your child’s hand and run away.

That’s right. Run. Leave them there, alone in the teeming crowd, with the screaming, angry, drunken fans cursing the Cubs or the Sox. Yes, the kid may be terrified. But it works.

After a few minutes, return and hug your child. With some kids, you must repeat the process for several games. But once indoctrinated, they’ll remain loyal.

“You did that to us,” said one of my sons, with Hawk Harrelson and Steve Stone calling the glorious 4-1 Sox gem pitched by John Danks over the Cubs on Wednesday.

“I’ll never forget it,” said the other boy. “There was a big fat Cubs fan, he was drooling all over his shirt, saying Sox [stink], Sox [stink]! He was drunk and he smelled!”

“That traumatized us,” said his brother. “The drool flopping down, the beer breath, more drool. Thanks, Dad, you’re the best.”

On the Justice Journey

From Monday through Saturday this week, I will be going to some of the famous civil rights movements sites with about 40 white and black Chicagoans from several different churches.  We hope to learn about the history of the movement and also work on racial reconciliation.  I hope to have some interesting experiences to write about when I come back.

Of course, the Cubs and Sox have their first series against each other this week, so I hope that won’t create other reconciliation issues as I’m sure that the group will include fans of both teams.  For what it’s worth, here’s some research on the characteristics of Cubs and Sox fans that appeared in today’s Chicago Tribune.

You may or may not know about the stereotypes of Cubs and Sox fans.  The Cubs’ Wrigley Field is in a trendy part of town (Wrigleyville on the North Side) and the Sox’ US Cellular Field is on the South Side, near the old public housing project corridor.  I like to think that Wrigley is great but not nice (it was built in 1914 and isn’t in the best shape) and “the Cell” is nice but not great (it was built as a sterile new stadium in the early 1990s but looks a lot nicer now).  The two groups of fans have stereotypes about each other: Cubs fans often look at the Sox fans as low class, and the Sox fans often look at the Cubs fans as privileged, soft frat boys/yuppies who don’t care about the game that they’re watching.

I root against the White Sox at almost every opportunity, but I do like their fans.  The average serious Sox fan is pretty hardcore and hates the Cubs.  You see some Cubs fans who will root for both teams, but almost never a Sox fan who could ever think of rooting for the Cubs.  Talking with knowledgeable fans of the other team can be a lot of fun, although the fact that the Cubs haven’t won a World Series in over 100 years and the Sox had one lucky year a great run in 2005 means that the Sox fans always have a trump card.

Go Cubs!

The destroyers of dreams

I was listening to Chicago sports radio a week or two ago and Chip Caray reminded the hosts that every six years, the Florida Marlins go to the playoffs and win the World Series.  1997 and 2003 have been their years, and of course 2009 would fit into that pattern (statisticians might point out that two data points do not a pattern make).  Now the Marlins have come charging out of the gate and sit atop the American League East at 11-2.

The Marlins seem to have a knack for beating the teams of tortured fans in the playoffs.  Sure, no one will feel sorry for the Braves (lost to the Marlins in the 1997 NLCS) or Yankees (lost to the Marlins in the 2003 World Series), although Braves and Yankees fans have surely wanted more championships from their teams numerous postseason experiences.

But look at the other teams that they have beaten in October.  The Giants, whom they have beaten twice, haven’t won a World Series since 1954, when they still played in New York.  The Indians, who blew a 9th-inning lead in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series against the Marlins and then lost in the 11th inning, haven’t won title since 1948.  And most famously, I’d say, the Marlins came back from a 3 games to 1 deficit against my beloved Cubs in the 2003 NLCS, erupting for 8 runs in the 8th inning in the (in)famous Bartman game.  The Cubs, as you surely know, are riding the most ignominious streak in sports, selflessly going without a World Series title since 1908 or even an appearance in the Fall Classic since 1945.

Let’s just say that if the Cubs make the playoffs this year, I don’t want to see the Marlins there too.

Facts checked at and added from ESPN.com and Baseball-Reference.com.